Matters take their darkest turn yet in season four of The Handmaid’s Tale with third episode “The Crossing”. As she is held in detention by the Gilead authorities, June is horrified to learn of the arrest of her host, the young Esther Keynes, aware of the grim fate that now awaits them both. Her despair is tempered to a degree by the news that the other handmaids hiding in the settlement had begun their journey to the next safe house before the troops arrived, meaning that Janine and her compatriots remain at large and undetected.
Embarrassed by the success of the “Angels’ flight” and the arrest in Canada of the Waterfords, Gilead’s enforcers are determined to extract from June information about their whereabouts by whatever means are necessary. The fact that the conflicted commanders Lawrence and Blaine hope for mercy for June has no immediate influence over the government’s intent. June is subject to brutal acts of violence, including waterboarding and the cruel ministrations of Lydia (whose welcoming words of “Hello dear” are more than enough to chill the blood).
Forced to watch horrifying acts inflicted on other detainees, June remains defiant. She first refuses to tell her interrogators anything, and then misdirects their search efforts. But her captors know the weak link in June’s armour, and which threats will leave her physically unharmed but psychologically destroyed. In Canada, aware of her plight but unable to help her, partner Luke feels both helpless and a prisoner, in his own way, of June’s determination to stay in Gilead and fight.
Star of the series Elizabeth Moss (June / Ofjoseph) takes the director’s chair for the first time with this episode. She’s chosen a hard-hitting and emotionally fraught tale for her debut, and she shows commendable judgement in front of and behind the camera in bringing it to the screen. This is a gripping, well-executed story that does not flinch from depicting the barbarism that Gilead’s henchmen are capable of.
The question mark, if there is one, raised by the episode is not the quality of the material or its delivery. It’s the fact that it shows once again the vindictiveness, the cruelty and the callousness of the Gilead regime and the terrible suffering that it inflicts as it murders individuals or crushes their spirit. Viewers have witnessed June and her allies being humiliated and brutalised before now, and on multiple occasions. There’s nothing salacious in these sequences; and certainly nothing that could be characterised as ‘torture porn’. But it’s arguable that June’s suffering tells us little new about the repellent morality of Gilead. It’s harrowing to watch, but is it enlightening?
What this assault on June’s psyche does set up very effectively is her unexpected breaking point: the moment that she capitulates in the face of overwhelming power. It’s a truly shocking moment, an act of enforced betrayal that leaves June reeling. It triggers a series of terrible outcomes, which culminate in a jaw-dropping finale that brings into sharp relief the horror of unintended consequences. It’s a calamity for which June is at least partly culpable, and for which others will hold her responsible.
Retribution is coming, and June is certain to want payback for the pain inflicted on her and for the trauma that others connected to her have suffered. This is uncompromising drama, delivered with unflinching conviction and demanding complete attention. Expect no let-up.
THE HANDMAID'S TALE Season Four is screening on Sundays in the UK on Channel 4 and available on ALL4.
Read our previous reviews of THE HANDMAID'S TALE below: