It might seem a bit weird to hop into a review of season 4 of a show I’ve not reviewed on this blog, but after watching the final episode I had so many thoughts about it that I literally couldn’t sleep. Seriously, I am typing this at 1am, half dressed and with bags under my eyes because my thoughts are demanding to be made into words. Thusly some of this review will rely on you having seen previous seasons of the Handmaid’s Tale because, well, otherwise you probably shouldn’t be reading a review of the fourth season. However, I will give a brief run down of where I stand on the other seasons so you have a little context as to what my stance is on this show as a whole.
Basically Margret Atwood’s book but in motion picture format. It’s creepy, claustrophobic and highly atmospheric. If you have never experienced true immersion into a dour, hopeless world then this season will introduce you to it. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot and appreciated that it wasn’t scared to be slower paced, while also simulatiously blending the world building with character moments. Good season. You can take my word for it because I wasn’t a fan of the book (blasphemy, I know), but somehow got hooked on the show from this.
Exploring new territory never delved into by Atwood, this season explores June Osborne’s gradual growth into a rebel. The result is that a lot more drama is pumped into the show and that the pace picks up a little. It fleshes out multiple side characters so much and to the point where I found myself smiling whenever someone like Aunt Lydia was on screen because, cruel and wicked as she is, the actress does an incredibly tremendous job portraying her. The same can be said for Serena Joy and Commander Fred Waterford. The season ends with June giving birth to a baby thought of be that of Commander Waterford, but who is in fact that of his driver, Nick, and then smuggling it out of the country. June chooses to stay behind to try and evacuate her other child from the country too. Overall, it’s… Okay… I draw a blank when trying to remember anything that isn’t the final scene or one which contains Aunt Lydia, so I’m going to say it’s a mixed bag.
It’s actually really good. Like so good. It introduces Commander Joseph Lawrence, a commander sympathetic to the suffering women and remorseful for his role in building Gilead who is played so expertly well by Bradly Whitford that I have a little mini celebration every time he’s on screen. It offers alternate insights into Gilead, features Serena and Fred getting arrested at the Canadian border and the main story focuses on June trying to evacuate children from the country. In the end she does, evacuating 70-80 kinds from her neighbourhood into Canada. In fact – and there is no hyperbole or exaggeration when I say this – the season finale is the only movie or TV show to ever draw tears from my eyes. 10/10 would recommend. This season tried something new and was all the better for it.
This season also tried something new and, erm, well… It kind of sucked.
The first half of this season has absolutely no idea what the hell it wants to be or what it is trying to accomplish. June and the handmaid’s are all in hiding after the finale of season 3, and spend time on a farm with a young child. June grows a fondness with this child and the two exchange the words “I love you” only one or two episodes in, after June helps her enact revenge upon her once rapist. Then June gets captured and goes to prison. After her daughter is threatened, she gives up the location of the other handmaids and they all return to service. Then, literally on the day of their reassignment, they break free and June manages to escape with fan favourite handmaid, Janine. They hop on a train and go to Chicago to help fight Gilead alongside US rebels…
Okay, let’s pause. So far this season has been about June reexploring motherhood after forming a connection with a child character who is dropped as quickly as she is introduced, testing the lengths at which June will go to accomplish her goals and finally about her resigning to the life of a solider with the a bunch of homeless people with guns.
Guess what? In the episode following June and Janine finding the rebels they are bombed by Gilead and separated. June is rescued by her old friend Moira, who is a missionary helping refugees in the US, while Janine eventually winds up back as a handmaid in Gilead. So the first 5 episodes or so of this show are nothing but an excuse to get June from Gilead to Canada. Personally I can’t help but wonder if this could have been done in, you know, less time. Also, done in such a way that doesn’t waste time introducing pointless new characters who we never see or hear from again, and just relocates fan favourite characters back to their original station in the story the moment June gets to where she needs to be in order for the plot to work, as written in the script. I seriously would have more easily accepted June being miraculously escorted over the border in episode two rather than this contrived five episode detour to places that are never revisited or even mentioned again.
So the season doesn’t actually get good-ish until June arrives in Canada where she meets up with her husband Luke for the first time since they were separated by Gilead. And all of this, I think, is pretty interesting and handled well for most of our introduction to this new state of play. However there is one slight problem; Canada is boring. It’s basically just a normal place since the show makes no effort to show us the declining birth rates or other problems that Gilead established radical solutions for in order to depict the regime as a viable – if immoral – way of governing in this dystopian nightmare world. The result is that Canada just feels like real life and as though it has absolutely no problems at all. It’s a far cry from the cloak and dagger politics and secrecy of Gilead.
