The Handmaid’s Tale season four was much improved. It dismantled the God Complex that June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss) had spent most of season three building around herself, while finally acknowledging how much June’s trauma has damaged her. But even if things were better this time around, some of the Hulu series was still a letdown.
Season four takes place shortly after the season three finale when June helped dozens of children escape to Canada in a move that’s been deemed “Angel’s Flight.” June is riding the sweet high of sticking it to Gilead and starts behaving recklessly, putting her friends in danger to satisfy her thirst for revenge. Even though she’s determined to stay in Gilead until she can rescue her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), eventually she has to choose survival and (finally) flees to Canada. June and her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) struggle to pick up the pieces, but it’s not enough. The pending trial of her abuser Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes)—combined with the fact that his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is now pregnant—pushes June over the edge.
This isn’t damning with faint praise: I found season four of The Handmaid’s Tale to be a provocative look at post-traumatic stress disorder. But it wouldn’t have been hard for the series to turn things around after how season three ended. The creators turned June into a superhero, defying the laws of the show’s established world by doing whatever she wanted with little repercussion. Maybe that was on purpose, representing the unrealistic hope everyone had placed in her, but it often felt like the fantasy blurred with reality. There are still elements of that in season four, but overall this stretch of episodes was about June’s emotional scars—and what happens when we let our pain define us. Here’s a look at some of the highlights and lowlights from season four of The Handmaid’s Tale, which ended its 10-episode fourth season on Wednesday (this post contains spoilers through the season four finale, “The Wilderness”). The series has already been renewed for season five.
Yes, she did. Ceeeeeeeelebrate good times, come on! I had to start with the most obvious thing because the show bent over backward finding excuses to keep her in Gilead.
In short: Fantastic. June/Offred has always been the focal point of The Handmaid’s Tale—after all, it’s literally her tale. But Moss took things to the next level with season four. The veneer of Angel’s Flight Offred has shattered, and in its place is a traumatized woman who cannot (or will not) separate herself from the pain she’s endured. You see it when she beams with satisfaction as she convinces a Jezebel to poison a bunch of Gilead officers, or when she screams in Serena Joy’s face that God is going to take her baby away as punishment for all her past sins. It’s been grafted onto her bones and etched into the lines on her face. Moss has been with this character for several years, and you can tell she knows June to her core. It’s here we really see that connection coming to the forefront, with a performance that’s uncomfortable and unpredictable. Moss isn’t afraid to get right into the camera, spit flying from her mouth and her eyes rolling into the back of her head—almost possessed by her own damage. It’s not often we see actors letting themselves go the way Moss does here, and I feel that’s to be commended.
This season saw June “breaking bad,” morphing from a rebel leader into an obsessed vigilante. Things went wrong pretty quickly, starting with the season four premiere “Pigs,” but in a way it’s been building to this for years. I appreciated that season four of The Handmaid’s Tale cracked the veneer of Hero Offred and presented her emotional journey more candidly. A problem I had with season three was that June’s actions were filtered through a positive lens, which placed a specific spin on her actions. Some may view that as intentional, but I don’t. It felt more like Girl on Fire Syndrome than the writers playing a long game. After all, last season’s tagline was: “Blessed Be the Fight.”
Season four took that away and showed June reaping what she’d sown. June treated everyone around her as pawns. She got her friends hurt, even killed, and they had nothing to show for it other than small victories against a system that continues to overwhelm them. By the time she got to Canada, everyone connected to her was either captured or killed. The show isn’t telling us she’s the bad guy, but it’s no longer telling us she’s the good guy either. It’s stepping back and letting the audience decide whether we support her actions, all the way through that major season finale death.
Bye bitch. I think we were all ready to say goodbye to Fred Waterford a while ago. This was a bad dude. He was so obsessed with his own glory that he refused to recognize the harm he’s caused anyone else, including June herself. It’s not that he was incapable of shame—we saw snippets of him struggling to cope as interrogators asked him about the scores of women he and his comrades brutalized—it’s that he cut himself off from those feelings because the guilt that would ensue would be too much to bear. There was something grossly satisfying in watching Fred Waterford, who thought he was going to walk free after agreeing to collaborate with the U.S. government, slowly realize that things were over for him. I have mixed feelings about seeing June, Emily, and several other escaped handmaids chasing down Fred in the woods to beat him to death—as it’s answering violence with more violence—but you can’t deny that this was a long time coming.
A long-overdue break, for us and June. I think all of us were June Osborne when she took that first post-Gilead shower in a fancy hotel. There’s a bit of controversy over whether those conveniently placed bottles of L’Occitane shampoo and conditioner were product placement, but still.
That’s one of the biggest questions of the season, and the answer is as complicated as it needs to be. Much of season four takes place in Canada, before and after June’s escape. It’s there we spend time exploring just how much Gilead changes people—not just June, but all the people around her. It’s like the Hotel California of oppressive theocracies: you can check out, but you can never leave.
Every Gilead refugee represents a different aspect of trauma and recovery. Moira (Samira Wiley) is taking a therapeutic approach, believing that true strength comes in letting go of Gilead’s pull. Rita (Amanda Brugel) struggles with shaking off her role as a Martha, finding comfort in cooking, cleaning, and taking care of a freed child who wasn’t happy to leave the only life he’d ever known (even if it was built on a lie). Serena Joy employs an “ends justifies the means” tactic, pretending her pregnancy is proof that God’s cool with her abuse. And Emily’s (Alexis Bledel) answer is avoidance, telling everyone she’s “fine” even though we all know she’s screaming inside. There’s no right or wrong way to cope with trauma. Everyone is different, just as everyone’s trauma is different. The show doesn’t place a value judgment on how anybody in the series is coping with what Gilead did to them. It gives us a chance to absorb their actions and choices, and decide for ourselves how we feel about it... and what we’d do in their place.
