Missed the start? Let's go back to the beginning to recap seasons 1 and 2. (There's also a Season 3 recap here).
After two seasons devoted fans of the show are primed… for a fight. We have had two years championing the resilience of June Osborne, the mighty heroine of The Handmaid’s Tale, as she survives on her wits whilst enslaved in a brutal regime that forces fertile ‘fallen’ women to reproduce for its leaders.
After two seasons of world building, the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece is ready to turn things on its head.
Here’s a reminder of the story so far (there are spoilers, obviously, and we interchange the names Offred and June constantly).
The premiere season introduced us to the brutal world of Gilead, with glimpses at the means by which contemporary American society devolved into a misogynistic theocracy. Book editor June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) lives with her best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley). June meets the married Luke (O-T Fagbenle) at a hot dog stand. The two embark on an affair until he leaves his wife for her and they marry and have a daughter, Hannah. There is a moment of panic in the days following Hannah’s birth, when a woman attempts to abduct Hannah from the hospital. In a sign of things to come, it’s revealed that the woman is among an escalating number who are unable to conceive.
The environmental conditions that are responsible for the declining birth rates are giving rise to a religious fervour for Family Values, specifically, for women to focus on their ‘responsibility’ to rear children and repopulate the earth. Chief among those calling for this “domestic feminism” is morals crusader and author Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who is encouraged and supported by her husband and collaborator, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). Her polemical book, ‘A Women’s Place’, champions the need for women to find power in their biological imperative, and to not, she pithily entreats, “mistake meekness for weakness”. Fred, meanwhile, is rising through the ranks of The Sons of Jacob, the fundamentalist group plotting a political coup.
A series of orchestrated terror attacks on America’s key political landmarks enable The Sons of Jacob to seize control of the country. In quick succession, laws are enacted to revoke the civil rights of women and LGBTIQ+ Americans. The new state of Gilead begins kidnapping children to rehouse them in the homes of its infertile leaders. Fertile women ‘of questionable morals’, including June and Moira, who is gay, are among those abducted and ‘trained’ as Handmaids: women forced to endure ritualistic rapes in order to produce children for the ruling families of Gilead.
In the opening moments of season one, we witness, in flashback, June’s thwarted attempt to flee Gilead for the safety of Canada. In a dramatic chase, Gilead’s militia (the Guardians) pursue June and rip Hannah from her grasp. June is taken to The Red Centre, where she is indoctrinated in the ways of the Handmaid by the brutal teacher/enforcer, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). Here she meets Emily (Alexis Bledel) and Janine (Madeleine Brewer). Janine’s early bravado is severely punished by Lydia, who orders the removal of one of Janine’s eyes as an extreme show of force to quiet any would-be rebellion. June and Moira attempt to flee but are discovered. Moira disappears and June fears she has been sent to a hard labour camp, The Colonies – a highly toxic wasteland whose occupants face certain death.
The Gilead patriarchy assigns four roles to women: Wives, Aunts, Marthas (domestic servants) and Handmaids. Gay women (labelled ‘gender traitors’) are either forced to repent for their ‘sins’, or are strung up in the street, with other enemies of the state.
June is housed in the home of Serena and Commander Fred Waterford. Here she develops a cautious flirtation with the driver/Guardian, Nick Blaine (Max Minghella), and is invited into the private study of her Commander for Scrabble games, in a confusing contravention of the laws of Gilead, which prohibit women to read. We learn that Fred used to do the same with Offred’s predecessor, who hanged herself, and scrawled an obtuse Latin phrase into the wardrobe: ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’ (translation: “don’t let the bastards grind you down”).
Over the course of season one, we learn there is another, secret class of women in Gilead: Jezebels. They are kept as glamorous high-class escorts for Commanders, unbeknownst to their wives. Fred takes June to Jezebels one night, where she finds Moira, now dubbed ‘Ruby’.
Janine, who takes the name of her Commander and is thus called Ofwarren, is the first of June/Offred’s contemporaries to conceive. The elaborate birthing ritual involves all Handmaids being summoned to chant prayers, as the Wives stage an elaborate pantomime to will the surrogate child into the world. In the weeks after giving birth to baby Angela, Janine/Ofwarren reveals that her commander had promised to leave his wife for her, but his lies were just pillow talk to lead to sex outside of the rape ritual. Janine threatens to hurl both herself and the child from a bridge, but June/Offred convinces Janine to give her the child. Janine does so, and then jumps. She survives, but Lydia assembles the Handmaids to stone Janine for her disobedience, in yet another ritual, The Salvaging (an act orchestrated to make Handmaids complicit in the violence of the regime). However, Offred refuses to engage in the act, and leads the Handmaids in a peaceful resistance ("I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia," they chant).
