From the start, The Handmaid’s Tale has been an exercise in weathering misery.
Like all good dystopian stories, it paints a grim picture of a future, albeit one predicated on the suffering of women — the infertile commander’s wives forbidden from reading, the Handmaids forced into non-consensual sex, the Marthas bound to a life of domestic servitude. “Hard to watch” doesn’t quite do it justice.
And then came the Season 3 finale, in which June scored an enormous victory for the fight against Gilead. Gunshot wound notwithstanding, it looked like June would finally get a reprieve from this life. Sadly, the first three episodes of the newly-launched Season 4 — especially Episode 3 — prove June’s suffering is far from over, and neither is the audience’s.
Major spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 episodes 1 - 3 are ahead.
Trigger warning: discussions of rape, torture, and PTSD are ahead. Read with caution.
The first thing you need to know about The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 is that it is difficult to watch. That’s not new, of course. Confronting the harsh realities of Gilead is part of the Handmaid’s viewing experience. Just like June, we have to survive horrible experiences driven by the hope that she’ll be reunited with her husband and daughter again. Like June says in the show’s pilot, we intend to survive.
But at what point does that violence go from “cautionary tale” to “torture porn?” For me, the answer is Season 4, Episode 3.
Directed by Elisabeth Moss herself, Episode 3, called “The Crossing,” focuses on June, once again in Gilead’s captivity. The forces of Gilead are pressing her to give up the location of five other handmaids who are hidden in a barn. She refuses to reveal anything, outwardly speaking out against Aunt Lydia and the lieutenant who is tasked with making her talk.
This lieutenant’s methods are brutal, to say the least. He leads a group prayer before waterboarding June with what presumably is holy water, all while Aunt Lydia quietly embroiders in another room.
Later, June confronts Lydia, telling her, “You told those girls if they followed the rules, they would be okay. And then you sent them out to be raped and beaten, over and over and over.” This earns June another visit from the lieutenant, who begins to pull out her fingernail with pliers before being stopped by June, who feeds them false info.
The torture never lets up. June is forced to watch as the lieutenant executes two handmaids, pushing them from a roof. At one point, the Gilead forces lock June inside a box, locked within a prison cell. Finally, she’s faced with the single worst punishment you could give a mother: bringing her face-to-face with her daughter Hannah, who not only doesn’t recognize June, but is actively afraid of her own mother.
That kind of psychological torture is enough to get June to crack and reveal where the other handmaids are located. What’s more, it’s clear that June’s experience of being around the person she loves most — her daughter — only to suffer such extreme rejection will have brutal consequences on the Handmaid’s protagonist moving forward. Those consequences are already here, as June tells Aunt Lydia she’s ready to die, for all of her suffering to end.
Of course, there’s still more suffering ahead.
After the torture, June and her fellow handmaids are sent to a labor colony. Before they arrive, however, the handmaids rebel against Aunt Lydia and take an opportunity to run free. But the hope for their survival is short-lived. All of these handmaids except for June and Janine die: one is shot, and two are run over by a train. June and Janine are barely able to get back on their feet and continue running for their lives, let alone the viewers, left breathless and traumatized in our own right.
It’s a tremendously brutal episode to behold, and one that creator Bruce Miller tells Inverse was not taken lightly. Miller says he and his fellow writers “tried to be thoughtful, respectful, and realistic” about the events depicted in Episode 3, leaning on experts who advised the creatives in how someone like June would respond to Gilead’s torturous tactics.
“I don't know if June acted in a way I would have predicted in some ways,” says Miller. “Those are the things we found out from talking to the real people. You need to be realistic about what you can get in your own head and how far you can push yourself in your imagination and knowing when to go to an expert.”
In terms of realistic expectations, The Handmaid’s Tale has always wrestled with a difficult premise. If June gets what she wants (namely, saving her daughter from Gilead, and getting out of the totalitarian nation safely), then there’s nowhere else for the show to go.
So, can June get what she wants at the end of this season? Considering the show’s already been greenlit for a fifth season, it’s looking very unlikely — and if her struggle continues to come with the level of brutality featured in this most recent string of episodes, it’s only going to get harder to want to watch.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 is now streaming on Hulu.