The Handmaid’s Tale debuted to critical acclaim in 2017, winning eight Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series. Bruce Miller’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel was similarly met with praise from critics (including this writer) at the start of its second season, but subsequent premieres have elicited more ambivalence than anticipation. Season two started off strong before getting bogged down by misery and repetition, as the series became increasingly desperate to keep June (Elisabeth Moss), then known as Offred, in Gilead’s Christofascist clutches. The third season, which premiered in 2019, maintained the torture porn, white feminism, and strained logic of its predecessor, and saw the show give into its worst impulses while trying to be the timeliest of TV dramas.
Season four of The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t make up for all of these missteps (it actually perpetuates some), but it does confront them, as June comes face to face with her past. In some ways, the fourth season acts as a retrospective, a kind of “June Osborn, This Is Your Life” reel, only much more gutting—June sees her doubles everywhere, women who represent different stages and traumas from her own life.
The premiere opens in typical Handmaid’s fashion: an arch needle drop (Dionne Warwick’s “I Say A Little Prayer”) accompanies a moment of agony, as Handmaids like Alma (Nina Kiri) carry a wounded June into a farmhouse. June rushes through her convalescence because “the others need me to protect them.” Her instincts aren’t wrong; the Mayday safe house isn’t the refuge it appears to be. Alma and Janine (Madeleine Brewer) try to find some peace during this time, but June is ever-vigilant.
The Angel Flight, which saw the rescue of dozens of children from Gilead, made a folk hero out of June. Now young women like Esther Keyes (McKenna Grace) look to June for leadership. June recognizes the anger in their host, because it is also hers. “I want to hurt them so badly,” Esther tells June within moments of meeting her. But Esther isn’t much older than June’s daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), so June’s instinct is to protect her, not indoctrinate her. “Someone your age should never need to be this brave,” she tells Esther, much to the latter’s fury. Though Esther lashes out—“If you weren’t going to fight, then why come here?”—June continues to try to reach her.
After Esther reveals the many sexual assaults Commander Keyes orchestrated upon her, June rushes to reassure her that “none of this is your fault.” It’s as if she’s talking to her younger self, the June of seven years ago, who wasn’t in the Waterford home for a week before she was raped by Fred (Joseph Fiennes). Grace and Moss appear in profile for much of these exchanges—different sides of the same woman. Many key moments throughout season four are shot the same way, as people’s true motivations and feelings are gradually revealed. But these profiles and the distance between the characters on screen also re-emphasize the stark divisions; after four years, war is likely coming to The Handmaid’s Tale.
When June eventually arms Esther, who uses the blade to kill a captured Guardian, it’s as if she’s giving her younger self a fighting chance. But June isn’t able to keep Esther safe; the murder of the Guardian brings the Eyes out, along with Nick (Max Minghella), who—sigh—recaptures June while also swearing he’ll try to protect her. Esther later ends up at the Red Center, with Janine looking out for her. June might not have been successful, but she told Esther what she herself needed to hear at the outset: “This isn’t your fault.” That becomes one of the refrains of season four, as The Handmaid’s Tale finally stops worrying about building its “Revolution Starter Pack” meme and starts focusing on the distinct journeys of survivors. There is no right or wrong way to behave after sexual assault or any other trauma; there are no perfect victims.
These echoes from her past follow June throughout the season, as her rage goes from simmering to volcanic. When she asks Janine to look after their new friend, she criticizes Esther’s family for “sending” her to Gilead. She repeats this phrasing in later episodes, because it’s one of her greatest torments—that she’s responsible for Hannah’s plight. The third episode of the season reminds us that Gilead doesn’t care about children; it only cares about power. June thought her daughter was relatively safe, but that illusion is shattered. At one point, her avuncular torturer taunts her by saying she’s responsible for putting Hannah in danger, something that June’s wrestled with for the last seven years. In episode nine, “The Crossing,” Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) says something similar: “Your love fucks people up. You’re a fountain of heartache and trouble.” It’s why, rather than plot from Canada how to rescue her eldest daughter, she marched right back into the lions’ den in the season-two finale.
