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A Survivor's Story: Breaking Down the Season 4 Finale of ‘Handmaid’s Tale’
The roaring emotional ride that was the season four finale sets June on a new path: more of a Survivor's Journey.
April 3, 2022
Season five of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is currently filming in Toronto, so fans of the show can get ready to revisit the world of Gilead and all of the complex characters that come with it. The dramatic conclusion of season four left us with a lot to ponder as to what’s next in June’s pursuit of justice. Since obtaining freedom from her oppressors by finding refuge in Canada, it was clear throughout the season that June (Elizabeth Moss) is finding it increasingly difficult to resume the role she filled in her former life. After the horrors she’s experienced in a corrupted and completely changed America, she is in fight or flight mode. That sensation of lingering danger stays with her long after she finds her way to safety.
For the first half of this season, June was still a fugitive in her home country: running from the totalitarian law that is endlessly miffed at her repeated attempts to free women from slavery and overthrow the government. When she finally makes the impossible decision to leave this life on the run behind and take advantage of the passageway to Canada being presented to her, she is rendered incapable of moving past her life as an outlaw by crippling survivor’s guilt. We have seen June navigate the Hero’s Journey as she aims to set her fellow captive women free and search for her stolen daughter, Hannah. But the roaring emotional ride that was the season four finale, I believe, sets June on a new path: more of a Survivor’s Journey.
Throughout her search for justice against Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) in season four, June considers the lingering presence of the Waterfords an obstruction between herself and recovery as she wrestles her newfound freedom. She is put through the wringer by the justice system, having to testify against them in court, sharing with the public, as well as her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) exactly what horrors she had been through while in the Waterford house. This is a side of herself that she is hesitant to share, her wounds still raw (both literally and metaphorically speaking).
The subsequent death of Commander Waterford signals the beginning of a new chapter for June, she is permanently and unequivocally free of his ongoing torment. He is no longer able to manipulate June, or the legal system to constantly work for his benefit. He can no longer threaten her or physically overpower her. In the final moments of his life, the scene is perfectly written to completely shift the power dynamic in not only June’s favour – but the rest of the female Gilead survivors Fred had under his thumb during his rule there.
Despite the Commander being gone from her life forever, the long-lasting effects of his physical and psychological afflictions don’t disappear. Though her dedicated support system, and group of dear friends, consist of women who have experienced Gilead, everyone is processing their trauma differently. For example, the queer women in the group that are recovering from their abuse are torn between avenues of healing and letting themselves experience anger. June is less on the fence about this reaction. She seemingly makes a lot of decisions rooted in anger, or another emotional, instinctive response. Unlike the others, it seems that she is still in fight mode, she is used to circumstances in which every choice she makes involves a constant weighing of catastrophic consequences. On the Write On Podcast, writer and producer Bruce Miller had this to say about the way June’s decision making is considered in the writer’s room:
“The fact is she’s gone through a trauma that we can barely fathom. The road through trauma and back is very very long, very very difficult, different for everybody, and incredibly frustrating for the people around them and the people going through it…it is an intractable world, there’s no good decisions. A lot of the time she’s making a decision and the voting in her head is 51/49 it’s not 100/0.”
Even though her current environment does not possess the same threat as Gilead, her evident Post-Traumatic Stress prevents her from leaving that instinct behind, as it is the only thing that’s kept her (and countless others) safe up to this point. Her success in keeping fellow women safe was so fleeting in Gilead, that she is still constantly on the lookout for, and adapting to potential threats to her freedom.
In the moments after she returns home from Fred’s murder, the first thing she does is hold her youngest daughter, Nicole. June wears a bright red jacket, the same colour as the cloak she wore as a Handmaid. She is covered in Fred’s blood, smearing it on Nicole’s face as she holds her – no doubt a symbol of generational trauma being passed down. Luke is in shock when he walks in on this scene. He has not yet come to terms with this version of his wife that he doesn’t recognize and can’t relate to. June whispers “I know, I’m sorry. Just give me five minutes, okay? Just give me five minutes, then I’ll go”. As she coos Mommy loves you’s to her baby, she is a ghost of the mother she was in a past life. Equally devoted to her family, equally loving and so protective, but it is acknowledged in the subtext of this scene that June can never return to the role she used to fill in her family. One of her biggest obstacles this season is coming to the realization that she cannot fulfill this expectation: to revert to normalcy, to be Luke’s other half as she was so effortlessly before being captured alongside Hannah and separated from them both. She is no longer able to force herself into that mould because that version of June no longer exists. This closing scene of the season depicts the growing distance and disappointment of unmet expectations between her and her husband. Here, it comes to a head: it cannot be repaired.
June is trying to recover while she’s still fighting a battle. Her pursuit for justice and her search for her eldest daughter carries on as she treads unfamiliar territory as a refugee. And now, even though the Commander is dead, the interaction that she has with her family afterwards signifies that she will never be truly free of the life Fred resembles, even after vengeance has been exacted. As she navigates these feelings, it is still very likely that she will continue to make decisions based in fear, guilt, and shame, and may sometimes exhibit bad behaviour as a result. Now, in contrast to the external forces she’d have to face in Gilead, she must begin her journey of continuing her life as a survivor.
This rating reflects The Handmaid’s Tale as a whole.