Spoilers for The Handmaids Tale season 4, episodes 1-3 ahead. It’s been precisely four years since The Handmaid’s Tale first premiered on Crave on April 30, 2017. At the time, the U.S. was four months into Donald Trump’s presidency. The show felt almost fantastically urgent, prescient, and responsive to the feelings of despair, fear, and determination that so many women around the country were feeling. It’s now 2021, and as The Handmaid’s Tale enters its fourth season, it continues to hammer home the dogma of pussyhat feminism that marked its earlier installments. We’ve changed, and it hasn’t.
This season picks up exactly where the last one left off: June (Elisabeth Moss) has been shot by the Eyes after inciting a Handmaids’ uprising and freeing hundreds of children from Gilead. She survives though, because of course she does. June, who was once this show’s greatest strength — remember the power of Moss’ early performances? — is now its greatest bore. The Handmaids’ Tale’s weakness is that it simply will not, or cannot, move beyond her.
Season premiere “Pigs” sees June, Janine (Madeline Brewer), Alma (Nina Kiri) ,and the rest of the Boston Handmaids’ crew flee to a safehouse in rural Massachusetts. There, we meet the teenage wife of a commander, Mrs. Keynes (played by an actual teenager: 14-year-old McKenna Grace), who could be interesting if the show had any inclination towards character development beyond brutal trauma. There, the Handmaids await instructions from Mayday, the Gilead rebellion group that has led them this far.
Second episode “Nightshade” moves things along just a little. June, realizing that there’s another Jezebel house nearby, decides to poison the commanders who frequent the establishment. It’s a small victory for Mayday, but the cost is much too high. June is captured by her former love Nick (Max Minghella), now a commander himself, who appears to still care for her, but also seems to intensely value his high-ranking Gilead job? (At this point, all characters’ motivations are murky at best.) Meanwhile, in Canada, Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) are being charged with various crimes, and pit against each other in a game of chicken. Who will crack first and give up the other? But a wrench is thrown in that game when we find out Serena Joy is pregnant — for real, this time.
“The Crossing,” which rounds out the trio, is the most interesting episode of the three, perhaps because it also marks Moss’ directorial debut. But it also leans into one of The Handmaids Tale’s most frustrating flaws: constantly letting other people — specifically, women of colour — die for June. She is getting harder and harder to root for, and as a result, moments that should hit us hard — like her face-to-face meeting with a terrified pre-teen Hannah (Jordana Biake), fall flat. As for her romance with Nick, please, no more — it’s yet another season 1 plot point that has run its course.
Ariana Romero: Anne, I have honestly been dreading this moment since August 2019, when Handmaid’s Tale season 3 ended. But, we’re here — the season 4 premiere is nigh, along with two more episodes. They are grim. Despite June’s horrible injury last season, and her dramatic Bible quote-spouting, she is very much alive and as well one can be after a gunshot wound to the torso. How do you feel about this less-than-shocking development (which Hulu itself spoiled with multiple trailers).
Anne Cohen: As someone who was absolutely riveted by the first season of this show (and even recapped it for Refinery29), I am continually disappointed by its lack of originality in expanding on the source material. Early episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale were filled with palpable tension — the stakes felt so urgent, and so high. The first three episodes in particular, directed by Emmy winner Reed Morano, built up an oppressively violent atmosphere, where the consequences of rebellion were always aggressively present. By now, June has gotten away with so much, I almost never fear for her safety. Of course she’ll be fine! She’s survived murdering a commander, freeing hundreds of kids from Gilead, and multiple escape attempts — I’m more worried about the women around her. June has a terrible track record when it comes to throwing her allies under the bus.
AR: One of the biggest issues at hand are the exact type of allies June puts directly in harm’s way. Very often, it’s women of colour who die for June. We see that in the fourth season’s second episode, “The Crossing,” when a handmaid of Southeast Asian heritage is thrown to her death to punish June. It’s impossible not to be reminded of Natalie (Ashleigh LaThrop) whose season 3 grocery store shooting spree and hospitalization were used to give June a new plotline. Even June’s own Black daughter, Hannah, has been turned into a symbol and a memory, rather than a flesh and blood biracial girl in a religio-facist state led by white supremacist men. Hannah does little more than stare and cry when we see her.
When June isn’t putting Black and Brown femmes at stake, she is endangering women in other vulnerable communities like sex workers — see her reckless and pointless interlude at the new Jezebel’s — or the traumatized escaped handmaids, whose location she gives up to “save” Hannah. She even urges a child suffering from PTSD and sexual abuse to turn to murder as a way to grapple with her pain. Anne, what did you think of the Mrs. Keyes of it all?
AC: I’m glad you brought up Mrs Keyes, because she represents one of my pet peeves about this show: Using trauma and sexual assault at the expense of character development. We don’t know much — anything, really — about Mrs Keyes, except that she was married off to a commander, and forced into being raped by multiple men. Why is she even helping Mayday?
And this brings me to another problem: This show has never been able to move beyond its own basic premise. It’s 2021 and we’re still rehashing issues that felt relevant when it premiered in 2017. Why not bring us further into the world they’ve created by showing us what it’s like to grow up in Gilead? How did Mrs. Keyes come to be married at 14? What did her parents tell her? Was she taken from her family, like Hannah? Basically, the sense we get from the ending in “Pigs” — which has June and Mrs. Keyes lying in bed together as the latter whispers “Hannah” — is that June sees her daughter in this young woman. But there’s a missed opportunity in not pushing that comparison further — or, as you point out, simply show us what life is currently like for Hannah, instead of June constantly making her plight about her own feelings. Were there any other threads you wished the show would expand on, Ari?
AR: As you’re saying, this series is generally so obsessed with keeping us on the June Hamster Wheel that it can’t see past her. One particularly egregious example is the new character of Mrs. Keyes’ guard, David (Samer Salem), who is “revealed” to be a gay man… through a barely visible glimpse of him dancing with another man in premiere “Pigs.” Or, at least I think it’s David. The shot is shown with the speed of Beauty and the Beast’s eyeroll-inducing “exclusively gay moment” way back when.
If Handmaid’s Tale were a more thoughtful series, it would explore David’s motivations for helping Mayday as a queer guard (or let him talk about it at all). It would stop muddying the motivations of Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) — who is now, naturally, obsessed with saving June — to the point of confusion. The show is rife with this kind of purposeful ignorance about the people who populate its world — all because it’s too busy giving June, Serena Joy, and Fred new things to do. Serena and Fred are beyond redemption. We need to leave them in the same way June has. Instead, they are now expecting a biological baby, which Handmaid’s Tale had previously, successfully, proven an impossibility. As you said, this show is resentful of any real stakes.
AC: The Serena Joy whiplash is real — I’ve lost count of how many times the show has tried to redeem her, only to make her do something totally monstrous. I’m also not quite sure what having her actually get pregnant accomplishes? Is it the only way to get her and Fred to speak after mutually accusing each other of war crimes? And if so...why do they have to speak? Why are we still devoting energy to their narrative at all? If we’re going to be spending time in Toronto, I’d much rather spend time with Emily (Alexis Bledel), Luke (O-T Fagbenle), and Moira (Samira Wiley). To your point that this show is obsessed with June, we only ever really see them in relation to her. How are they working to get June out? Are they thinking about June? Wondering about June? Angry at June? Raising June’s child? These are characters I’d love to care about more, but the show refuses to let me.
AR: Handmaid’s Tale won’t let itself be great at this point. Until things improve, I’ll be pondering all the sweet, non-June-related dad things Luke is doing off-screen with Holly (I’ll never call that baby Nicole). After the horror of these three episodes, it’s what we all deserve.