We're counting down the days until the premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale's long-awaited fourth season. After a lengthy break between seasons (almost two years!), devoted fans of the show are longing to find out what happens in the wake of those epic events of the season three finale.
It would be an understatement to say that we're all primed for action; we've spent three seasons willing on June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), as she survives on her wits whilst enslaved in a brutal regime that forces fertile ‘fallen’ women to reproduce for its leaders. Much of season 3 was given over to watching June gradually expand her worldview, and overcome her blinkered bid for the freedom of her own girls. It was a season in which all of Gilead's occupants negotiated shifting power dynamics, and tested the limits of their transactional relationships. Perhaps none more than Fred and Serena Waterford (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski), whose storyline was one for the ages.
The new season of the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece promises to take us out of Gilead's houses and into the epicentre of the revolution. Bring. It. On.
If you haven't had a chance to rewatch season 3, familiarise yourself with the key storylines below, to prepare yourself for the Australian premiere of The Handmaid's Tale season 4 (Thursday 29 April, exclusive to SBS and SBS On Demand).
The Handmaid's Tale: Season 3 Recap
The season opens in the immediate aftermath of June's decision to stay in Gilead, in order to liberate Hannah. We watch Emily cradle baby Nichole in the back of a van as it speeds towards the northern border. Emily has to make the final leg of the journey on foot, in treacherous water, and after a heart-stopping few moments where baby Nichole is submerged and unable to breathe, both make it to the safe riverbanks of Canada. Emily declares herself and her precious cargo, asylum seekers.
Meanwhile, June is stranded in the street, but Lawrence comes racing back to her, furious that she has rejected her ticket to freedom. She convinces him she will flee - but only after she locates her missing daughter. But when June enters the McKenzie house, the arrival of the authorities make it clear that Hannah won't be getting out of Gilead tonight. June spends a moment with the sleeping child, ties red twine around Hannah's wrist, and encounters her new 'mother', Mrs McKenzie, who chastises June for "being cruel, confusing [Hannah]." The scene is mirrored later when June has a similar interaction with Serena, as they fight over the fate of baby Nichole, and their shared complex grief/relief at Serena's decision to spare the baby the fate of a girl growing up in Gilead. The consequences of that decision light a fire in the Waterford household. Literally; Serena torches the joint, and specifically, sets fire to the bed - the scene of so, so many crimes.
Fred scrambles to invent a story that will spare them all from the Wall: He blames Emily, says she kidnapped baby Nichole and fled to Canada. It's a test to his credibility, given his reputation for being head of a household of runaway handmaids.
After the fire, June is dispensed to the Rachel and Leah Centre for punishment for her attempt to see Hannah, before being assigned a new household. Guess who the Commander is? No prizes, it's Lawrence. His Marthas talk back, and demonstrate to June that she's got absolutely no clue about what goes on beyond her wing-obscured worldview. “You don’t know how things work around here,” one of the Marthas snaps. And they're right. Season three is devoted to June expanding her knowledge of how things work.
A pious new walking partner, OfMatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) tells June that Chicago, once controlled by the resistance, is about to fall to Gilead. It's hard to get a read on Ofmatthew, about whether she genuinely thinks that's a good thing. In Cambridge, Marthas are colluding with the revolutionaries by moving information - and weapons. Darkness brings the revolution to Lawrence's doorstep; a Martha dies in the basement, and Lawrence clashes with June for bringing the Guardians to his door. But by then we've seen flashes of his susceptibility to June's influence.
