In contrast to the singular focus of several recent episodes, the penultimate outing of The Housemaid’s Tale’s fourth season returns to multi-strand storytelling. It carefully places the various key players in position ahead of next week’s enticing finale. What’s been repeatedly impressive about season four is the writers’ ability to surprise and confound. The show’s central premise - the dystopian, misogynist horror that is Gilead - has been refracted through new and different lenses. It’s brought into focus the perspectives not just of those trapped within its borders, but of those who’ve escaped or been extricated from its misery. It’s kept the drama fresh and innovative and the direction of the show’s storyline difficult to predict.
The drama of Progress is framed by two interconnected themes: the exercise of leverage and the consequences of betrayal. Those two ideas play out in the detention centres of Canada, in the Red Houses of Gilead, and in and around June’s home and family.
Still holding onto the rage she let rip in Testimony, June and husband Luke consider ways that might enable them to extricate their daughter Hannah from the clutches of Gilead. With the support of the Waterfords' prosecutors, June approaches Commander Lawrence on a secure line in the hope of beginning negotiations on Hannah’s release. Forever tied to his own self-serving agenda, Lawrence proposes impossible terms for a trade, before closing down. June knows that any exchange of the escaped children as a swap for Hannah is not something she could ever countenance - and Lawrence is well aware of this. The phonecall between them delivers some of the tensest exchanges in the episode, as the acerbic Lawrence pulls apart her efforts to strike a bargain, and June struggles to keep her composure as she learns of Janine’s fate.
It’s Luke’s own suggestion that June reach out to Commander Nick Blaine as an alternative source of influence. It’s an extremely challenging option for all of them: Luke knows that Nick fathered Nichole with June whilst she was in Gilead, and that the emotional connection between the two has persisted. Luke is aware too that Nick has taken actions (sometimes at personal risk) to protect June as best he can. Luke has felt himself on the bewildered back-foot since June’s arrival in Canada. O. T. Fagbenle puts in a thoughtful and affecting performance as Luke takes the initiative to push June to meet Nick in the hope of learning more about the whereabouts of Hannah.
June’s relationship with Nick is one of the most problematic motifs of the series. Theirs is a connection shaped by romantic love, yet also a product of manipulation and enforcement engineered by Serena to ensure June’s impregnation following Commander Waterford’s failure. The offspring of their union is now cared for in Canada by ‘stepfather’ Luke and ‘aunt Moira’. But as well as seeing him as a useful Gilead asset, June clearly retains feelings for Nick. There’s a passion, albeit one distorted by the baleful influence of Gilead, to their relationship. June’s association with Luke feels dutiful and transactional in comparison.
With the best part of four series’ worth of experience to call on, and knowing how often the show plunges from joy to despair in a single switch, viewers are left on tenterhooks throughout June’s and Nick’s meeting, awaiting the crack of a rifle, or the sound of smashing wood and glass, announcing the arrival of a new calamity. It’s a sequence as tense as it is surprisingly touching.
The Waterfords here experience a sharp turnaround in their fortunes which triggers a crisis of loyalties. Visited by Commander Putnam and his obsequious wife, the Waterfords realise the extent to which they have been written off by the regime. Gilead is now focused on damage limitation and on ways to take ownership of the Waterfords' offspring. The pair may face the most unpalatable future imaginable on their repatriation to Gilead (if they ever secure their freedom again). To protect the future of his family, Fred Waterford begins to countenance the unthinkable, even at the cost of rupturing the ties that previously defined his identity.
The scenes in Gilead open up some impressive new dramatic territory. Aunt Lydia uses her own influence to keep Janine close at hand, ignoring the advice of her juniors that she should be dispatched to a breeding colony. Now transformed into a handmaiden, Esther (the Commander’s wife first introduced in Pigs and seized by Gilead’s enforcers at the conclusion of Nightshade) is defying all attempts to break her will. Janine realises the costs of continuing outright defiance, and persuades Aunt Lydia to allow her to use her good offices to convince Esther to co-operate. It’s a course of action that could lead to the vindication or ruin of all of those involved. Mckenna Grace is once again excellent as the proud and rebellious young Esther, while Madeline Brewer shines as Janine finds new ways to respond to the experience of total powerlessness.
It’s the unexpected finale moments of the episode that see June set aside the warmth, connection, and reassurance of her encounter with Nick, to reconnect to her rage. Seething with disbelief, she learns of the Waterfords' latest actions, and their determination to secure some independent leverage of their own. June swears she will meet out murderous retribution.
Progress succeeds in delivering surprises and upturning expectations at every turn. With Moira and her support group of Gilead’s escapees left largely unseen, it’s not clear what June’s hopes are for the collective rage she has done so much to foster in the group. But it seems that the Waterfords may be severing their ties with Gilead just as June’s patience with the authorities in Canada also reaches breaking point. Where might her focus be now? Attempting to free Hannah from Gilead, or bringing down vengeance on the regime’s most egregious criminals? With the series’ renewal now confirmed, there’s more than the space of a single episode available to answer that question.
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: