The below features our first thoughts on The Handmaid's Tale. Weekly reviews will follow.
It is hard to find hope in Gilead, but after three seasons of plotting by Mayday on The Handmaid’s Tale, the resistance faction in the country formally known as the United States of America finally struck a major blow to the oppressive regime. June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) is the face of this operation that saw a plane filled with 86 children and nine Marthas land on Canadian soil in the Season 3 finale: June is now Public Enemy Number One for this act of sabotage. A victory that robbed Gilead of its most precious commodity is going to be met with swift action and if you thought that happy ending would result in a reprieve from the long list of punishing tactics then think again. Not to mention, June was also shot during this flight for freedom and the handmaids who accompanied her during this risky mission are also on the “most wanted” list. How long will before they are back in service of the Commanders?
Debuting in the spring of 2017, Bruce Miller’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale entered the world at a particularly fraught time. Season 4 was meant to debut last fall, but like many other productions, the release was delayed by the global pandemic and the subsequent production shutdown. Despite the fact that Margaret Atwood’s book came out in 1985, the parallels to the present-day are stark and it has often felt like we have been living in a dystopia. While there has been a change in administration, problems persist and in a year when comfort has been found in our TV choices, it is understandable why the unrelenting challenges faced by June et all might not appeal. However, after new and diabolical punishments were unleashed on the handmaids in Season 3, the cyclical nature of June’s existence is broken in the fourth season. This isn’t to say there aren’t ritualistic ceremonies that weigh heavily or shocking scenes that will leave you wondering if there wasn’t another way, but there is a fraction of light at the end of the tunnel.
This is not June’s first attempt at escaping and viewers have become accustomed to this particular back-and-forth too. The trailers and images released hint at the fate that awaits our protagonist, but barely scratch the surface of how she gets there. The red handmaid uniform is a flashing beacon on the snow-covered landscape that paints a beautiful image but they might as well surrender if they don’t shed those familiar clothes soon. Each color-coded ensemble strips a person of their identity and the garments as established by costume designer Ane Crabtree in the first season also have a real-world legacy too. In Season 4, Schitt’s Creek’s award-winning designer Debra Hanson takes the costume reigns from Natalie Bronfman, and while this is a major shift from the Rose family's high-end sartorial armor, there are some interesting new additions including an accidentally on-trend face mask — which Moss teased last summer. Taking away someone's voice is paramount in stopping the message from being spread.
Freedom is at stake, not just for June, but all that come into contact with her and she has become a divisive face in the resistance network. She is a radioactive figurehead and there is an awareness that if you become embroiled in one of her schemes then you will end up dead. It is hardly surprising that those who are part of this network are not psyched to be in her company and her infamy is both a help and hindrance to the cause. She is Gilead’s greatest thorn and the protection she gets from her womb can only last so long. June’s stubborn streak is an asset to her survival but she isn’t always a great team player and The Handmaid’s Tale is better for highlighting her blind spots. Miller has made it clear that this is June’s story, referring to her voiceover as a memoir; everything we see in other parts of Gilead or Canada is information she has (or will have) access to. This limits the scope of the series, but the world has opened up, including the trip to Washington DC last season that delivered potent imagery at the vandalized Lincoln Memorial.
Images of circles repeat throughout and this formation reflects the cyclical nature of this society. One of last season’s most unpleasant and hard-to-parse storylines involved June kneeling at the foot of pregnant (and braindead) handmaid Natalie (Ashleigh LaThorp) who was shot in an incident at the market. While in forced prayer, June witnessed young girls in pink coming to the hospital to monitor their menstrual cycle (and fertility) and she realized that a whole new generation is about to become the next handmaids, wives, and Marthas. Staying behind to save her daughter Hannah was the original motivation, but the plan expanded to put an end to the barbaric treatment of women’s bodies in the name of God and procreation. It is already too late for some, as Season 4 reveals, and guest star McKenna Grace paints a haunting picture that cuts to the core.
Challenging the power structure from within has been a common theme throughout, but a monumental change came courtesy of Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy Waterford’s (Yvonne Strahovski) arrest for war crimes in Canada. This shift in circumstances gives this already difficult dynamic a new perspective and Strahovski continues to shine as the complicit co-conspirator — it is impossible to feel sympathy for this architect of so much pain. In past years, the sanctuary of this country has threaded through the overarching Gilead tale but with more characters crossing the border the time spent in the relative normalcy of this country expands. One drawback of all the different threads and locations dangled this season is characters who are not June don’t always get enough screentime, though this is what happens when the cast is as rich as this one. Thankfully, Moira’s (Samira Wiley) role deepens as she helps fellow survivors adjust to their physical freedom, and Luke (O-T Fagbenle) delivers some strong emotional scenes as he grapples with his wife’s fate. There are unavoidable dropped storylines caused by COVID filming restrictions and Miller pointed out during the TCA panel in February that guest stars including Clea DuVall are absent.
There is also the matter of Nick Blaine (Max Minghella) who finally makes a return from the Chicago wilderness and his role in the current military hierarchy is another question raised. Nick began as the Waterford driver and was initially forced by Serena to engage in an off-books version of the ceremony to aid June’s pregnancy attempts. Falling in love was never the plan, but even in Gilead, the heart can find space for desire. Nick’s last appearance came midway through Season 3 (Miller explained other scenes with Nick were cut) when June pleaded with him to tell the Swiss the truth about the Waterfords:
This is your one chance. This is it. This is your chance to be a father to our daughter. How many of those do you think you're gonna get?
Nick did not follow through and this thread was left dangling. So who is Commander Nick Blaine? We know he has been on the side of the resistance and a soldier who helped in the early days of Gilead. He is both on the right and wrong side of history and has somehow not got caught aiding (or smooching) June. They are not particularly subtle when it comes to keeping their love story quiet and yet he still has a position of great power. At times it is hard to know if this is all by design or whether his luck is a plot hole. It is good to see Nick again but he remains an enigma beyond his inability to let June go. Additionally, Bradley Whitford’s charismatic (and problematic) Commander Lawrence is a tricksy character when it comes to motivation. And while you definitely cannot question where Aunt Lydia’s (Ann Dowd) loyalty lies, her position might not be as stable as she thinks it is. As with Serena, it is hard to feel sorry for a character who takes pleasure in dishing out punishment, but Dowd consistently stands out — she has a fun foil later in the season too.
Meanwhile, June continues to get pulled in multiple directions and while some of her choices are frustrating, Elisabeth Moss always delivers a searing performance that reminds you why her shelf is weighed down with awards. Even when you want to look away from the horrors unfolding, Moss makes it hard to disengage. The actress is also taking on a new role this season, in which she directs three episodes — including the action-packed third episode. This is quite an achievement considering how much time she is on camera.
Already renewed for Season 5, the episodes made available feel like a bridge that is gearing up for the endgame. No longer spinning its wheels, The Handmaid’s Tale is still a tough watch but one that is finally paying off.
Season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale begins Wednesday, April 28 on Hulu with the first three episodes (subsequent episodes will air weekly).
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