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Let’s chat The Handmaid’s Tale episode 4.09 – “Progress”. When everything I thought I knew about this show gets turned on it’s head, and gets a little more complicated…
Wait a second, did I actually just have a moment when I cared about Nick?
There’s a moment when Nick and June have Nichole between them and Nick lets loose the first genuine emotion I have ever seen him emit in this show – laughter. I can’t remember what it was about, and it’s not really important – what matters is that I just watched Nick, June and Nichole together and I truly cared about their fate as a whole.
I know The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t meant to be a yuck-a-minute, and Nick isn’t the main character of our story. But, there is something special about having, yanno, a relatable moment even in the most dystopian of shows. There is very little in The Handmaid’s Tale that we as an audience can point to as a joyous moment so we have to take what we can get. For the first time in four seasons, there is some scrap of humanity in this cynical, and embittered, critic’s heart that feels something for Nick Blaine and what happens to him.
BECAUSE HE LAUGHS.
Sure, it’s a stupid little psychological reaction, but protagonists and the characters who are protagonist adjacent need to be able to feel joy at least once or twice during our run with them. In fact, I’d argue that the more they smile and celebrate the victories big and small in our story, the better and more likeable they are. Nick also has all the information about Hannah at the ready, before June even asks and that’s a sweet moment too. But that laugh – that laugh is an actual human action.
Now, I don’t know if Nick is supposed to be a hero in this story, because he characterization has been limited to only his weird arms and super punchable face. If he is going to have any hope of being a positive force in this show, however, Bruce Miller just went a long way in making that happen by giving us a small tidbit of characterization that we have not seen from Nick, an emotion that is more than brooding or general confusion.
What’s more is that I actually care a little about Luke now too. After fixing the plates in 4.07 for June, showing up to court in 4.08, and June finally copping to her last encounter with Hannah, I honestly feel bad for the poor guy. Do I daresay that the two male components of June’s love triangle are relevant now? Goodness I shudder at the thought. It broke my heart to watch Luke show June everything he has done to try and find Hannah from his cozy cottage style home in Canada. Though that was only outdone when my ticker was obliterated into a billion little pieces when it’s Luke who suggests to June that she not only contact Nick, but she should go see him alone with Nichole. Ahhh I hate myself for admitting how much I actually care about Nick and Luke.
There is actually a choice I have to make as a viewer now, and it’s only emphasized in the idea that June now has an actual legitimate choice to make as a character. Luke is a man who loves June, but seems to have lost a sense of what makes their relationship work. Let’s not overlook the not-so-subtle fact that June seems most at ease with Nick, and Elisabeth Moss’s performance as she drives away from Nick after their meetup was a masterclass in face acting. Moss strode easily through equal bouts of happiness, rage, sadness, and regret as she whisks she and Nichole away from whatever snow covered mansion was used as a meeting space.
“Progress” continues the excellent run of episodes in the back half of The Handmaid’s Tale this season, and it’s also no surprise that it was once again Elisabeth Moss who was behind the camera. Not shy in using extreme closeups, and certainly comfortable in highlighting the relationships between our characters, Moss has really proven herself as a capable director for THT. I felt pain when June leaves Nick, or when Luke pushes June to the meeting place, but I also felt an equal, but different, kind of pain when June finally speaks with Commander Lawrence.
Lawrence is obviously playing a role here – because you can’t tell me that someone in Gilead isn’t listening in on this conversation. But, there is also a slight part of me which believes Lawrence is on no one’s side but his. I still can’t tell what his deal is this season now that June is gone and he’s got his seat back at the table. While I haven’t loved what Miller has done to Lawrence in terms of the plotting this season — he has seemed to be nothing more than a side character who shows up with the plot needs him to keep it moving forward — I do appreciate the extreme gray that has been injected back into his character. Bradley Whitford continues to imbue an honest sense dread, menace, and even compassion. I believe he wants to make a deal, despite how heinous it would be to trade 3 kids for Hannah’s life. I also believe his antagonist response to June when he states that Canada has made her soft. Yet, at the same time, I can totally accept his vulnerability when he pushes June to move on because she’s finally free, or when he shows true concern for June’s ability to be normal in Canada. Despite his cold exterior, Lawrence has a clear affection for June and he is tip toeing a very fine line for us as viewers.
