When The Handmaid’s Tale came to television, there was genuine worry about the rise of far-right organizations worldwide. In the five years since its premiere, some of those fears became realities. While the brutality and horror of The Handmaid’s Tale were not always palatable, it connected with audiences for its depictions of humanity. Even amongst the most violent vision of the world imaginable, the human spirit could endure. The world did not descend into the chaos imagined by Atwood’s influential novel (at least not yet), but the fears remain. Season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale enters a different world than the last three seasons, yet it has not lost any of its poignancy. Despite its more hopeful tone, The Handmaid’s Tale warns of danger in complacency in a blood-soaked future.
After the successful transport of more than 80 children to Canada, June (Elisabeth Moss) bleeds out in the snow. Her fellow handmaids carry her through the woods to Mrs. Keyes (McKenna Grace), a young wife hiding handmaids. The young girl controls the house of her dementia-riddled commander, allowing June time to heal in plain sight. June’s actions have shaken up Gilead. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) seeks vengeance against June to punish her. Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) has been imprisoned and is managed by Nick (Max Minghella). In Canada, the Waterfords (Yvonne Strahovski & Joseph Fiennes) have been imprisoned. Meanwhile, Moira, Emily, and Luke (Samira Wiley, Alexis Bledel, & O-T Fagbenle) find homes for the children June saved.
Violence and blood are ever-present in the world of Gilead, and Season 4 rarely spares its characters. The opening scenes of the season spill blood, and that precursor carries through the season. The sadistic side of characters never seems too distant, but the bloody moments remain surprisingly unsettling to this day. While the series continues to struggle with its repetitive nature, there are nuances in the struggle. One aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale that continues to deliver is the internal emotional beats of each character. The struggle to survive finds itself front-and-center, and the deeply personal stakes help develop each character. However, with the visceral carnage present in each episode, viewers may find it difficult to enjoy themselves.
Once again, Moss shines bright as June. Her rage and resilience are more clear than ever as she actively works through her trauma. Moss often finds herself bound, gagged, and incapable of speaking. Yet there’s never a question of what is on her mind, as her expressions communicate her thoughts in a matter of seconds. Moss serves double-duty this season, making her directorial debut on three episodes this season. The first of these episodes, “The Crossing,” contains deeply psychological and emotional content. With flashy cinematography and editing, it marks an early hammer episode for the season. Moss lives in intense and deeply personal moments with equal ease, a great sign that for her future behind the camera.
Moss may be the headliner, but the rest of the cast proves their ability to provide intimidating antagonists to her journey. Once again, Whitford and Dowd live up to their reputations. Each provides a nuanced evolution of their characters. Dowd once again steals the show with her undeniable menace, which remains as chilling as ever. Fagbenle and Strahovski provide cathartic centers for the Canadian characters to build around, with teaching finding more introspective and emotional material early in the season.
The early surprise comes from newcomer Mckenna Grace, an early breakout star for the world to meet. Grace has been steadily working her way through Hollywood with roles as the young counterparts to established stars. Grace does not need to support another performance this time out, building a dangerously volatile element to the Handmaid’s escape. She adds levels to her PTSD, developing a fury that makes her one of the scariest characters at any given moment. Yet there’s more nuance to the character than expected, and Grace tears into the role with energy The Handmaid’s Tale missed last season.
The construction of each episode continues to shine a light on the excellence of the writing. Like many streamers, The Handmaid’s Tale depends on audience buy-in to continue binge-watching. Given the dark material of the narrative, it would be easy to downplay that element of the series. It’s a fine line between entertaining and too-dark-to-handle, but The Handmaid’s Tale walks the line expertly. This tonal balance allows Handmaids to shine as one of TV’s most complete achievements.
By the fourth season, you often know the beats of a show. Even with the upsetting and violent visual language, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to captivate. Moss continues her excellent performance as June and adds potential for a second nomination for her skill in the director’s chair. With a half-dozen awards-worthy performances on the fringes, The Handmaid’s Tale is poised to take center-stage at the Emmys. Considering the exemplary skill on each side of the camera, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to be one of Television’s must-watch programs.
ALAN FRENCH’S RATING FOR THE HANDMAID’S TALE – SEASON 4 IS A 9 OUT OF 10.