“The Handmaid’s Tale” Recap: Everything You Need to Know Before Watching Season 4
Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel of the same name, The Handmaid’s Tale made history by nabbing an Outstanding Drama Series Emmy in 2017. This season-one victory made Hulu the first streamer to ever win a major series award.
That same year, Elisabeth Moss won a Lead Actress Emmy for playing June, a woman who, at the start of the series, is known as the handmaid Offred. And Ann Dowd, who plays the brutal Aunt Lydia, nabbed her own statuette. Since then, so many of the incredible cast members — Samira Wiley, Alexis Bledel, Yvonne Strahovski, Joseph Fiennes and Bradley Whitford — have garnered much critical acclaim for bringing the harrowing world of Gilead to life.
Due to COVID-19-related shooting delays, we’ve been left hanging since the third season ended in 2019. This April 28, Handmaid’s Tale will finally return to Hulu for its fourth season, but, given that large lapse in time, you might’ve forgotten all of the details — or even the bigger plot points — that unfolded last time we saw June. With this in mind, we’re taking a look at all of the need-to-know plot threads ahead of the season four debut in our Handmaid’s Tale recap. Spoilers ahead.
A Re-Introduction to Gilead
Let’s return to the basics for a moment. After all, Handmaid’s Tale‘s resonance is about more than just strong performances. Like Atwood’s novel, the show’s nuanced world-building, replete with its own lexicon, is what’s so transportive.
Unlike other dystopian stories, Handmaid’s Tale is set in somewhat-present New England where a patriarchal, totalitarian theocratic state, spawned from far-right religious fanatics known as the Sons of Jacob, has overthrown the United States government to form the Republic of Gilead. Additionally, in the wake of environmental pollution, the world at large faces an infertility crisis. As a result, Gilead has created a rigid system of social classes, influenced by their particular interpretation of stories from the Old Testament.
In particular, women are stripped of their rights: No matter their social standing, they are not allowed to read, write, own property, handle money, or have control over their own bodies. Fertile women are forced to become Handmaids, the women in red cloaks and bonnets. Assigned to high-ranking men, or “Commanders,” Handmaids are subject to ritualistic rape each month in what Gilead calls the “Ceremony.”
Apart from Commanders and Handmaids, Gilead is populated by the Commanders’ Wives, infertile but high-ranking women who wear bright blue; Aunts, women who train the Handmaids; Marthas, women who act as cooks and maids; and Guardians, the military patrols who watch Gilead’s citizens closely.
The Start of June’s Story — and Where She Is Now
When we first meet our protagonist, June (Moss), she’s called Offred — meaning she’s “Of Fred” — and is serving as a Handmaid in Commander Fred Waterford’s (Fiennes) house. There, she finds herself navigating the harsh Serena Joy (Strahovski), Fred’s wife; Rita (Amanda Brugel), a Martha who at first seems risk-adverse despite her disdain for Gilead; and Fred’s driver, Nick (Max Minghella), who June fears might be an Eye (an undercover Guardian).
The viewer learns that, before Gilead, June lived in Boston with her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), her daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake), and her best friend, Moira (Wiley). When the Sons of Jacob overthrew the U.S. government, many Americans fled to Canada, but June didn’t make it — and neither did Hannah or Moira. While Hannah was placed with a high-ranking family, June and Moira were forced to become Handmaids by the oppressive Aunt Lydia (Dowd) and co.
While placed with the Waterfords, June meets Emily (Bledel), a queer woman who was unable to escape to Canada with her wife and child. Despite the threat of being sent to The Colonies — a radioactive wasteland — Emily has joined Mayday, a clandestine network of other Handmaids and Marthas who are attempting small acts of rebellion, from setting off explosives to smuggling children and letters out of Gilead. June, eager to find Hannah and reunite with Luke in Canada, becomes a major player in this calculated resistance.
But things are made more complicated when she becomes pregnant with Nick’s child. Pretending the child is Fred’s, June gives birth to Nichole. While the baby is everything Serena Joy could’ve wanted, it’s clear that even she is beginning to see Gilead’s cracks, especially when June tells her what’s best for Nichole, the baby they both love, is getting her out of Gilead.
What Happens to June in Season 3?
In the season two finale, Emily escapes to Canada with baby Nichole. At the last minute, June decided to stay behind, convinced that she can’t leave without Hannah — now called Agnes Mackenzie. Assigned to Commander Lawrence (Whitford), June tries to meet up with Hannah time and again.
She also learns that Lawrence, despite being one of Gilead’s primary architects, is disillusioned with the system, especially since his wife Eleanor (Julie Dretzin), who would be deemed “unfit” by Gilead, is experiencing what seems to be early onset dementia. Although Lawrence feels trapped in a society he opposes — and although his wife could receive treatment and support elsewhere — he’d be tried for war crimes if he left Gilead. As a result, he refuses to take part in the monthly Ceremony and allows the Mayday operation to run out of his home.
Meanwhile, some bad blood forms between June and the seemingly pious Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop), who’s clearly distraught over her pregnancy. Eventually, Ofmatthew snaps and tries to shoot Aunt Lydia, only to be killed by a Guardian. The doctors keep a comatose Ofmatthew alive long enough to try and deliver her child — and, as punishment for the trouble she’s caused, June is forced to wait in the hospital room until the baby comes. Disgusted by the callous way the doctors treat Ofmatthew, June vows to rescue as many children as she can from Gilead.
After June manipulates Eleanor in an attempt to see Hannah, other higher-ups come to suspect that Lawrence is up to something. As a result, Waterford and other high-ranking officials force June, Eleanor and Lawrence to conduct the Ceremony and prove their loyalty. Later, Lawrence agrees to help June organize an escape plan for as many of Gilead’s children as possible.
What Happens to Mayday at the End of Season 3?
Feeling completely broken, Eleanor overdoses — and June, fearing Eleanor might put her escape plan in jeopardy, doesn’t resuscitate her. It’s a cruel and calculated move, but the act that really cements June’s new demeanor is her murder of High Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni), who attempts to rape June while she is at an illegal brothel, getting the word out in the network about the escape plan.
With Winslow deemed “missing,” June carries on with her plan. In the season three finale, a network of Marthas and Handmaids bring children and babies to Lawrence’s house. From there, the group sneaks through the woods to a cargo plane at a nearby airfield. June tries to distract the Guardian’s by attacking them. But since Hannah isn’t in this group of children, June feels compelled to stay. Most of the other Handmaids and Marthas join her, save Rita, who is responsible for getting the children safely onboard and staying with them on the flight to Canada.
In the end, June kills a Guardian who follows her into the woods. Bleeding, she collapses on the ground until a group of Handmaids finds her and carries her off to (hopefully) safety. Meanwhile, Rita and the children land in Canada, where Moira, Luke and Emily, among others, are ready to help the refugees. Rita recognizes Luke and tells him that June was responsible for planning the escape.
Where Did Serena Joy and Commander Waterford End Up?
Over the course of the series, it became clear that Serena’s rhetoric and ideas informed a bulk of what the Sons of Jacob believed in. Pre-Gilead, she was a notorious right-wing writer and public speaker. Of course, she created her own demise insofar as her ideas led to Gilead — an oppressive society that stripped her of any agency as well as her right to read or write. In addition to allowing June and Emily to smuggle baby Nichole to Canada for a better life, Serena finds herself punished for suggesting that women be able to read the Bible. The result? Her own husband, Commander Waterford, allows Gilead authorities to cut off Serena’s finger.
Upset, Serena burns down her house — only to have June save her from the flames. It’s clear that she isn’t all that interested in remaining with Fred, but, at the same time, she doesn’t have much choice in the matter. While all of this seemed like the perfect recipe for Serena to help Mayday, she doubles down on her terribleness. Under the instruction of Commander Winslow, Fred and Serena launch a campaign to have baby Nichole returned to them.
Later on in the season, Serena travels to Canada, where she meets Luke, June’s husband, and Nichole at the airport. There, U.S. government representative Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger) tries to make a deal with Serena, urging her to defect. With her desire to raise Nichole overpowering her, Serena tricks Fred into driving across the border, where he is arrested by Tuello. Much to her excitement, Serena does get to see Nichole again when Moira brings the child for a supervised visitation.
The only problem? Serena isn’t exactly innocent. While in custody, Fred tells Tuello what Serena’s done. You know what they say: A couple who’s facing trial together for crimes against humanity, deserves each other.
Where We Left Everyone Else — and What We Can Expect from Season 4
In Canada, Luke is caring for baby Nichole — which is undoubtedly difficult enough, but made all the more complicated when Serena Joy gets involved. When Luke takes Nichole to the airport to meet Serena, he learns that Nick is Nichole’s father. That’s definitely going to come back to haunt June, but, at the same time, it’s already haunting Serena: She forced June and Nick to conceive the child because she felt Fred was impotent, and, in the end, that’s the crime Tuello is holding her accountable for.
In addition to helping Luke raise Nichole, Moira has become an anti-Gilead activist as well as a kind of social worker who helps folks adjust to life outside of Gilead. One of those people happens to be Emily, who is so deeply traumatized by her experiences that she fears visiting her wife (Clea DuVall) and son. Eventually, she does share a tearful, difficult reunion with them both.
As for other key players in Gilead, Aunt Lydia finds herself shaken. In what was once Washington D.C., things are even more oppressive — there, Handmaids’ mouths are sewn shut. And what about Nick? He’s been sent back to the frontlines to squash any American holdouts. But it’s also clear he has much more blood on his hands than he’s willing to admit.
Details about season four are, unsurprisingly, scarce. It’s clear that June and the other renegade Handmaids will be continuing their Mayday exploits. And that the refugees in Canada, especially the children, will have a lot of painful adjusting to do. While the show’s creator has promised that the show’s “delivering” this season, that remains to be seen.
After all, despite the phenomenal acting and production design and wonderfully jarring songs, Handmaid’s Tale has been rightly criticized for stagnating over the last few seasons. Pushing past the confines of Atwood’s book was a big risk — but is it justified?