So the show has a dilemma. In season 3 June was more or less portrayed as a beacon of all things good in the nightmare future, and while that version of her makes for good viewing within the constraints of Gilead, it would make for a very boring viewing ol’ mundane Canada. The show would just be her living a nice life and being happy. So, the show has to do something to make June being in Canada interesting and what it does is turn June into a rapist.
You read correctly. Upon settling into her home, one of the first things June does after rediscovering the power she has in the free world is go mad with it: She holds Luke down and covers his mouth as he tries to protest. What happens next may surprise you: It is never spoken of again. Luke continues living happily at home not feeling victimised, surprised or bewildered. Well, okay, if we’re being fair, Luke alludes to June being different in bed to Moira and then trails off in the following episode. But that’s about as much acknowledgment as we get, which is to say none since Moira doesn’t seem to care either. June continues to be a dick in Canada without any self awareness about what she did, or showing a hint of remorse. The topic is dropped and the show pretends as though it never happened, which is probably the worst possible thing a show concerning itself with sexuality, rape and freedoms of men and women could possibly do. But even if this show didn’t involve itself in any of those things, it would still be just bad writing.
You can’t just turn your ex-sex slave revolutionary protagonist into a rapist themselves and then not mention it again. I have genuinely never seen anything handled so bad in a TV show before. Why wasn’t this cut? It has no impact on the story and just makes June an asshole who I don’t care about anymore because, y’know, she’s a certified rapist. Look, if you wanted to turn June into an asshole in such a way that you never had to address again, the one thing you should not have her do is rape her own husband a day or two after experiencing freedom for the first time. There are only, I don’t know, a million different ways in which you could have portrayed June deciding to be an asshole that wouldn’t have involved this. This scene exists for shock value and shock value only. There is nothing else to it, surprisingly enough, in a show where the main character is consistently a victim of rape themselves. I can’t express enough how atrocious this is. To be honest I’m not sure whether it’s worse that this was written at all, or that people read it and thought “yeah, let’s air that on TV”. The show even becomes unintentionally funny when June learns Canada will probably be letting her rapist, Fred, free from custody in exchange for vital information about Gilead’s hierarchy. June pleads and shouts to the authorities “he’s a rapist! You can’t let him go!”, when she herself is also a bloody rapist. Now, if the show had addressed the scene and intentionally set up the idea that June was not self aware of what she did it would be fine. But it isn’t, because that’s not how she is depicted. She is depicted as cold and calculating, so hearing her say this just sounds incredibly hypocritical and not in a way that compliments any established character moments.
Anyway… As I said, the season is about Fred Waterford being in custody and June trying to get the government to hold him accountable for his crimes against her after he is offered immunity in exchange for information on Gilead. Still being friendly with Commander Lawrence and Nick back in Gilead, June is able to set up a prisoner exchange wherein Gilead will hand over a lot of enslaved women in exchange for Fred. Once Fred returns to Gilead, June knows he will be hung for providing the Canadians information. It’s a pretty smart plan that emerges in the final episode out of nowhere, and one which I personally think should have been the focus of the season following June’s entrance into Canada. Though, yes, we learned about Fred’s immunity prior to the final episode, I’d have liked to have seen more cunning manoeuvring between the two rival characters before a plan was put in place for the finale. Seeing her pull strings more intimately, getting a closer look at the darker side of Commander Lawrence and even, perhaps, Nick, in order to set up a deal with Gilead could have given the Canada plot line a whole lot more intrigue. It also would have made Canada a more interesting setting and perhaps one not so different from Gilead as they might like to think regarding their cut throat politics and espionage. But instead, June arranges the deal with Commander Lawrence off screen and then we watch Fred get rolled into Gilead by the Canadian government. I can’t help but wonder whether if the earlier episodes had been more focussed and less about jumping from location to location then we could have had a stronger overall plot.
After the swap, Fred is taken by Nick into no mans land, where neither Gilead or Canada have jurisdiction. There he is left alone and face to face with June. After a brief chat, June summons a bunch of other ex-handmaids who fled to Canada, who all chase Fred through the woods and beat him to death with their bare hands. I do think this is a fitting end for Fred and I appreciated the build up to his death. Seeing Fred so disgusted, offended and terrified is not a way in which we have seen him before and it was quite an insightful look into the character despite the scene revolving around his demise. But I also wish I’d have had the opportunity to see how much effort June went to in order to orchestrate the events that showed us all this. Good as it is, a little more work could have made the pay-off even better still. Surely Nick and Lawrence would need a cover story as to why Fred never made it before the Gilead court? Seeing those two work together more, which we did admittedly get a little of in the early episodes, could have been fun and interesting.