Listen to Eyes On Gilead analyse each episode in depth
June resolves that she needs to be smarter if she's going to stand a chance of succeeding: "If I’m going to survive this,” she points out, “I’ll need allies. Allies with power.” She needs to enlist Lawrence or Serena, or if possible, both, to join the resistance. She appeals to Serena's one weakness (“Only a mother could do what you did”), but Serena won't be swayed - telling June that she didn’t come to strike up a rebellious alliance. At a meeting of the Commanders which brings June into contact with Fred - and Nick (!) - June gains crucial knowledge by eavesdropping. Lawrence humiliates June in front of the assembled throng (by daring her to read a book spine - gasp). Later, June tries to flatter/seduce him (unsuccessfully, he's not as gullible as Fred), and he matter-of-factly reveals that his largesse toward Emily was about neither rebellion, nor respect for women; it was because the world needs to benefit from her brilliant scientific mind. When he challenges June to save the lives of only a handful of 'salvaged' women, she outsmarts him, and chooses women with skills that can be put to work against Gilead (“an engineer, an IT tech, a journalist, a lawyer, and a thief").
At a mass baptism (or 'dedication', in Gilead speak), June scans the throng for would-be allies, and recalls Hannah's own baptism in flashback, in happier times with Luke, Moira, and her mother, Holly (who was no fan of the ceremonies of organised religion). At the post-dedication reception, June tries to use her soft power on both Serena and Fred, to help them reconcile (with the aim of continuing to persuade Serena to betray Gilead). Janine has an outburst at the sight of baby Angela. She begs to be the Putnams’ Handmaid again, so that she can be with her daughter. Lydia, who is still bearing the physical injuries caused by being pushed down the stairs, beats Janine into submission with her walking stick, only stopping when June throws herself into the fray.
In Canada, Emily reunites with her wife, Sylvia (Clea DuVall), and son, Oliver. Their memory carried Emily through her traumatic years in Gilead, and in entering Oliver’s photo-filled room, she is overcome to realise that memories of her sustained them as well. Later, Gilead authorities find video evidence that baby Nichole is now in Luke's care.
A despondent Serena appears to be receptive to revolutionary ideas, but asks to see Nichole 'one last time' (“I want to be something to her," she cries, with no trace of irony). Serena requires June’s help in getting to Canada. The Waterfords force June to call Luke, to convince him to allow Serena a visitation. Never mind that June's contact with her loved one is limited to a two minute-call, heavily surveilled. Luke detects the change in June, but he (very) reluctantly does as she says. At the airport meeting, Luke is cautious and hostile because he, unlike June, has legal protections (when Serena says “God bless you” to Luke, he responds in a way June can't verbalise: “Fuck you.” ). Serena is changed by reuniting with "her" baby, however briefly. She rejects another defection plot, and returns to Gilead to reunite with Fred. It's not quite the spirit of reunion that June had been working towards. Serena and Fred orchestrate a ceremonial TV event, vowing to return the 'stolen' Nichole to Gilead. Back in Canada, we learn that June found a way to convey a longer message to Luke: recording a lengthy update over some of Lawrence's old mixtapes, which the ever-transactional Serena delivered as thanks for the visitation. Luke learns the truth about Nichole, that she was born of love, and June entreats Luke to understand how much she has been changed, and to free himself from the memory of how things once were.
The Waterfords' international crusade for Nichole brings the 'household' to Washington, where they encounter an even more extremist version of the regime's policies (yes, they're even more extreme). Washington Handmaids wear face masks in public, to cover the visible evidence a barbaric 'silencing' technique. The architect of this religious extremism, Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni) invites Fred and Serena into his power circle, and introduces them to his bounteous brood (six children!). Fred and Serena see a glimpse at their future. June (and Lydia) sees a glimpse of what the future looks like for the rest of Gilead. The fight for Baby Nichole culminates in a “public prayer” week designed to pressure Canada to return the 'stolen' child.
The Swiss negotiators speak to all parties, including Nick, whose status as a Gileadean War General comes into play. June's deal with the Swiss to keep Nichole in Canada is jeopardised. The realisation that she loves a man who helps to prop up this system of oppression further blurs the lines between "good" and "evil," and "us" and "them". Now that she is out of the Waterford house (a source of trauma but also a relative oasis with Nick), June is realising that the Marthas' challenge in episode two was right. She really has had no idea how things work.
Back in Cambridge, Lydia enlists the Handmaids to pull ropes for a public execution, the likes of which are occurring with increased frequency, such is the force of the Mayday spirit. Back in Canada, Emily and Moira reflect upon their own forced roles as Gileadean murderers. They both exercise their new found freedoms but find it too has limits: they are arrested for protesting, but, compared to what they've endured, they think Canadian captivity is cute.
Back in Washington, Fred and Serena are having the time of their lives, being courted by Gilead's elite, and Fred and Winslow plot a wider extradition idea (...maybe a treaty to being all refugees back). Winslow convinces Fred to use the campaign for Nichole for even greater political leverage, so Fred, drunk on power and the attention from Winslow, agrees to keep her in Canada a little longer. Serena is displeased.
Back at Loaves & Fishes, June extracts information about Hannah’s school from the family’s Martha. She takes Mrs Lawrence on a walking tour, to get some fresh air, and -coincidentally- venture past Hannah's school. Mrs. Lawrence, whose mental health has deteriorated without access to medication, expresses her relief at not being able to have a baby (given the fate that any child has in the twisted world of Gilead). June's effort to see Hannah is intercepted by Eyes. Joseph is displeased.
June sees Hannah's Martha on the gallows at the next execution. June learns that a) it was Ofmatthew who snitched, when she spotted them talking at Loaves & Fishes, and b) Hannah has now been relocated. June is back to square one. And she is displeased.
We finally get a Lydia flashback, and it reveals elements of her past life as a teacher, and as a woman whose compassion has strings attached. We see her befriend the single mother of one of her students. She disapproves of the woman's choices and lack of a maternal streak, but bonds with the family and helps with care. A little of Noelle's freewheeling spirit rubs off on Lydia (she wears makeup, and goes on a date with the principal) but Lydia goes too far too soon, and reels with shame and self-judgement. She blames Noelle and her wicked ways, and calls child services on the poor woman. In the present day, Lydia chastises June, “It is a wicked, selfish fool who chooses another wicked, selfish fool as her example. Especially when there are the godly and joyful among you.”
The stillbirth of a baby brings tensions to boiling point, and June continues punishing Ofmatthew for the latter's role in both the relocation of Hannah, and the murder of the child's Martha (is June projecting much? Methinks yes). June lies to Lydia that Ofmatthew, heavily pregnant, doesn't really want her baby. When Ofmatthew has a psychotic break in Loaves & Fishes, June nods in Lydia's direction as if to set off a psychic assassination attempt against Gilead's chief enforcer. An Eye's bullet stops Ofmatthew in her tracks, and she is dragged away bleeding, presumed dead. But she's not. The bullet spared her belly, so Ofmatthew - whose real name is Natalie - is kept alive on life support until she reaches term, the final insult to a Handmaid's already diminished status as a human incubator.
As Ofmatthew's walking partner, June is confined to keeping vigil in the hospital room for the duration. Alone with a braindead partner, her own thoughts, and the infernal beeps of the medical equipment, June slowly goes mad. She tries to euthanise Ofmatthew, then takes a swipe at Serena with a razor blade.A sympathetic doctor, a former colleague of June's mother, Holly, recognises June's homicidal tendencies as a mask for her own suicidal thoughts, and challenges her on how she plans "honour [her] daughters". The answer comes when June encounters a pre-teen girl, Rose, in the hospital corridor, embarking on the first step in her destiny to be a child bride/mother.
When Ofmatthew's baby - a boy - is born by C-section, June stays with her lifeless body until she passes, and concocts a plan to avenge her death: "I’m gonna get out as many children as I can. I don’t really know how, yet, but I swear to you. I’m gonna get them out. Because Gilead should know how this feels."
