I I’m not sure if “enjoy” is the right word in relation to watching The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4). It has been, at various times over the past three seasons, a heartbreaking job or an extremely heartbreaking job. But at its best, it is an impressive and inventive drama that presses unfamiliar buttons with great skill. It had a magnificent and haunting first season, largely sticking to the plot of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel, but then struggling under the weight of its own misery. June (Elisabeth Moss) escaped from Gilead and was captured, ad infinitum, which made her feel like a hideous hall of mirrors in which hope was meaningless. It made me wonder if keeping looking was useless too. But a drift into global politics gave him a chance for new life, and season four continues to explore new ground. I needed it and it works.
The lengthy summary at the beginning is helpful, given that the pandemic delayed production. According to his showrunner, Bruce Miller, the logistics of filming in Canada also had a direct effect on the setting of the story. June organized a cohort of rebels, assembling an underground network of Marthas and Handmaids, to smuggle 86 children out of Gilead, saving them from life under a brutal regime. The Waterfords have been arrested by the Canadian government and are in captivity, but by the end of season three, it seemed June had run out of luck. Still, without her, this is Handmaids’ Tales, rather than The Tale of the maid. If the question is how much more a woman can take, the answer comes quickly: Without anesthesia, Janine cauterizes the shotgun wound to June’s abdomen with a red-hot poker. Welcome to the fourth season.
Moss portrays June’s transformation from a victim of the regime to the Boudicca of the rebellious Maidens with all the experience one would expect from such a fine actor. She is very good at showing what pain can do to a character, in the slightest of movements and gestures. In this opening episode, June is broken and battered, nearly dying on her journey to a Mayday safe house in Massachusetts. As he recovers, wondering if hiding out on a semi-pleasant rural farm could be the greatest freedom he can hope to find now, he meets a wife of 14 years named Ms. Keyes. For a time, the teenager seems like some kind of crazy monarch, a Joffrey-like monster whose sympathetic attitude toward the rebels cannot be trusted. But soon, the truth about her reveals that like everyone else in this series, she has truly suffered and has put all her hope in June and Mayday.
As those who have stayed with The Handmaid’s Tale will know, hope is a precarious state here, at best. But June has become someone very different from the Offred of previous episodes, taking on some of the cruelties that were inflicted on her. There’s a well-executed nod, so to speak, to Gilead’s stakes, as Ms. Keyes and June turn into a mother-daughter revenge team of sorts, though that makes it sound more cartoonish than it sounds. “I’m a little scared of him, to be honest,” says Mr. Keyes, an old, drunk, pathetic mess. “You should be,” says June, who is considering raising the knife against him herself. It’s not particularly subtle, but it’s certainly satisfying to watch Ms. Keyes seek revenge. And then add a note of subtlety, anyway: is cruelty ever justified? It’s an open question, not a laborious one, just left to linger.
Equally satisfying is the moment the Waterfords learn that June is responsible for bringing the children to Toronto. “This will start a war,” warns Waterford, Joseph Fiennes’ commander, still as slippery as ever, even in captivity. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is desperate for her own reunion with June, having been beaten and imprisoned by a council that makes Handforth’s parish council seem calm, even though Gilead’s diminishing power (and the need for her to stay in history) means you will soon return to your post. Fans of The Testaments, Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, are sure to wonder if any of Aunt Lydia’s story will begin to emerge.
This is still a big, bold and daring show. It’s shot as a music video and filled with expensive classic songs, by Carole King and Aretha Franklin, set in hideously horrible scenes. It never felt like style over substance, exactly, but for a while, it was hard to love a drama that only produced misery and pain. Fortunately, June’s adventures in Rebel Land have reignited the spark and given viewers something – and someone – to support. However, after all that suffering, the tension now lies in figuring out what kind of heroin we have left.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism