Picking up moments after the devastating finale of “The Crossing”, fourth episode of season four of The Handmaid's Tale "Milk" focuses on June's and Janine's flight from their Gilead pursuers. But while Janine has her heart set on resuming their journey north towards Canada, June has other ideas. Burning with a desire to join the rebel army fighting Gilead's forces, June wants to head towards the front line of the war in Chicago and link up with the partisans of Mayday.
There's a freshness to the drama of "Milk" which brings into view different elements of what's confirmed as a new American Civil War. There's a rebalancing of the power dynamic between June and Janine, and between the Waterfords and their former Martha Rita. There's also a series of fascinating flashbacks which foreground, in a way the series has not done before, the obstacles placed in the way of women's control of their own reproductive rights in the time before the horrors and subjugation of Gilead.
But before those elements kick in there's an extraordinary, claustrophobic set-piece aboard a goods train. Stowaways June and Janine plunge into the interior of a milk tanker, with alarming and brilliantly realised results. As the train sets off and the milk churns, the pair are suddenly at risk of drowning - a particularly stomach-clenching form of lactose intolerance. It's the first in a series of surprises that Jacey Heldrick's script delivers with a terrific sense of mood.
June's later elation that she has found the legendary Mayday rebels sours when the more complex and messy reality of the fractured opposition to Gilead in war-torn America comes into view. It’s not just those motivated by laudable principles who are willing to take up arms against the secessionists of Gilead. In the chaos and dislocation of civil war, criminal gangs, warlords, and scavengers offer refugees ‘protection’ - but only if they accept exploitation and abuse as the price of survival.
Whilst aboard the train, the escapees have a blistering argument, in which Janine accuses June of betrayal, and June denounces Janine for her weakness and neediness. June lashes out, insisting that Janine shares none of the weight that rests on June’s shoulders and she “should have left you a long time ago”. But as ‘guests’ of the armed guerillas, it’s Janine who volunteers to do what their commander (and sexual predator) Steven demands, where June cannot, so that the pair can remain fed and sheltered in the wasteland of war. The reassertion of control by those denied power is a theme central to the sequences set in Canada, where Rita refuses to become a pawn in the legal conflict between the Waterfords. She recognises that she owes them nothing, and refuses to be a party to keeping secrets. These scenes deliver some powerful dramatic turnabouts.
The flashback sequences show a younger Janine wanting to make her own choices about an unplanned pregnancy. They explore her efforts to negotiate the attempts of others to trick and manipulate her, and also her resilience in refusing to let others take away her choices. Madeline Brewer is always fantastic in the role of Janine, but she excels here in revealing the sense of self-belief that Janine once possessed. It’s a segment that gives a more rounded sense of the complexities of Janine’s nature. But it also hints at the origins of ideas that later morphed and twisted into the ideology of Gilead.
“Milk” is another extremely strong episode of the show, combining unexpected character developments with the widest vista yet of the state of the nation in the USA. Earlier episodes have included references to the resurgent military conflict in the country. But “Milk” provides a visual reveal of the extent to which Gilead’s self-annexation is a reflection of the rapid slide of America into the abyss of a ‘failed state’. Little wonder then that Canada guards its land border so attentively. June and Janine have once again escaped the clutches of Gilead but, lost and vulnerable in the midst of a war zone, they are a long way from finding anything resembling real freedom.
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: