For the first time in the entire televisual history of The Handmaid’s Tale, June finds herself in a genuine state of liberty. Stepping off the boat that smuggled her out of the civil war-ravaged US, June formally requests asylum in Canada putting herself beyond the reach of the religious criminals of Gilead.
Yet while the title of the seventh episode Home might suggest feelings of contentment and connection, June understandably struggles to find either. She’s neither relieved nor ‘at peace’. In fact, she’s distant, preoccupied, and more than a little freaked out. Entirely in keeping with the show's ethos, this is anything but a ‘fairytale’ reunion.
Members of her family treat her with kindness, love, and patience, but June is slow to recognise the efforts they are making. Her husband and her closest friends try to protect her from the debriefing demands of the Canadian authorities, who are keen to gather intelligence on the machinations of Gilead. But as June begins to accept how badly she has been affected by the traumas she has endured, she embraces what for her are three related imperatives: reasserting control over her life; dealing with the unfinished business of her subjugation in Gilead; and exacting vengeance against those who exploited her and her handmaid sisters.
June has been the central protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale since the very first episode, but Home is one of those stories in which everything on screen is refracted through her experience. The results are just as intense, but Home has a very different feel to recent spectacle and thriller episodes, such as The Crossing, Milk or Chicago. The focus here is on June’s reaction to finding herself unexpectedly freed from Gilead. She had no time to prepare herself psychologically or emotionally for the reunion with her loved ones. And her relief is shot through with overwhelming guilt, not least for ‘failing’ to bring her daughter across the border with her.
Yahlin Chang’s taut script keeps a tight focus on June’s sense of estrangement and otherness. Director Richard Shepard brings out the astute juxtapositions in Chang’s storyline to deliver numerous memorable moments. June’s bewilderment in visiting a fully-stocked, brightly lit supermarket (which could not contrast more strongly with its miserable, utilitarian equivalent in Gilead), and the surge in anxiety which it triggers, is brilliantly realised. Those scenes in which her friends tip-toe around her, even as she blanks their attempts to empathise with her sense of alienation, are gripping and uncomfortable.
Yet there are two sequences in Home which are especially difficult to watch, albeit for very different reasons. Learning of the incarceration and upcoming prosecution of the Waterfords, June demands a meeting with the now-pregnant Serena. Whatever Serena might have expected from the encounter, she will not have anticipated the merciless rage with which June eviscerates her hopes for clemency. Both Elizabeth Moss (June) and Yvonne Strahovski (Serena) are mesmerizing in this short scene, which redefines their relationship through the expression of June’s hatred for the woman who exploited and abused her. The series’ plot arc has separated these two characters who previously shared screen time together in most episodes, and this showdown is a reminder of how powerful their dynamic can be.
If that scene shows June in a difficult light, her behaviour towards her husband Luke is more problematic still. In their first intimate encounter, June begins to seduce Luke to get the sexual experience she desires. But when Luke asks her to stop, she ignores him and continues. That’s unacceptable on any level (which the on-screen presentation of the moment makes clear). Luke’s willingness to dismiss the incident as part of June’s slow acclimatization to normal relationships, is implied in the montage of family contentment that follows. But it’s clear that June has so far only been able to rekindle her sense of autonomy and of free-will at considerable cost to her psyche. With the Waterfords now reunited by the force of June’s denunciation of Serena, and her own family struggling to find ways to reconnect with her scarred and damaged persona, June appears to be lost in a place that's a very long way from home.
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: