Warning: Review contains spoilers!
Progress or any sort is usually slow, and this frustrating reality is played out in the latest and aptly named episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. With her testimony in the rear-view mirror June forges ahead with her fight against a system that enabled her abusers and stole her child. Progress chronicles the next step in her fight and is a stark reminder that no matter what lengths people have undertaken to effect change inevitably most are just pawns in a game not of their making.
The dilemma facing June and Luke is how to reunite their family and bring Hannah to Canada. With the limitations of being in Canada stunting their effort, June reaches across the border to a familiar face for help. Commander Lawrence isn’t exactly pleased to hear from her and pushes back on her request. June’s spirits sink when he reveals that Janine is alive. She regains her resolve, and the negotiations begin but the ask from Lawrence is too much. Lawrence is a practical man, but not one without a heart and June’s appeals cut deep.
It’s back to square one for Janine who finds herself scrubbing floors. A handmaid is dragged into the room all set to be disciplined by Aunt Lydia and when her identity is revealed, Janine’s shock is shared by the viewers. Esther, wearing a scowl that would make June proud, rejects Aunt Lydia’s advice and leaves the room as she entered. Aunt Lydia’s muted response to Esther’s defiance is a sign of weariness and a realization that June’s influence on handmaids will make her job even harder.
Serena gets some baby shower gifts including a suit and a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey. Opening the gifts with Fred is bittersweet minus the pomp and ceremony that she would have enjoyed in Gilead. Fred tries to see the positive in their current situation and offers Serena a way to manage her disappointment. Buoyed by the support they are receiving he suggests that she pen a book to try and win the hearts and minds of those who may not be aware of their plight.
Lydia and the aunts argue over Janine’s status. The moments Janine and Lydia spent together shortly after the events in Chicago has produced a bond between them. Going back into service would break Janine, something Lydia is aware of, and her compassion stalls any decisions others may have regarding the handmaid’s future. Janine’s odyssey has changed her as well and she appeals to Lydia to take it easy on Esther. Lydia reciprocates and inserting Janine into the solution serves everyone’s needs.
Progress hinges on a scene that serves as the emotional anchor of the episode. An emotional June is at a loss for how to get Hannah back. Luke offers her a solution but it’s an option that asks a great deal of everyone involved. With Lawrence unable to get them what they want, Luke wonders if Nick can help them. The request shakes June and the vulnerability of both characters is laid bare. When Luke suggests that she take Nichole to meet Nick in person it opens the door to a myriad of possibilities including a few June has delayed confronting herself. She’s torn between two men that she loves and two families that for several reasons she could never truly have. The beauty of the scene isn’t in what is said between them but what isn’t. Their teary eyes and nervous mannerisms convey the hope they have for what they can gain and lose.
Naomi Putnam pays Serena a visit and things don’t go as one would expect. Naomi bearing gifts and well wishes from home isn’t the issue it’s an offer she makes that sets Serena off. The gesture to help raise Serena’s baby if she isn’t released from custody shunts Serena into the shoes of every handmaid she’s ever encountered. Through circumstances beyond her control, she’s now faced with the possibility of having someone else raising her baby and the reality is terrifying.
The Gilead reunion is even rockier for Fred. Commander Putnam’s box of cigars is the only charity he brings when he reveals that Gilead has cut ties with the Waterfords. Not wanting Fred’s case to kick off a Commander kidnapping spree Gilead has no plans to negotiate his release. Loyalty is a fickle mistress and Fred is less than pleased to discover that he’s expendable.
Progress is a collection of scenes featuring two characters representing opposite ends of a spectrum. Janine’s outreach to Esther begins positively but when her gambit is revealed their friendly banter ends. Janine is a survivor, and her advice is designed to spare Esther some of the horrors she’s had to endure. Esther’s anger stems from what she considers a betrayal as well as the realization that Janine represents a future she utterly rejects.
June’s long anticipated meeting with Nick is tender and full of the promise of what could have been. June’s eyes light up when they first see each other and the uneasiness she shares with Luke is absent here. She is a woman forced to walk two paths and it can be up for debate which path she’d prefer. Hannah’s status is confirmed, and Nick’s efforts endear him to June even more. Reality is something they can’t ignore though and eventually their time together ends. June is heartbroken but knows there is no path forward with Nick and when he slips a wedding ring on his finger after she leaves the audience is aware of it too.
Progress is in the eye of the beholder as the episode winds down. There is a pedestrian approach towards the end with ample evidence that despite some victories the system still rules the day. Esther’s acceptance of her role as a handmaid, Lydia’s glee at things returning to normal and Luke’s joy at seeing Hannah’s pictures all represent the highs and lows brought on by the system. That explodes once Trullo reveals that Fred is co-operating and that all charges against him will be dropped. The fury that has been building in June over the course of the last few episodes finally erupts forcing us to question whether any progress has been made at all.