But overall this season is just… Bleh. It’s bleh, bleh, bleh. It has no idea what it wants to be and doesn’t even overtly become a revenge story until the final two-three episodes, wherein revenge consists of putting Fred behind bars and is suddenly about murdering him in the last episode just because. Due to how June is presented in this season, I think her doing all this is in line with the direction her character has taken. However, I can’t help but long for the old June; The one who wanted to save children from a life under an oppressive totalitarian regime, over the one who rapes her husband. And I get it; Seeing June go mad with her newfound freedom is a perfectly sensible way to take her character, but they drove it way too far. Like way, way too far.
June starts shouting at a member of the Canadian government that she’s going to kill him, like a crazy person would. She holds her child Nichole maybe three or four times that I can remember, barely showing her and care or attention beyond their first reintroduction to each other, and then suddenly is all “mommy loves you” at the end of the final episode, while she is still covered in Fred’s blood.
Speaking of Fred’s blood… Did she really go all the way from no man’s land, through the Canadian wilderness and all of her home city covered in blood and not once get stopped? And why was the blood on her face still wet enough to rub off on the baby when she got home? See, this is the sort of stuff I’m normally fine overlooking in media, but because the rest of the season is so atrocious I can’t help but notice these little flaws even more.
The whole season is just edgy. It wants to shock you but not actually have anything to say about what those shocks mean, which is a shame since every season before this one did an excellent job of putting June and other characters in situations where there was no right answer, but one through which they must persevere, in such a way that at the very least challenged their moral integrity. Commander Lawrence, being forced against his will to engage in sex with June by his fellow Commanders, who are all downstairs in his own home sipping tea, is one of these moments that occurred in season 3. Lawrence is a bad man for helping create Gilead and his regrets have led him to bend and break the rules, often for the good of others as well as himself, which lends a morally grey outlook to the character. But in this moment he is forced to engage in a horrific act of rape against his will, one which involves his mentally ill wife, because he was a part of the movement that approved this way of living in the first place. It’s shocking, yes, but also is a major story beat that isn’t forgotten after it occurs and is one that challenges the characters in an interesting way, since we have June for once – a past victim of this ritual Lawrence refuses to engage in – arguing that they must have sex or else Commanders down stairs will hang everyone in the room. There’s conflict here and an awkwardness that carries over into the following episodes, haunting Lawrence and devastating his ill wife. But what’s equally as interesting is the fact that June, of all people, is mostly unphased by it.
There’s nothing like that in season 4. It’s just June getting angry and being a dick. And, unfortunately, I don’t think she’s a character I can realistically root for in the way the show desperately wants me to because of THAT scene and how the aftermath was just neglected.
So what has otherwise been a mostly reliable show in terms of quality has unfortunately nose dived into a pit of cynicism. Every season before had ended on a bittersweet note where something great was achieved but not without a cost, whether it be June’s ambiguous fate at the end of season 1, the freedom of her child but continued imprisonment of herself in season 2, or the saving of children at the cost of what little freedom the handmaid’s and martha’s had at the end of season 3. While in season 4 you just have June knowingly making bad decision after bad decision that leads her down a road where she may not even be safe in the country she fled to for safety. And while you could argue Fred getting his comeuppance was a silver lining, I don’t think June’s radicalisation of the ex-handmaid’s into the very things they fought to escape from when they collectively murdered him is something to be celebrated. It’s very cynical. And while cynicism isn’t new to the show, never has there been such a lack of hope as there is now, be it in-universe or outside of it regarding how the hell the writer’s are going to redeem some of the awful choices they made. It makes me long for the days where June seeing the etching of a past handmaid on the wall of her room gave her just enough optimism to get through what she knew would be a terrible day. And the absence of those flickers of optimism that we had in previous seasons makes season 4 feel depressing to engage with. Don’t get me wrong – Janine and June had some very memorable and cute moments while travelling together, but it all becomes a pit of despair once they are separated and June reaches Canada.
I would highly recommend watching Season 1-3 and then stopping completely. If you must watch season 4, just treat it as some teenagers edgy fan fiction set in a world where positive emotions are prohibited and the only way you can be immersed in a dystopian world is by oppressing the audience as much as the characters.