Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is riveting and upsetting not just because it depicts the gruesome and torturous rapes and maiming of women held hostage by a fundamentalist government—but because all of these crimes were based on actual events in our history.
Premiering while American progressives were still donning pink pussy hats and marching in the streets in response to Donald Trump’s 2017 presidential inauguration, creator Bruce Miller’s televised adaptation of Atwood’s dystopian story represented a warning cry: that all the Canadian author wrote about was about to come true. Myself and others who voted for Hillary Clinton found ourselves huddled on our couches, recoiling at any breaking news push notification that came across our phones while pointing at our TVs like real-life Leonardo DiCaprio.GIF memes. See that! We’re not that far away from a world where Elisabeth Moss’s heroine, June, is ripped from her family and ritualistically raped by religious zealots! Spend all your time on the civic action site 5calls.org, or you could have your clitoris removed like Alexis Bledel’s Emily! Post incessantly on social media about LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms, lest you get labeled a gender traitor and murdered or rounded up for exile like Moira’s (Samira Wiley) partner, (Rebecca Rittenhouse)!
The adrenaline and the anxiety were high and I, personally, gave up trying to watch the show before bedtime.
Now, after the real America has seen an administration change, a pandemic, and an on-going reckoning for disgusting and abusive men, the fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale will premiere April 28 on Hulu. And, like any long-running horror series, it has upped the ante of jump scares and torture porn for an audience already numb and exhausted by the travesties happening around them.
The season opens with last year’s cliffhanger. That was when June, having seemingly sacrificed herself by serving as a distraction, liberated a plane full of children and caregivers out of the totalitarian government formerly known as part of America’s Northeastern states, and now called Gilead. The passengers landed free and safely in Canada, but June is bleeding from the gut after a gunshot wound, lying next to the body of the soldier she killed in that skirmish. Now, she is carried—dutifully, awkwardly, as quietly as possible—by her flock of followers; handmaids who, like her, stayed behind in Gilead to risk their lives fighting the good fight.
Just as Caitriona Balfe’s Claire in Starz’s Outlander is the very perfect person to travel back in time due to her knowledge of more modern medicine and her studies of ancient treatments, June’s companions have just the right connections and surgical know-how to eventually get them all to a safe house where she can recuperate and they can watch over her and await her instructions.
The idea of June being these oppressed womens’ only hope for freedom has been brewing for a while. Last season, she literally stood at the foot of what remained of Abraham Lincoln’s statue in Washington, D.C. and gazed up at The Great Emancipator’s now-faceless head while seemingly asking for guidance.
But, this season, June’s getting cocky. She puts more peoples’ lives in danger just so she can prove her point and maybe take down a few more of Gilead’s elite in the process. She is seething with anger and has every right to be. She still represents our actual world of women who are sick of being attacked and manipulated and hurt and abused. And it can be cathartic to watch her fight back either with words or actions.
But her rage and willingness to put bloodshed over a well-considered escape plan doesn’t make her a role model; it feeds into the idea that Gilead has seeped into the soul of someone who once was simply a happy wife, mother, friend, and book editor. In the first episode, “Pigs” (which is written by Miller and directed by the show’s cinematographer, Colin Watkinson), June, still injured and limping, unleashes her minions onto a Gilead soldier who’d drunkenly stumbled onto their safe house. He’s gored and ripped apart as he represents all the people who have hurt them.
This scene, and others throughout the season, are a clear reference to the series’ pilot and the power trip of Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia. That woman, who always maintained that she had her “girls’” best interests at heart, controlled June and her fellow handmaids with the threat of her cattle prod and other torture devices so strong that she could force them to rise up and stone a strange man to death.
June is the captain now.
But, as the fourth season moves along, so do plot similarities to past seasons and repetitions. Captures happen. Tortures happen. People die; sometimes because of June and sometimes not. And yet, at least as far as the eight episodes released to the press suggest, June survives with only some battle scars. Although plenty of the real-world dangers that fans related to Handmaid’s Tale during the first season still exist, the show itself throws out increasingly preposterous hurdles for June to easily clear with bewildering agility. Therefore, much of the fear factor is lost.
This isn’t to say that everything about the fourth season of Handmaid’s Tale is bad. The directing is still beautifully shot with its murky Monet-like color palette of teals, reds, grays, and browns. A unique partnership between creative camera angles and production design can make it seem like the white handmaid’s bonnet haunts many of June’s actions. Moss, with her stiff upper lip and watery blue eyes, is still one of the finest actresses this side of Meryl Streep, and it’s a testament to her talents that she can methodically release June’s rage in a controlled manner instead of exploding in primal scream after scream. There’s an excellent subplot regarding Rita (Amanda Brugel)—who was a “Martha,” or imprisoned housekeeper, back in Gilead—who is now free in Canada to make a life for herself where she doesn’t have to cook, clean, and pick up after others. Her process of realizing her family members are probably dead and still have enough faith to say a prayer before eating takeout sushi and a Diet Coke is healing. So is wondering what’s up with the long con played by the currently imprisoned—and once manipulative and nefarious Gilead wife—Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski).
It also works when Handmaid’s Tale pokes fun at itself. “She gave me her baby and stayed behind. Who does that?” Emily remarks to Moira about June in this season’s second episode, mocking the absurdity of the predicament that started the third season. That either of these two women—or that the baby Emily took with her, Nichole—even survived their own harrowing and unpredictable trek to Canada in the first place are remarkable strokes of luck.
Which brings me to a new hypothesis for the series. Atwood’s book ends with its own cliffhanger: that the story of the woman we call June was found after the destruction of Gilead, and is now being read at a historical conference in the year 2195. No one knows for certain what happened to her, or even her real name (she’s just referred to as “Offred” in the book, which is taken to mean that she might have been the property “of” Fred Waterford, Joseph Fiennes’ character in the show). Optimistic readers believe she plays a small part in Atwood’s 2019 sequel, The Testaments, which came out after the series was a hit.
In this sequence of events, June is famous. She has been on television for the world to see, standing muted next to the Waterfords as Gilead attempts to construct the illusion that they are all there by choice. Now on the run after helping so many escape, she is Public Enemy Number One in Gilead, but is probably also the face of a meme and on numerous T-shirts in the rest of the world. So is June actually a heroine who didn’t know what she was capable of until she was put in a dire situation? Or is all of this a coping mechanism, or maybe even a fever dream, as she is held captive and doesn’t know if or how she will survive?
Handmaid’s Tale has already been renewed for another season, so there’s still time to find out.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 premieres April 28th on Hulu.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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