"What kind of resistance are you?" an appalled June asked of the self-serving militia group leader in the fifth episode of season four of The Handmaid’s Tale. "The kind that survives," he retorts.
The focus of episode five "Chicago" is the violent chaos that has overwhelmed Illinois’ most populous city. But the storyline also explores the intrigue now unfolding within the confines of Gilead. This broad geographic sweep is held together by themes common to each of these locations: the efforts of those who find themselves a victim of circumstance to use leverage, manipulation and guile to turn their fortunes around.
Director Christina Choe evokes a picture of the city of Chicago devastated by civil war to convincing effect. Hunkered down in the militia’s warehouse as the bombs fall, June and Janine are earning their keep in different ways: June as a cold-water washer-woman, Janine as a now 'consenting' concubine of boss Steven. Janine’s influence convinces a reluctant Steven to allow them both to join the next trading run, even though he knows June is looking to join the fight against Gilead and not to scavenge or barter.
Out in the ruined city streets, June demands a weapon and the chance to engage with Gilead patrols. Steven refuses, determined to avoid a firefight and to focus on keeping his followers fed and equipped. When June learns of a committed anti-Gilead armed group known as the Nighthawks who "just want to kill soldiers", she is as eager to link up with them as Janine is reluctant.
Within Gilead, Aunt Lydia is resentful at attempts to force her into retirement. With Commanders Blaine and Lawrence both learning of June’s location and wanting to assist her escape to freedom from afar, an unlikely alliance is brokered between the three. The Commanders soon learn, however, that every action can trigger an equal and opposite reaction.
These separate but connected developments all culminate in a particularly explosive, heart-in-the-mouth finale (season four is delivering these with impressive consistency). It’s an endpoint intended to leave viewers emotionally reeling, trying to process a sense of joyful relief on the one hand and shocked uncertainty on the other.
Season four now seems to be heading in a sharply different direction. The superficial unity of Gilead is now fracturing under the pressure of the Waterfords' impending trial and internal political schisms. The costs (in the fullest sense) of the US civil war are spiralling; sanctions are curtailing Gilead’s capacity to fight; and June is far from alone in wanting to make the religious enclave suffer for its criminality and wickedness. But while the bigger picture is increasingly defining the dramatic setting of The Handmaid’s Tale, "Chicago" ends with a more personal and intimate moment of victory and sacrifice, that will reverberate in the minds of viewers long after the credits have rolled.
THE HANDMAID'S TALE Season Four is screening on Sundays in the UK on Channel 4 and available to stream thereafter on ALL4, or buy through Apple.
Read our previous reviews of THE HANDMAID'S TALE below: