Editor’s Note: This review of Season 4 of THE HANDMAID’S TALE is mostly spoiler-free.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE is like that guest at a dinner party who tells the same stories over and over again, just with a slightly new polish with each retelling. It’s that guest who can’t or refuses to read the room, who has nothing new to say, and who lingers long after everyone else has left. Nobody finds their party tricks novel or exciting anymore, yet the guest continues, unaware everyone has stopped paying attention.
The fourth season, which returned April 28 on Hulu, picks up right after June’s shot while successfully smuggling 86 children out of Gilead. Janine and the rest of the handmaids are doing everything they can to keep June alive. They’re able to make it to a farm, run by a child-bride, that has promised to hide them from Gilead’s council. Here, June, with her knack for coming away from every rebellion relatively unscathed, recovers. Eventually, like always, she’s re-captured. And because this series rarely passes up a chance to show gratuitous violence inflicted on women, June is physically and psychologically tortured once more. The endless cycle of ‘rebellion, capture, and torture’ continues.
Recycled storylines and beats run through the first eight episodes. There are those familiar showdowns between Aunt Lydia and June, where each taunts the other with half-truths they know will cut deep.
Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Fred repeat their pattern of fighting and reuniting; and once again, what started with betrayal, ends with Serena Joy standing by her husband’s side — for now. Also, as one would expect, Elizabeth Moss’s unflinching glares into the camera feature prominently again this season, and the series is still unwilling to give up its on-the-nose music cues (episode 1 opens with Aretha Franklin’s version of “I Say a Little Prayer”).
A scene in episode 5 features a cover of Coldplay’s “I Will Fix You,” and I really wish showrunner Bruce Miller and company had taken the lyrics, “When you’re too in love to let it go, but if you never try, you’ll never know,” to heart, because if they had, the series might have been better for it. (Coldplay’s much-maligned music, actually improving matters, is not a sentence I thought I’d ever write).
Miller also sticks with his decision to tell the story from solely June’s point-of-view.
Following the season 3 finale, Miller sat down with Harper’s Bazaar and said the show would always be told from June’s limited perspective. He argued it made the series scarier since it reflects an aspect of how Gilead and real totalitarian governments work.
“When I read books about the beginning of Nazi Germany, all of a sudden there was no news coming from the outside, and your perspective completely changes in a time where you don’t know anything except what’s in the government-run newspaper,” Miller told the magazine.
I understand what Miller is trying to do, but having only June’s point-of-view limits the series’ potential. We catch brief glimpses of Moira in a new relationship, Luke dealing with June’s decision to stay in Gilead, and Emily (Alexis Bledel) grappling with whether or not to forgive an Aunt, but glimpses are all we get. While Rita finally gets something different to do this season, she’s mostly relegated to helping others and moving Serena’s story along. Not taking the opportunity to explore other characters and parts of Gilead, is even more disappointing when you consider nothing actually happens this season —at least not until episode 6, where much-anticipated events finally begin to transpire.
Season 4 does have moments that intrigue me, like the scenes with the Gilead survival group run by Moira or seeing Janine before she became a handmaid. There are also many touching moments in the latter half of the show that I won’t spoil for you.
As the series has made June increasingly indestructible and consumed with vengeance, it was nice to finally see it address the devastation she constantly leaves in her wake. Throughout this season, characters pointed out June’s flaws and failings, from Janine saying she’s too pushy to one Martha telling Nick “everyone that helps her ends up on the fucking wall.” Yet, by episode 8, what initially seemed like a clever way for the show to address the longstanding criticism of its main character, turns out to be another ploy to prove June has been right all along.
I hope, in the remaining two episodes, THE HANDMAID’S TALE can make the case that it has a substantial story left to tell in season 5. Perhaps it can become the rare dinner party guest, who stops being impressed by themselves long enough to read the room and win everyone back. But knowing the show’s history, it wouldn’t be a surprise if it remains stuck in its own way.
The first three episodes of Season 4 of THE HANDMAID’S TALE are now available on Hulu.
All images courtesy of Hulu.