Allow me to preface this Handmaid’s Tale recap with the caveat that, if you’ve been watching this show from the beginning, you’ve experienced the agony that occurs when a small flame of hope suddenly turns into a conflagration that destroys everything in its path and leaves you blinking, sooty and dejected in its wake. (See also: June’s getting caught on the runway in Season 2, her refusal to leave Gilead when Emily did later that season, the flight’s leaving without her in Season 3.) So we should probably not feel super elated when June and Janine make it safely to the warfront in this week’s episode.
The fugitive handmaids’ journey out of Gilead gets an iota more possible as they stow away on a supply train and link up with a band of rebels in “Milk.” Is it a perfect, storybook escape? Nope. Are there gallons and gallons of hurt feelings that come up along the way? Yep. But does it kindle that spark that maybe, just maybe, the women we love will be able to get out of this hellscape once and for all? Yes. Even knowing how things have gone before, yes.
Read on for the highlights of “Milk.”
GOT MILK? | Immediately after the train kills Alma and Brianna, Janine is in denial, wondering if any of the handmaids got out alive. June quickly makes it clear that they’re the only survivors, and they’ve got to keep moving west, following the railroad tracks. “And we’re gonna be OK,” June assures her.
At a depot, they see Gilead soldiers packing a supply train for the front. “Chicago is still Chicago,” June reminds June (and us). “They’re not giving up.” Though Janine is deeply hesitant (“People die in wars!”), she and June climb up onto a tanker car and hop in through the open hatch… straight into a giant quantity of milk. They hide under the surface as a soldier locks down the hatch, and then the milk starts shakin’ as the train begins moving. June realizes she’s got to find a drain soon, so she does; eventually, almost all of the white stuff has bled out of the tank’s underside, leaving June and Janine sopped and shivering but no longer in danger of drowning.
Throughout, June has a vague plan that they’re going to get to the front and find Mayday, who will help them. And if that sounds fuzzy to you, you’re not alone: Janine presses June until she admits that she has no idea how to actually make any of that happen. Janine gets angrier, and she’s cold and tired, so she goes for the big blow: At the farm, she makes sure June knows, Alma was the one who told everyone they were going to wait for June — and it wound up getting them caught. “They all loved you. Like, a real, real love,” Janine says of the dead handmaids. “Did you tell the Eyes where to find us?” And then June has to admit that she did, but it was because her torturers had Hannah, and “you would’ve done the same thing.”
Janine isn’t buying this. “Maybe I would’ve done something better, something smarter,” she retorts. June shoots back that Janine would’ve done something stupid and dangerous. Then Janine points out, in perhaps the most perfect line reading of the episode, that what they’re currently doing is stupid and dangerous: “We’re going to the front of a war in a refrigerator!”
The argument — which is a gorgeous piece of work by both Moss and Brewer — ends with Janine proclaiming that June is responsible for the deaths of the other runaway handmaids. “I should have left you a long time ago,” June spits back.
EVERY LITTLE THING IS GONNA BE ALL RIGHT | Let’s go from one scene that makes you ache to another that makes you ache in a whole different way! In a flashback to Janine’s pre-Gilead life, we watch as she attempts to get an abortion but is shut down by a clinic volunteer who tries — in graphic detail, with false information and with a mounting sense of urgency — to talk her out of the procedure. “All women regret doing this, Janine,” the volunteer lies, then bucks her up by saying she’s smart and would be a great mom. “You have no idea how much you would love this baby,” she says, adding, oh, by the way, they don’t even perform abortions at this particular facility. (Furious side note: The sad truth is that this happens all the time in the United States, in places just like this, today, and Gilead is NOT on the rise.) Upset and confused, Janine leaves, still pregnant.
I think we’re supposed to believe that Janine was trying to end the pregnancy that eventually became her son, Caleb, whom we’ve heard about before. But in a scene in her apartment that evening, we see that Caleb has been born and is a toddler at this point — and Janine is a really good mom to him. She’s holding things down, working at Denny’s, and clearly so in love with her little boy as she sings him Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” before bed. This new pregnancy, as she told the volunteer, resulted from sex with someone she’s not attached to, and would be a bad idea for everyone involved.
The thing is: Every time we think that Janine isn’t going to have the wherewithal to do what needs to be done, she does. In the next scene, she finds an actual doctor who is an actual good person willing to tell her the truth about the procedure she’s contemplating. When Janine still wants to go through with it, the doc hands her some pills for a chemical abortion, explains what will happen, and that’s that.
‘HE THINKS MY EYE PATCH IS COOL’ | Back in the present, June and Janine’s ride ends when the train comes under attack. Though Janine is scared, June points out that it’s a good thing: “If they’re attacking a Gilead train, it’s not Gilead.” When they get out, they see a small, armed group of people ransacking the train and taking its supplies. There are dead Gilead soldiers everywhere.
A woman with a machine gun eyes the handmaids warily and calls for the group’s leader, who is named Steven and who doesn’t want to take Janine and June — in their scarlet robes and white caps — back to the hideout. “They’re walking targets,” he says, wondering if he can even believe that they’re actually refugees and not some kind of Gilead spies. Meanwhile, Janine is like, um, maybe these people aren’t Mayday? “They’re on our side, and you’re coming,” June says definitively.
As it turns out, Janine is right. The group that attacked the train is composed of people fighting Gilead in the Windy City, but they have never heard of Mayday and aren’t very interested in learning more. And if the handmaids want to stay with the collective, one of them has to have sex with Steven. “It’s what you’ve got,” he explains matter-of-factly. “Nothing is free here.” June volunteers in order to spare Janine, but when she kneels in front of him and he unzips his pants, she’s shaking and crying. “Guess you’re used to this,” he says — by the way, I hate him with the force of a thousand burning suns — but adds that he’s not going to force her… but they can’t stay otherwise.
June doesn’t go through with it and announces to Janine that they’re leaving, but Janine has other thoughts about that. She does what Steven asks and doesn’t seem very bothered — and certainly not broken — by it. “We can stay. It wasn’t so bad,” she tells a surprised June, handing her a piece of bread. “He thinks my eye patch is cool.”
‘LIKE MY OLD NISSAN ULTIMA’ | When Moira lets Rita know that Serena has requested a visit, the former martha doesn’t know what to think. In her deposition, “I told them everything. I’m sure she’s furious,” she says. But, because old habits traumas die hard, she goes and even calls Serena “Ma’am.” Rita seems genuinely happy as Serena reveals her pregnant belly and shows off her ultrasound, attributing the procreative success to “Gilead’s clean air, clean water and God’s grace.” She announces that the baby is a boy, and that she hasn’t told Fred about the pregnancy “and I don’t intend to.”
Throughout, Serena assumes that Rita will help her care for the boy after he arrives, and she pours it on thick, saying that Rita was “always such a blessing” and giving her the ultrasound printout “so you can look at him whenever you want.” She even refers to Rita as “a friend,” and the two pray together.
The reason behind all of Serena’s sweetness becomes evident when Mark Tuello drops off some interview prep materials from Mrs. Waterford’s defense attorney: She wants Rita to testify that whatever Serena did to June during June’s pregnancy was under extreme duress. “She wants me to blame the commander,” Rita flatly surmises, remembering how she was the Waterfords’ property under Gilead’s regime, “registered and everything, like my old Nissan Ultima.”
When Rita later meets with Fred, she’s got no time and even fewer effs to give. When he mentions that it’s nice to see a friendly face, she replies, “We’re not friends.” And then she makes it clear that she’s not going to be batted around by the Waterfords like a ball of yarn between two very nasty cats. “You deal with your family. It’s not my job anymore, and I thank God for that every day,” she says. And when he counters that he was “never cruel to you,” she’s done. “I’ll pray for your son,” she says in parting, leaving him with the ultrasound printout and a “HUH?” look all over his stupid face.
At the end of the hour, we see Rita sitting in the sun at her apartment, eating the most un-Gilead meal you could ever have: sushi and a diet soda. It’s gorgeous.
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the episode? Sound off in the comments!