Fred brings Winslow on a tour of Cambridge, and word spreads that the hardline policies of Washington will soon follow (which will bring with it, Handmaid lip rings). Lawrence's special status is under threat: the upwardly mobile Fred sees to it that Lawrence actually has to leave the house for meetings now. June actively recruits Mrs Lawrence in her scheme to Save The Children of Gilead, and learns that Lawrence keeps files of the children's whereabouts, in boxes in the basement (in poring through the boxes, June learns that Janine's son was killed in a car accident in the early years of Gilead; mercifully, she withholds this sad development from poor Janine).
Fred continues his power trip by casting aspersions on the procreative output of the Lawrence household. Four Handmaids have left that premises childless, so Fred ponders aloud, what is going on? One dark and terrible night, he, Winslow and Serena, darken the Lawrence door step for an impromptu visit and a surprise Ceremony. They wait downstairs as June has no choice but to summon all of the emotional labour she can, to coach Lawrence - the literal architect of Gilead - through a rape that must occur if they are all to be kept off the Wall. All while his wife weeps from behind the flimsy curtain, and a doctor waits outside the door, ready to inspect June for proof.
June verbalises her now all-too-familiar "You treat it like a job" refrain, and Lawrence demonstrates his complete lack of self-awareness, with a fearful: "Are you sure?". After it's over June locks eyes with a smug Fred and declares, "At least it wasn't you". Serena discloses to a deflated Fred that she has a secret cell phone to Canada, and they resolve to make a call to resume efforts to retrieve Nichole.
Having endured a Ceremony, the Lawrences are wholeheartedly on board for getting out of Gilead. Lawrence fears being tried for war crimes (fair) if he goes to Canada, but June argues that driving across the border in a truck filled children, will likely help aid in his defence. June sets about enlisting Handmaids to identify children for evacuation, and the Martha network sends a code about whether it will supply the truck.
The season ramps up in episode 11 ('Liars') as all of the chief creeps of Gilead face a series of consequences, in an outstanding incarnation of the Rule of Three:
- Lawrence has a loaded gun pointed square in his face, when his wife blames him for the horrors of Gilead (she only snapped once the Ceremony occurred in their home, mind you). June talks her out of pulling the trigger. And holds onto the gun, for safe keeping. Lawrence tries to flee but is stopped at the border. with no options left, he agrees, for real this time, to support June's plan.
- Winslow incurs the wrath of June, when he attacks her in a hotel room at Jezebels (she had gone there to meet the bartender about transport arrangements. In light of Lawrence's experience at the border, she decides to upsize from a truck to a plane, in a dangerous escalation of her Save The Children plan). She assassinates Winslow with a pen (nice touch), and follows through with every object at her disposal, for good measure. She is saved by a Martha, who reveals herself to be one of the skilled women that June rescued in the 'Salvaging'. The Marthas get a bloodied June out of Jezebels, and dispose of all evidence of Winslow's murder (and indeed, of Winslow).
- Fred gets arrested (!) when he and Serena "accidentally" cross the border, for the appointed rendezvous with American agent Tuello. Serena had arranged the appointment using the contraband cell phone (hmmm...). Before that happens, we see them relax and reflect on what Gilead has done to their relationship; Fred discloses that he knows it is his infertility that has prevented them having a child, and he empathises (in a fashion) with Serena about the fact that her theories on Domestic Feminism probably didn't gel with the reality ("I didn’t realise how much this would cost you"). Oh, and they have sex.
In the wake of Winslow's disappearance, Guardians are at Lawrence's door. The Commander presses the gun to June's hand, fearful that the jig is finally up and they've all been found out. Only nope, the Guardians are there to talk of Fred's arrest, and the fear that he will spill State secrets. Lawrence breaks the news to June in the most Lawrence way possible: "Cheer up, Fred and Serena are toast, and you just got away with murder. All in all, not a bad morning.”