As new settings are explored, including Chicago (one of the war fronts), June continues to reckon with her past. When she warns Janine that Steven (Omar Maskati) is taking advantage of her, she could just as easily be questioning her own relationship with Nick. As swooning as Moss and Minghella are onscreen together, June and Nick are not on equal footing; his fairly high-ranking position in Gilead makes it difficult to see their relationship as entirely consensual for the same reasons that Steven and Janine’s relationship unnerves June. Like Lawrence, Nick claims to want to bring Gilead down from the inside, but he takes no great risks until the end of the season. Nick even organizes an air raid on Chicago, despite knowing June is there.
But Janine is also a reflection of June’s impetuousness, as well as her strong maternal instincts, and a voice for viewers who have wrestled with June’s selfishness and growing capacity for cruelty. When Janine calls June out for leaving Alma and Brianna (Bahia Watson) behind, she could also be pointing out the way women like Natalie a.k.a. Ofmathew (Ashley LaThrop) have been trampled by her evolution into (White) Feminist Badass™.
Of course, all of these critiques hinge on whether or not the series’ writers, including Miller, really acknowledge the previous lapses in judgment. Perhaps the best evidence for that self-awareness comes via June and Serena Joy’s (Yvonne Strahovski) interactions. June gives Serena a dressing-down for the ages, enumerating the ways she destroyed her life. “There is no one less worthy of redemption than you,” June says to a kneeling, sobbing Serena. The moment is undeniably cathartic, and hopefully points to the show finally giving up on trying to redeem Serena, who quickly falls back into her old patterns. Like Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), Serena knows what it’s like to be without even a semblance of power in Gilead, and despite her dealings with the Canadian government, she’s anxious to get it back.
Later, when debriefing with Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger), June describes Serena as “toxic,” someone who will “do anything to get what she wants. Lie to you. Rape you. So if you feel yourself getting sucked in by her, run. Run for your life.” She could very well be talking about herself, as she was hovering over that abyss for much of season three and part of season four. The final three episodes of the season walk June back from that precipice while nudging her towards another. June meets even more mirrors once she’s finally in Canada and joins Moira’s (Samira Wiley) survivor support group. She sees the same anger in Emily (Alexis Bledel) that she stoked in Esther, which eventually spreads like wildfire throughout the group. They all (except for Moira) exact revenge on Fred Waterford, who, even in his final moments, thinks justice is out of their reach. He’s both right and wrong about that. Throughout its fourth season, The Handmaid’s Tale explored what justice would look like for these women; to its credit, that question remains open-ended, in part because there are few real-life corollaries from which to draw inspiration.
Season four doesn’t justify June’s previous decisions, but it does help contextualize them. By doing so, it sets the show on a much more viable path—not necessarily one towards salvation or healing, but toward something potentially darker than before. As June wonders, “Why does healing have to be the only goal? Why can’t we be as furious as we feel? Don’t we have that right?”
But the series continues to stumble in expanding its world; we still don’t have a real sense of how neighboring countries operate, or what role international bodies like the ICC and United Nations play. All narrative roads still intertwine with June’s, particularly those of Black women like Moira, whose story is still anchored to her friend’s, and Rita (Amanda Brugel), who continues to act like June was the only person with any guts in Gilead, despite having been a part of the resistance for much longer. One of the only other named characters of color, Brianna, has only a handful of lines before being killed off. In its continued desire to be the show “of these times,” The Handmaid’s Tale awkwardly alludes to Black activist campaigns like Say Her Name. It also can’t resist making a clumsy reference to real-life border policies during a scene set at a border camp, though again, the story rarely ever interrogates what racism and xenophobia look like in this world beyond the demarcations of “Gilead” and “Not Gilead.” This is the equivalent of flashing a hashtag on screen, the possible result of the writers’ room still having only having three women of color (Marissa Jo Cerrar, Yahlin Chang, and Jacey Heldrich). If The Handmaid’s Tale is indeed moving in a compelling new direction, it’s time for the show to realize it needs new guides.