Offred learns of a fledgling resistance movement through her shopping partner Emily/Ofglen, with whom she is paired for all activities outside of the home. Their communications are closely scrutinised, but we learn that Emily was a university lecturer, and was separated from her wife and son at the airport when they attempted to escape to Canada. Ofglen warns Offred that a member of the Waterford household is an Eye, or surveillance agent, for Gilead.
Ofglen is replaced without warning and Offred discovers that her former walking partner was having an affair with her household’s Martha. She was forced to watch her lover’s hanging, and Emily was genitally mutilated for her ‘crime’. Her functioning uterus renders her too valuable to kill, so she is returned to the home of a new Commander. She's not having it. She commandeers a vehicle to run over a Guardian, and is taken away in an ominous black vehicle.
The new Ofglen warns Offred that she doesn’t want any trouble, and that her pre-Gilead life was a miserable experience of addiction and sex work. Despite this, Offred informs Ofglen that she wants to be a part of the ‘Mayday Resistance’. June is tasked with returning to Jezebels to collect a package and hide it until further notice. On her visit, she fails to collect it, but Moira facilitates it on her behalf. June hides the package under her bathtub, after realising that it contains letters penned by women held captive in Gilead, to their loved ones in Canada.
Within the Waterford home, The Eye turns out to be Nick, who was placed in the home to watch Fred’s movements and report his transgressions to senior Commander Bryce. Following a number of ‘Ceremonies’ that fail to result in conception, a frustrated Serena plots for June and Nick to meet in secret for sex. Their trysts lead to an illicit affair, unbeknownst to Serena or Fred.
A delegation of Mexican dignitaries meet to discuss trade opportunities, and Offred is called on to be a devoted spokesperson for the fertile utopia of Gilead. She attempts to enlist the help of the Mexican ambassador but learns that the near neighbour is well aware of the brutal practices – and wishes to import Handmaids to redress Mexico’s own diminishing population. Nonetheless, a sympathetic Mexican dignitary gets a note from June to Luke, in Canada, to let him know that his wife is alive and that she is determined to save Hannah. Meanwhile, Moira stages a dramatic escape and reunites with Luke in Little America.
Offred/June becomes pregnant (to Nick), and Serena ‘rewards’ her with a fleeting glimpse at the resettled Hannah. The ‘treat’ is Serena’s way of warning June not to harm herself or the child she is carrying.
In the closing moments of season one, a van arrives for June, and Nick tells her to "go with it", and to trust him.
RETURNING SOON: EYES ON GILEAD - A HANDMAID'S TALE COMPANION PODCAST
In the dramatic season two opener, we get a sense of the brutality that will follow. The show opens mere moments after the finale, with June bundled into the van, to face a barbaric act of revenge from Lydia. As penance for their refusal to partake in the Salvaging of Janine, Lydia goes to great lengths to stage a faux-hanging of Gilead’s precious Handmaids. The monstrous act is followed by warnings from Aunt Lydia to June, about the importance of carrying Gilead’s most precious cargo, coupled with living testaments to the punishment she doles out to pregnant Handmaids who don’t co-operate.
June is then whisked to a visit to the Gilead gynaecologist, where Nick’s underground connections have orchestrated an escape. She burns her robes and rips her Handmaid marker from her ear, in a triumphant and bloody act of reclaimed identity.
June is transplanted to a holding place, formerly the Boston Globe offices, where she pores over newspaper clippings to piece together the means by which society crumbled, and has a sexy reunion with Nick too, thanks very much. A grisly discovery in the former printing press reveals that the premises were used for executions, and she says a prayer, and creates a touching memorial to those who lost their lives there. She is moved to her next rendezvous point but is left to fend for herself when a contact is compromised.
The Handmaid’s Tale expands its worldview to offer a glimpse at the nuclear hellscape that is The Colonies, where we discover traumatised rebel Emily, working herself to death, with other dissidents. She pretends to strike up a rapport with a shamed Wife (Marisa Tomei), but then poisons the woman in an act of retribution for all Wives’ complicity in supporting the oppressive regime.