The disappearance of Winslow is assumed to be related to the Waterford affair, and Lawrence looks set to have his status reinstated. Accordingly, Lawrence arranges for the border to be kept open for a week, to allow time for Operation Get The Kids Out to fly the friendly skies to Canada. When Naomi Putnam comes to call, Eleanor Lawrence very nearly gives the entire game away. In her desperation to be helpful, she offers that there may be "room" for Winslow's six now-'fatherless' kids. Fortunately, her vague conversational style offers a shield, but June realises that Eleanor's familiarity with the plan poses a serious risk to its success. So when Eleanor takes too many pills at bedtime, June opts not to intervene. Lawrence's expression suggest he is aware that June may know more than she is letting on, but they present a united front at Eleanor's burial ceremony, and June assumes the stance of a Commander.
In Canada, Serena confirms to Fred that she sold him out to the authorities, in return for weekly visitations with Nichole. Fred is shocked (we're not). Luke and Moira have separate visitations with Fred, and Serena, respectively. They both speak their mind and let them have it. "“You are still the same woman who held my friend down so your husband could rape her,” Moira stings. When Fred says of June, "I've changed her," Luke clocks him.
Fred, still reeling from Serena's betrayal, does what any flailing fascist would do: he sings like a canary and vows to take Serena down with him. He tells Tuello everything he has on Serena, and she is arrested for her plot in the rape(s) of June that resulted in the conception of Nichole.
The opening scenes of the season finale start with a flashback to the immediate origin of Gilead. In scenes reminiscent of World War Two, June, Janine, and hundreds of women are rounded up, categorised and processed according to their 'worth'. The male guards seem pretty pleased with themselves. Returning to the present, it's up to the women to turn things around, It's a new day: Mayday. And there's 52 kids coming to Lawrence's house.
The Marthas of Lawrence's household get to work like never before: with weaponised application of the homemaker skills that have come to define them. A Martha shows up too early, with a child, Kiki, and the detail that Kiki's mother-not-mother has only been drugged (and not killed). With hours to go before the plane takes off, there is a risk that the woman will wake and sound the alarm. June points the gun at the Martha, and then at Kiki, but she quickly collects herself. She's been responsible for at least four deaths this season, so let's not make it five. Still, the errant Martha is enough to rattle Lawrence, who wants to abandon the plan altogether. June shows her growth across the series and calls him into line, even adopting his speech patterns to do so. "Men. You are not in charge. I am”. He believes her (the gun helps with the persuading, admittedly), and he leaves her to get back to work. June inspires Kiki to think beyond the limitations of Gilead. And when the kids arrive, Lawrence reads them an excerpt from Treasure Island, to excite their adventurous spirits.
An 11th-hour hitch requires quick thinking on June's part; she distracts the guards, and thus sacrifices her own freedom (again!), in order to enable the group to board the plane (Janine also stays behind to help her friend and comrade see out the daring mission). June gets a bullet in the side for her trouble.
When the plane lands in Canada, fittingly, it's Moira who is the first to greet its occupants ("My name is Moira. I’m here to help you."), and she is speechless at the sight of a sea of children, in the Gilead pink and blue garb. Kiki reunites with her father, and Luke is crestfallen to see neither June nor Hannah on board. But Rita (yes, Rita!) introduces herself: "It’s really good to meet you. She did this. June. Your June. She—she did this. She did—she did everything."
Season three ends with June, bleeding from the gunshot wound, being carried through the woods, with Handmaids using her cape as a makeshift stretcher. In voice over, we hear June recite Exodus: "And the Lord said, I have seen my people in bondage, and I have heard their cry. I know their sorrows. And I am come to deliver them from the hand of evil men, and to lead my people out of that sorrowful place to a land flowing with milk and honey."
Or, shorter version:
Now you're all caught up, 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.
Fiona Williams is host/producer of the award-winning Eyes On Gilead: A Handmaid's Tale Podcast. Available on Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Overcast | RSS, or wherever you listen to podcasts.