Every character experienced growth this season, but two characters who got long-overdue development were Luke and Janine (Madeline Brewer). These are two people who are deeply connected to June, through her past and present, and with that comes joy and pain in equal measure. Fagbenle in particular was a powerhouse this season, making us feel every bit of Luke’s struggle to rekindle his relationship with a woman he barely recognizes anymore—and is in love with someone else. Janine stepped up as well, pushing back against June’s bullshit and Aunt Lydia’s manipulation (there are also hints she could become an Aunt herself). We even got a glimpse at Janine’s life pre-Gilead, when she was tricked into going to a Crisis Pregnancy Center, faux clinics that employ aggressive tactics to coerce pregnant people into keeping their fetuses. As someone who once interviewed a volunteer from one of those places for an article on sex education, I can tell you The Handmaid’s Tale was right on the money. Even if it felt a little on-the-nose at times. Spot-on.
Is there anything this actress can’t do? Mckenna Grace has played everyone from a young Sabrina Spellman on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to a ghostbuster in the upcoming Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Her turn on The Handmaid’s Tale is hard to watch but it’s remarkable. She takes on a 14-year-old commander’s wife named Esther helping the Mayday Resistance, and we learn that her much older husband has “shared” her with other commanders in an attempt to get her pregnant. You feel every bit of her fury, shame, and confusion in her performance, which is top-notch. Grace might be one of the greatest up-and-comers in film and television right now.
Episode eight, “Testimony,” centers around a pretrial hearing for Fred Waterford, who’s facing life in prison for crimes he committed in Gilead. June shows up to the courthouse to give testimony, which was filmed in a single shot with a mostly still camera and no cutaways. For several minutes, Moss details the years of sexual assault, abuse, and emotional trauma she suffered at the hands of the Waterfords. Once again, Moss’s performance in this scene is exemplary, and I found myself in tears as June shared her story on the podium. Not only was it evocative, it served as a general recap of the series up to this point, reminding me of things even I’d forgotten had happened to her. For example, how the Waterfords originally forbade her from seeing her daughter, Nicole, all while expecting her to provide breastmilk. As a parent who’s breastfeeding, that feels unconscionable.
It’s important to note that this episode was also directed by Moss. I didn’t agree with every off-camera decision she made this season (there’s one major example further down) but I thought this whole episode was fantastic. I wouldn’t be surprised if she got an Emmy nomination for her directorial work this season.
The Handmaid’s Tale has long since moved past the original novel, even though June/Offred is still the main protagonist. But we’re getting hints that this could change in season five or beyond. In 2019, Hulu bought the rights to Margaret Atwood’s follow-up, The Testaments, but the network didn’t make it clear whether it was going to add the story or spin it out into a separate show. It’s now becoming clear that Handmaid’s will shift into Testaments. In season four we spend a lot more time with Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), who’s one of the three protagonists in the sequel, seeing what her life is like away from June’s sphere. Then, there’s the whole thing with the story’s other leads; a young woman in Gilead named Agnes (which just so happens to be Hannah’s new name) and a Canadian resident who escaped Gilead as a baby named Nicole. Could we see a time jump that places June’s two daughters front and center? Only time will tell, though sadly not soon enough...
All signs pointed to this season being June’s last. She finally escaped Gilead, she told her entire story (her handmaid’s tale, if you will), and she got revenge on her abuser. The season even ends with a blood-covered June tearfully telling Luke she’s going to leave after a final moment with Nicole. But reports suggest June is going to be back in season five, dealing with the consequences of killing Fred Waterford and turning her back on her family. This could be a great plotline, I’m not saying it won’t be, but part of me was hoping we were saying goodbye to June. Her journey has come full circle, for better and worse, and it’s time to see a new story emerge.
There was a lot of it, especially in the episodes Elisabeth Moss directed. It didn’t matter who was running or why, made me chuckle every time. Still a weird choice.
June did some horrible things this season (I’m still upset that she sexually assaulted Luke, an action that narratively tracked—she was trying to “reclaim” her body in a gross, wrong way— but was unpleasant to witness). The moment that reeled me the most was in the season four premiere, “Pigs,” when she encouraged Esther to murder one of her assaulters. June took on the role of a kind, loving mother figure as she manipulated an underage girl into committing a horrible crime. Seeing as how one of the main things this season is coping with trauma in one’s own way, watching June push someone else into doing things her way was pretty disgusting.
Yes, yes he did. This wasn’t a bad thing—it made sense in the story. I just don’t like it.
Reed Birney briefly joined the cast this season as Lieutenant Stans, a Gilead officer who tortures June for information about her fellow handmaids. The actor was fine, but his character felt like he belonged in a comic book series rather than a grounded drama. He was weirdly chipper and happy-go-lucky as he waterboarded June and pushed Marthas off the roof. He reminded me of Horned Rim Glasses from Heroes, or the Bug Man who went undercover as a door-to-door salesman in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That character trope might be unsettling, the suburban dad who threatens to rip your fingernails off as he invites his buddy to a backyard BBQ, but he doesn’t fit in The Handmaid’s Tale.
These are the last words Fred and Serena Joy said to each other.
Fred: “We could try to Zoom...”
Serena Joy: “Sure Fred, we can Zoom.”
I don’t know whether this was shameless product placement or someone thought it would be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the pandemic, but this was the worst moment of the season. Not only was it stupid and made my IQ drop 15 points, it raises so many questions. Most of which: how the hell did fucking Zoom of all things survive the takeover of America? If that wasn’t bad enough, the last shot of Serena Joy this season is her gently touching her baby belly while waiting for a call from Fred that will never come. ON ZOOM.
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