A tense and compelling story, Episode Six of Season Four of The Handmaid’s Tale delivers the dramatic outcome that long-time viewers of the show have hoped for since the series' very first episode. Vows is given extra poignancy and impact by the emotionally fraught and affecting moments with which it opens and concludes.
The episode begins moments after the shocking, stirring finale of Chicago. Against all the odds (and most viewers will be able to accept the dramatic licence this requires) Moira has stumbled across June in the immediate aftermath of a Gilead bombing raid on the city limits. Part of a humanitarian mission tolerated by Gilead’s rulers, Moira’s team’s focus is on feeding, clothing and tending to the area's abandoned refugees while avoiding becoming ensnared in the geo-politics.
In order to carry out their mission effectively, they cannot be seen to be taking sides. Gilead's rulers will lock them out if they appear to be partisan in any way. June is disoriented by the devastation wrought by the bombing run, and preoccupied with the disappearance (and possible death) of companion Janine amidst the smoking rubble.
Beside herself with the joy of reunion with her friend and ally, Moira tries to shake sense back into a disconnected June. Determined to bring June back to the liberty of Canada and reunite her with her husband, Moira must secure passage for her for the return journey. The problem is that June is Gilead’s most wanted escapee and if she’s found onboard the vessel by Gilead’s coastguard enforcers the entire humanitarian mission will be in jeopardy, putting hundreds and thousands at risk. Aboard ship, the crew are split about whether the potential cost of ensuring June’s freedom outweighs the benefits. The ship captain could be facing a mutiny, amongst a crew already outraged at having to abandon their work because of the worsening violence.
The sequences depicting the team’s pull-out from their bridgehead are intentionally difficult to watch. The reverberations of shattered commitments and abandoned promises are palpable, as the terror of those now being lost to their fate is matched by the torment of those leaving them behind. Director Richard Shepard constructs these scenes in a way that deliberately evokes parallels with contemporary TV news footage showing the plight of enforced migrants, displaced persons and those uprooted in the tumult of war.
The scenes aboard the ship, as the crew clash over what should be done with June, crackle with tension. The arguments shift back and forth as these humanitarian activists debate the consequences of the risk of having June discovered below deck: it could trigger a Gilead sea blockade, an end to their charitable work, and disaster for countless refugees. The ‘right’ moral choice is far from clear in this terrible, conflicted situation. Samira Wiley is always fantastic as the resilient and principled Moira, but her passionate performance as the advocate trying to save June from incarceration and death is amongst her best work yet on the show. The life-or-death decision is ultimately down to captain Oona (Zawe Ashton on commanding form) and the consequences for June are profound.
The voyage ends with a remarkable moment in the evolution of the show as The Handmaid’s Tale arrives at a breakpoint that the series has reached for many times before - but never grasped until now. It’s a triumphant moment of joy and relief. But because this show is a literate and intelligent drama, that vindication is tempered by June’s feelings of anguish and regret. Dorothy Fortenberry’s script is an assured mix of thriller and character beats, and Elizabeth Moss’ performance as June in the episode’s closing sequences is exceptional stuff.
The endgame’s importance is reinforced by one of the show’s signature motifs (which the series' creators are careful not to overuse): June breaks the fourth wall and looks straight down the lens of the camera, her emotion etched into the expression on her face.
It’s up against some tough competition, but Vows is the strongest instalment of the consistently impressive fourth season so far.
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: