We really, really need to talk about Esther in The Handmaid’s Tale

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the season four premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale, so do not proceed unless you are fully up-to-date with the Channel 4 show. 

Blessed be the fruit, because the much-anticipated fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale has finally, finally, finally aired in the UK. And, just as longtime viewers of the drama have been hoping, the Channel 4 series picked up where season three left off; June (Elisabeth Moss) has been shot following her daring attempt to smuggle 86 children and nine Marthas out of Gilead and onto a plane to Canada.

Unsurprisingly, it seems  that it’ll take more than a pesky bullet to stop the seemingly invincible June; in tonight’s episode, we watch as her fellow Handmaids – led by Alma (Nina Kiri) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) – fight to keep the figurehead of their revolution alive.

“Are you ready?” they ask her, as they prepare to cauterise her bleeding gunshot wound.

“No,” she pleads faintly, but they press the red-hot instrument against her anyway. 

Channel 4 boxsets: The Handmaid’s Tale.

It’s a grim scene, and it serves as a message to all of us tuning in; while we might think we’re ready for the pain of Margaret Atwood’s bleak dystopian future, especially after waiting two years for these episodes to finally drop, nothing can prepare us for the horrors that showrunner Bruce Miller has in store for us. Nothing.

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Once June is stabilised, our heroes flee to a Mayday safe house – and, despite barely being able to stand (let alone walk), June insists on leading the way and making sure the isolated farm is truly safe for her fellow Handmaids to enter. Thankfully, it is (by Gilead standards, at least), and they quickly swap their red habits for the anonymous green shrouds of the Marthas.

Throughout the course of the episode, it becomes all too apparent that there is more to our hosts – the senile Commander Keyes (Bill MacDonald) and his 14-year-old bride, Esther (Mckenna Grace) – than meets the eye. And not just because Esther, clearly in control of this strange relationship, is so feverishly excited to meet June. 

Esther declares herself the “mistress of the house” in the season four premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Here, Stylist’s digital editor-at-large Kayleigh Dray does her best to unravel all of the episode’s biggest revelations (and the questions we’re left with as a result).

Why does June encourage Esther to commit murder?

Esther’s story might be one of the darkest we’ve yet seen in The Handmaid’s Tale, as we learn that the child bride’s husband has invited multiple men to his house and had them rape her in order to conceive a child.

One of those men, a Guardian, is caught loitering around the farmhouse – and June has him chained to the barn’s rafters, before giving us her best Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) impression and whipping her fellow Handmaids up into a state of vengeful fury.

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June, though, doesn’t deliver the final blow; instead, she hands a cleaver to Esther and encourages the 14-year-old to murder her own rapist, which the teenager does with nary a second thought.

It’s a frightening moment, and one which may give many viewers pause; has June, in mirroring the punishments and tactics of Gilead, become too similar to the enemy she has fought so hard to defeat? Quite possibly. However, one could argue that, by having a Wife kill a Guardian, our hero is helping to turn the future of Gilead against it from within; after all, she is, essentially, encouraging the snake to eat its own tail.


Why does June tell Esther that she loves her? And why does she refer to her as ‘Banana’?

Later in the episode, Esther – previously furious with June for not doing more to fight Gilead – slips into bed alongside the older woman and whispers that she loves her. June, delirious with pain, replies, “I love you too, Banana.”

You can remind yourself of this key moment by watching the scene below:

Now ‘Banana’, as fans of the show will no doubt remember, is the affectionate nickname that June uses for her actual daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake). And, while it’s easy to assume that this moment in the show is all down to a feverish hallucination on June’s behalf, it goes deeper than that. 

Why? Well, because June is no longer just a mother to the little girl she loves – the little girl who is still trapped in Gilead and being forced to do god knows what; she’s also a symbolic mother to every Handmaid, every Martha, every girl born into Gilead. And she sees it as her duty to rescue all of them from this tyrannical and misogynist society, if it’s the last thing she does.

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On that note, then… is the show setting us up for a world without June?

Oh yes, I know what I said before; June is seemingly invincible (and very bad at escaping). However, and it’s a big however, she’s no longer the Handmaid of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Don’t believe me? All you need to do is listen to how Esther talks to her, and watch how her fellow Handmaids treat her, and it becomes abundantly clear that June has transformed into something far bigger than herself.

To Gilead’s rulers, she is the criminal who stole 86 children from them. To everyone else, she has – much like real life Argentine Marxist rebel Che Guevara – become a generic symbol of the underdog, the idealist, the mother, and the revolutionary hero. Or, as author Michael Casey notes in Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy Of An Image, “the quintessential postmodern icon signifying anything to anyone and everything to everyone.”

The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 will see June deal with the aftermath of the ‘Angel Flight’ at the end of season 3.

Essentially, she’s become bigger than herself and the story she’s weaving. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that June is (whisper it) destined to die a martyr – although, to be perfectly honest, she’s going the right way about it if she wants to. Rather, it means that she needs to be removed from the narrative within Gilead in order to a) make room for some new heroes, b) remind her fellow Handmaids and Marthas that they do not need to be led into battle by anyone, and c) regain some sense of humanity.

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Thankfully, the trailer for this season has dropped a heavy hint (or five) that this is The Handmaid’s Tale stint that will see June finally reach Canada. Praise be, let it be true.

And is Aunt Lydia being set up as our new hero?

We often assume that the Aunts of Gilead are ‘safe’ from the regime’s cruelty, but the season four opener reminded us that this is not the case. At all. Indeed, when Aunt Lydia was called to speak with the Sons of Jacob, she bore obvious signs of torture from her interrogation by the Eyes. 

Aunt Lydia has always been one of The Handmaid’s Tale’s biggest villains, but is all that about to change?

Outwardly, she blamed June for everything that’s gone wrong, defending all the other Handmaids and insisting they not be blamed for our revolutionary’s transgressions. Outwardly, she promised to do her job well, and was allowed the chance to do so by the Sons.

Inwardly, though? Well, Lydia’s disdain for the Sons positively sizzled beneath the surface, and her humility in their presence felt… well, it felt horribly forced. And (spoilers ahead for The Testaments) it’s worth remembering that Atwood’s much-anticipated sequel to her original book shows us a very different side to Lydia, revealing that she is a source for Mayday in Canada, smuggling damaging information out of the country in order to bring about Gilead’s destruction.

Could it be that The Handmaid’s Tale is setting Lydia up on this same trajectory? We could use another antihero, after all…

The Handmaid’s Tale will continue on Sunday 27 June at 9pm on Channel 4.

Season one to three are available to stream via All 4.

Images: Channel 4/Hulu

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