What’s most shocking to me though is that I even experienced a small pang of sympathy for Aunt Lydia as she tries to defend Janine from the other Aunts.
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By the way, this little partnership between Janine and Lydia – this is going to be interesting to say the least. Is Janine finally the way that Lydia can reach the Handmaids in the way she wants? Remember, June stabbed at Lydia emotionally when she suggested Lydia failed her Handmaids, and Janine might be the avenue to prove June incorrect. Also worthy of note, seeing Mrs. Keyes as a transformed Handmaid was frightening, and while I love her resiliency, girls gotta know when to take the “L” and just eat.
Love is complicated in The Handmaid’s Tale because the world in which it operates is so devoid of that basic human emotion. That’s why it’s so satisfying to see Nick laugh, or Luke do what’s best for his daughter, or even when Lydia comforts Janine in a job well done. It’s plain that Elisabeth Moss has an iron grip on the characters in this show, and that is proven to be a solid fact in how she chooses to shoot the Waterfords interactions with the Putnams.
Aside from the fact that the Putnams can easily come through the border to visit their friends, or that Nick can somehow meet with June with relative ease (let’s all just go along to get along here I suppose), I was quite impressed by all that was implicit in the conversations between the Gilead elite. Mrs. Putnam suggests that she would be happy to raise Serena’s son, or that Serena wouldn’t be punished if she were to return to Gilead. Just as compelling is Mr. Putnam copping to the fact that the other commanders aren’t negotiating on Fred’s behalf. Sitting out in the cold, we see how frigid and lifeless the relationship between the Waterfords and Gilead has become during their absence. Not only are they in Canada, but they have been captured, and they have become an embarrassment to Gilead despite all their years of dedicated service. A perfect example of the culture shock is when Mrs. Putnam pulls back in surprise after seeing Serena’s writing – it’s a small but extraordinarily telling moment in how far the Waterfords have fallen in the eyes of Gilead.
Am I surprised that Fred and Serena chose to drop all their charges against each other, and turn against Gilead to ensure their child’s future? No, absolutely not. But I am surprised that it moved me. Perhaps it’s because I have children, and I would do ANYTHING to protect them. Or, maybe, I appreciate that love — even the love shared between Serena and Fred — is complicated. We’ve gone from Fred hating Serena, to Serena hating Fred, to both of them hating each other, and I will note that it has become a little exhausting. But after Serena notes that she could be turned to a Handmaid if she returns to Gilead, or that Fred could be killed, or their son taken from them regardless, this is probably the most interesting position the Waterfords have been in since Serena gave Fred up to the worlds most handsome spy at the end of the season 3. United, scared, and determined, this penultimate episode has set the course for a real interesting turn of events in the finale.
Yes it will be interesting – the Waterfords, Nick, Janine and Lydia, Luke – yep, all very important and there are a lot of loose ends to tie up for this season. But, what’s most important is the RAGE June feels against the worlds most handsome spy. Fred may have turned on Gilead, and he may even be able to help find Hannah, but June’s effs account is on overdraft. “That man is a fucking rapist and you know what he did to me,” June screams at Agent Tuello, “I will kill you!” And you know what, after all the PTSD she has been experiencing, and all the anger that has been bottled up, I kinda believe her. Now THAT’S how we leave an episode right before the season finale.
- 4.01 – Pigs
- 4.02 – Nightshade
- 4.03 – The Crossing
- 4.04 – Milk
- 4.05 – Chicago
- 4.06 – Vows
- 4.07 – Home
- 4.08 – Testimony
The Handmaid’s Tale: Episode 4.09 – Progress | Review And Analysis