Reviews | Written by Rich Cross 23/08/2021

THE HANDMAID’S TALE, Season 4, Episode 10, THE WILDERNESS

The fourth season of dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale comes to a startling conclusion in the shocking, cathartic release of The Wilderness. It’s a compelling watch from the first scene to the last, with a storyline determined to confound viewer expectations at every turn.

As the endgame begins, June is struggling to contain the murderous rage she gave expression to in last week’s unsettling episode Progress. Enraged by the news that Fred Waterford may be granted freedom and immunity from prosecution in return for turning on his former Gilead allies, June provides video testimony urging the repudiation of the (unbelievably generous) deal that the exiled American authorities have brokered. Yet it’s clear that she has given up on any hope that the legal system might provide her with justice or any sense of closure. She begins to consider what different course of action might ensure that the Waterfords pay the full price for their criminality and abuse.

The Waterfords’ callous wickedness haunts June, holding her in a stasis that leaves her disconnected from her family and friends. She even berates herself for her inability to relinquish the grip that her experiences have over her: something she suggests a 'good mother' would be able to do. But she acknowledges that, until she has secured a full reckoning of accounts with former Commander Waterford she is stuck in a stasis of anger.

What works so effectively in this season finale is that the events that play out here have been seeded so carefully and so consistently throughout the previous nine episodes. From the false hope of Nightshade to the triumph of Home, June’s determination to punish those responsible for the horrors of Gilead has been undimmed. Her frustration at the way that the Waterfords have avoided judgement runs through the events of Testimony and Progress. She’s encouraged the other Gilead escapees to connect to, and give voice to, their own expressions of outrage. What she comes to realise here is that there is no way to embrace her longing to be part of a normal loving family unit until her aching need to make her persecutors (and those of her compatriots) pay is sated.

For that reason, The Wilderness examines June's search for recovery through revenge. Everything in the episode is seen from her perspective and is driven by her own sense of need. She convinces everyone around her (be they family members, sister ex-handmaid, or government or Gilead official) to support her plans. And she avoids telling the full truth to any of those closest to her who might try to restrain her. There’s no sight of Gilead itself in the finale, though the borderline between Gilead and Canada and the no-man’s-land between the two feature strongly. Commanders Nick and Lawrence feature in brief but significant ways, but there’s no news on the lives of Aunt Lydia, Janine or Esther.

The episode is punctuated by some tense character moments. The shifting power dynamic between June and US official Mark Tuello, rebuilds their shattered relationship. In contrast, Serena overplays her hand with Tuello, and is blindsided by developments. And most chilling of all is the private meeting between June and Fred, a psychological mind-game that teeters on the edge of imploding and sets up a devastating final encounter.

There are some truly extraordinary visuals throughout the episode. Events are framed with flashbacks to June’s experiences at the hands of Fred Waterford in a Jezebels club. As he gropes her on the dance floor, she fakes an interest in intimacy as the price of survival, while the camera swirls around them as if this were a grotesque dream. A meeting on a misty river bridge, as a prisoner exchange takes place, has a similar ethereal tone. A night-time chase through a woodland has a hyper-real and a (very grim) fairytale quality to it, before it shifts to something even darker. And the final image of June cuddling baby Nicole as Luke looks on aghast is one likely to linger in the memory.

The decisions that key characters make in this closing episode will reverberate through Season Five, as the liberty that life in Canada provided for so many might be jeopardised. That next season will have to explore two decisive questions: is the exorcising release of physical retribution worth the personal cost; and how much revenge is enough? While viewers await answers to those conundrums, this remains electrifying genre television. Even accounting for the fact that most of the action takes place away from Gilead, The Wilderness brings to a jaw-dropping conclusion the most arresting season of The Handmaid’s Tale to date.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE Season Four is available to stream on ALL4 or buy through Apple.

Read our previous reviews of THE HANDMAID'S TALE below:

Season 4, Episode 1, PIGS

Season 4, Episode 2, NIGHTSHADE

Season 4, Episode 3, THE CROSSING

Season 4, Episode 4, MILK

Season 4, Episode 5, CHICAGO

Season 4, Episode 6, VOWS

Season 4, Episode 7, HOME

Season 4, Episode 8, TESTIMONY

Season 4, Episode 9, PROGRESS