Having made their journey to Chicago in last week’s episode, “Chicago,” the fifth episode of The Handmaid’s Tale season 4, starts with June (Elisabeth Moss) reminiscing on past romantic and intimate moments with her husband. The sound of bombs, as well as the sound of Janine (Madeline Brewer) and Steven (Omar Maskati), the leader of the Chicago Refugees, together, bring her back to her reality. The episode deals with the unrest Janine and June face within their new group, which furthers the bond between them. The episode is an emotional one, even when the a sense of relief from being out of Gilead is palpable.
June makes regular attempts to try and gain a sense of power in the group, insisting they should be rebelling against the attacking forces. Steven tells her they are survivors, not the resistance. This tension between June and Steven is further demonstrated in the scene when the two are out on a scouting mission, where they encounter the burned bodies of Gileadean Soldiers. June expresses interest in attacking the soldiers roaming the streets and Steven tells her that she should be interested in the group responsible, “Nighthawks”—a group whose only interested in killing soldiers.
Tensions eventually come to a head when June, becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of fighting for freedom, insists on leaving to join the resistance. The meat of the episode occurs here, as June and Janine bicker about Janine’s relationship with Steven, and how she traded in a Commander for another man who uses her for her body—something that had been negotiated for them to stay last episode, despite Janine’s insistence that all the actions are consensual. The power in this commentary lies in how the relationships the women have as handmaids are transactional. All of the men they have interacted with in the show have wanted something in return, and even though Steven is not forcing Janine into intimacy, Janine’s initiation only came from her desire to give her and Janine a home. This shows how warped the way handmaids process relationships really is.
Janine had grown to understand her role as a handmaid, but her relationship with Steven is more an illusion of choice; after all, she’s not being pinned down as a surrogate womb. On the other hand, June wants complete freedom. More importantly, she wants to play by her rules and doesn’t accept that even in the world outside Gilead, a man can still try to command power over a woman.
While the show can often get into very intense subject matter, June’s disgust at Janine saying she intends to have a baby with Steven really emphasizes that the show still has a lot more to say on what kind of relationships in the patriarchy exist. Steven is not a stranger to Janine using her body, but he frames the decision as a choice Janine made rather than the only option for safety.
As they part in a heartbreaking scene, the genuine connection between June and Janine formed during their experience shows the sisterhood of the two, even as Janine declares she wants to stay and June says she needs to go. Janine’s childlike innocence is adorable as she gives June the gift she intended for Steven as a parting gift.
The gray tones of the scene as June walks away, her new Chicago Cubs hat on her head, makes you feel her pain; once again, she’s alone. However, Janine soon changes her mind and runs after June, saying, “handmaids always walk in twos.” Janine choosing to be with June rather than being a sex slave to Steven in exchange for a place to live shows the growth in Janine’s character. She’s becoming more like June, choosing to fight for freedom completely on her own terms rather than accept a lighter version of her current sentence as a handmaid.
This moment of connection is short-lived, however. Planes overhead bomb the area; Janine is not the only one who feels a sense of comfort and love for the other, as June’s screams are like a mother looking for their child. Instead of finding Janine, with the orchestral sounds of Coldplay’s “Fix You” in the background, June finds her former sister-in-servitude Moira (Samira Wiley).
Looking for Janine and finding Moira at the end of the episode drives home the point that the handmaids are not just the same in their experiences, but their journey to freedom brings them together. While their world has changed they have found solace in each other as true sisters.
The kindness of the episode focuses on the relationship between the women tracking their conflict only to choose each other in the end, differing from the lone wolf attitude Gilead tries to push on them. They are not alone in their experience because they will always have each other.
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 drop every Wednesday on Hulu.