June’s solo effort to get to Canada leads to the awareness of another subsection of Gilead society: The Econopeople, a drably garbed group of ordinary citizens going about their lives under the watchful eyes of the Guardians, too ordinary for senior positions in the regime, and too pious to be rendered Handmaids. June encounters a family whose gender, race and age makeup is identical to her own fractured family. She seeks shelter with the family and sees that they practice a different faith, Islam, in the privacy of their home, in a nod to the public/private façade of Gilead’s general populace.
June’s effort to flee to Canada is punctuated with thoughts of her own mother, Holly (Cherry Jones), who is revealed in flashback to be a political agitator, abortion doctor and committed feminist. Her mother saw the warning signs of the impending fall of democracy and chastised her daughter for her lack of foresight, and for her cosy faith in the maintenance of status quo. As June boards an escape flight and prepares to leave Gilead for good, she grapples with maternal guilt at leaving Hannah in Gilead. The eleventh hour arrival of Guardians ground the plane and June is remade back into Offred, as her robes are returned, and her Handmaid marker is reinserted in her earlobe.
A battle of wills ensues between Offred and Aunt Lydia, as the latter engages in psychological warfare to gaslight Offred into subservience: Disobedient troublemaker June is blamed for all the wrongdoing, and good, dutiful Offred is promised a rich bounty if she complies with the Lord’s will. The return to the Waterford residence after a “kidnapping” gives rise to a bizarre baby shower, at which Offred makes the mistake of casually referencing her first baby shower and thus reminding everyone that there was a time before Gilead when she was a woman with agency and not a State-sanctioned baby incubator. Aunt Lydia’s guilt trip prompts June to deal with the residual guilt at the hurt she and Luke caused his wife, Annie, during their affair and early courtship.
Dynamics within the Waterford household are constantly shifting, as Serena and June negotiate their fraught relationship. Nick is assigned a child bride in a bizarre new ceremony, the Prayvaganza. And June almost loses her baby in a bleak moment of near-miscarriage. When a heartbeat is returned, June vows to get her unborn child out of Gilead.
Mayday operations went quiet after June’s failed escape and midway through season two we discover why: the Resistance movement has been plotting a bomb attack on Gilead’s chief commanders. Job done. But not quite. When the smoke clears, the act is seen to have backfired, and the blast has claimed the lives of more Handmaids than Commanders. Remarkable, Fred Waterford survived the attack but is indisposed in hospital. Serena senses the vultures circling, when another Commander makes a veiled pass at her, and she enlists June to occupy Fred’s office and draft regulations (with pencils!) to roundup enemies of the state (her would be suitor chief among them). These scenes provide a hint of Serena’s openness to transgression, but Fred returns to take his rightful place as master of the house, and thanks them both for “helping out”. Fred’s return is resented by all of the women of the household, bar one: Nick’s child bride, Eden, a True Believer. Neither June nor Rita (the household’s Martha) trust the teenager as far as they could proverbially throw her. Eden, meanwhile, starts to suspect her husband when he is reluctant to perform his marital duties. Fearing that the tattletale will bring harm to Nick, June encourages him to perform the deed, which he does, through gritted teeth, and through a sheet (don't ask, it's another ritual).
The bomb blast has resulted in a shortage of Handmaids, and so fertile rebels are recalled from The Colonies. Welcome back, Emily. In flashback we learn more about Moira’s life before Gilead, and learn that she voluntarily acted as a surrogate mother to an infertile couple - back when she had the right to choose - and fell for her obstetrician, Odette. In present-day Little America, she searches for news of Odette's whereabouts.
A health emergency unites the women of Gilead, as they brace for the unthinkable: infant mortality. Baby Angela is suffering an unknown affliction, and Serena sows more seeds of transgression when she goes against Fred’s wishes and enlists the aid of a Martha whose pre-Gilead life was as a renowned medial professional. Aunt Lydia, too, shows a subtle willingness to bend the rules, in allowing Janine to see her ailing natural child. The disease itself is never explained but the cure has a lot to do with the healing power of maternal love. The unity comes at a cost, with Fred whipping Serena for her disobedience.
A diplomatic mission to Canada provides a glimpse at how the world is responding to Gilead, or rather, how it isn't, when Serena and Fred received a strange reception from their hosts. Serena is wooed by a representative of the exiled American government, and momentarily contemplates the idea of defection. The revelation that fertility treatment is being developed helps her linger on the idea, before she rejects it and opts to return to Gilead. Better the devil you know and what not. The Gilead delegation’s proximity to America’s refugees enables Luke to confront his wife’s rapist (and to also make the acquaintance of her new baby daddy, Nick, not that Luke knows that). Nick uses the trip as a means to deliver the package of letters from enslaved women that Moira had collected from Jezebels. Happily, Moira has a hand in exposing these firsthand accounts of trauma, and gets to lock eyes on Fred Waterford to reclaim her name, as he and Serena are thrown out of Canada.
Season two does not shy away from revealing the brutality of the regime and as June approaches her due date, she suffers another of the brutal ‘rituals’ (rapes), this time at Serena’s urging. Emily, too, suffers another assault but takes control of the situation with violent retribution. For her trouble, she is relocated to a strange new Commander’s house, that of Lawrence (Bradley Whitford). June beseeches Fred to allow her to see her daughter Hannah. He obliges, and she has a distressing reunion with her daughter, who has adjusted to her new circumstances and harbours resentment at her mother for not trying hard enough to find her.
Within moments of the brief reunion with Hannah, a swarm of Guardians descend on the isolated property and bundle Nick away. Left alone, June attempts to flee in a hotted up car, but is unable to remove it from the garage. A radio announcement gives an update on the Resistance movement, and June finds a rifle in the empty house. She witnesses a violent screaming match between Fred and Serena, when the pair arrive at the property to look for her after having failed to return at the appointed time. June successfully manages to escape their attention – and resists the temptation to shoot them (not before aiming for them in the crosshairs, though!). When they leave, her labour pains commence, she delivers the child alone, and, in a touching gesture, names her after her own mother, Holly. Realising that her child will die without proper medical attention, June makes a mother's sacrifice and fires the rifle into the air to attract attention, and certain return to the Waterford house. (Listen to an interview with the episode director, Daina Reid).
As Serena gets acquainted with “her” new baby, June is hooked up to breast pumps at the Red Centre - until she successfully lobbies Aunt Lydia to return her to the Waterford residence, in order to provide around-the-clock sustenance to the child. She finds the house in a state of upheaval as it is revealed that Nick’s child bride, Eden, has escaped and eloped with the household’s Guardian. The lovebirds are found and refuse to repent, and together they piously opt to meet their maker in a grisly poolside dual public execution.
In the season finale, it is revealed that there was more to Eden than anyone realised: she was able to read, and what’s more, had been striving to make sense of the word of God, though liner notes in her copy of the Bible. The revelation has reverberations for the women of the Waterford house, who are guilt-ridden at not having taken the time to get to know the teenager when she arrived. Thoughts of the legacy they each leave permeate through the episode. Rita, in particular, is reeling at not having done anything to help Eden, and June goads Serena to consider the power she wields (such as it is), and how she might use it to help improve the lot of women of Gilead, not least their shared daughter. Serena consults with the Wives of Gilead to beseech their husbands to permit their daughters to learn to read, in order to understand the word of God. She does so in a very dramatic staged reading of the Bible. The act does not go well, and Fred orders her finger amputated for this act of perceived sedition.
Aunt Lydia returns to visit with Emily to see how she is settling into her new house, after having earlier been shooed away by the curious commander Lawrence. Emily snaps and lets Lydia have it with both barrels. She stabs, kicks, punches Gilead’s brutal enforcer.
The absence of Marthas this episode is explained in a dramatic finale sequence, as Rita informs June that both she and newborn Holly/Nichole are getting out of Gilead, tonight. Nick, who has had a fleeting experience of fatherhood in a shared moment of tenderness with June, assists by containing Fred in the house. In a tense moment, Serena sights June fleeing with ‘their’ baby, but after tearful consideration, no doubt aided by the pain of her phantom pinkie finger, she permits June to whisk the baby to freedom.
In a moving sequence, the neighbourhood Marthas facilitate June’s escape, and a waiting van arrives to transport both June and child – and what’s that? Emily, too (thanks to a lift from the strange Commander Lawrence) - to Canada. Only June opts not to go, reconciling that her talents are better served in staying on to fight. And to save her precious Hannah. Emily and bub speed off, and June adopts a defiant stance as we fade to black.
Now you're ready for the premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 on Thursday 29 April 2021. The Australian season is exclusive to SBS and SBS on Demand.
SBS will air the double-episode season premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale at 8.30pm Thursday 29 April, with episodes 1-3 available at SBS On Demand. A second double episode will air on Thursday 6 May at 8.30pm, with weekly episodes to follow at 9.30pm. All episodes will be available to stream weekly at SBS On Demand.