Film & Television

‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Season Four:
June is Busting Out All Over

You see what I did there? ‘Took a familiar saying (in this case, the title of a whimsical song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel) and used it for some comic relief. 

Because if there’s anything The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s much acclaimed original series, needs, it’s comedy. And relief. Both are in short supply. In fact, the adjective most used by television critics is “harrowing.” I’d add bleak, brutal, and torturous. And never were those words more apt than in describing the latest season, which premiered earlier this month.

The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s modern classic, chronicles life in the near future of dystopian Gilead, formerly the United States of America. Gilead is an ultraconservative, totalitarian state. Laws are built upon an inflexible and extremist interpretation of the Old Testament; the country is run by an all-male group of “commanders.” And, central to the story, women who can still bear children, despite mass infertility caused by pollution and/or nuclear exposure, are kept as reproductive slaves or “handmaids.” They are revered and respected, but also harshly punished — whipped, shocked, maimed, stoned, or hung — for any transgression. Oh, and they’re ceremoniously raped on a regular basis.

“Blessed be the fruit,” indeed.

Season one stayed quite true to Atwood’s novel. Offred, a handmaid assigned to Commander Fred Waterford, narrates both. At the end of the book, her future is uncertain. Having escaped with her newborn baby, she awaits possible rescue or recapture. At the end of Hulu’s first season, Offred and the other denizens of Gilead were met with soaring reviews and Emmy Awards. From a business perspective (and, in truth, to satisfy millions of fans), the story had to continue.

Movies and television shows are in tricky territory when they take a work of fiction (in this case, a masterpiece) and extend the lives of its characters past the final chapter. It’s one reason why sequels rarely ever live up to initial adaptations. Handmaid’s Tale benefits from Atwood’s direct involvement, as a consulting producer for the first two seasons and in a cameo role as one of the dreaded “Aunts” (think of them as handmaid wranglers, scripture on their lips and a taser on their belt). Today, the author, who is 81, considers herself a devoted fan. 

When we last saw June Osborne (that’s Offred’s pre-Gilead name), she’d been shot smuggling 80 children and several “Marthas” (Gilead’s housekeepers) onto a plane and safely off to Canada. This move, the ultimate crime in a country willing to resort to unthinkable things  in order to provide commanders and their barren wives with babies, makes June public enemy number one. Although she could have escaped that night, she stayed behind because her daughter Hannah is still in Gilead. Or so she says. 

By this point, at the end of season three, it’s pretty clear to anyone who’s been paying attention that June is after more than her child. She wants revenge.

As season four opens (it was delayed nearly a year by COVID, as so many productions were), June is being nursed by other handmaids as they find sanctuary at a local farm. They are welcomed by the farmer’s wife, a child bride with her own agenda and a seemingly split personality. The women embrace the relative peace and safety, but June is eager to move forward and join the rebel forces of “Mayday.” She’s soon recaptured, and life returns as she/we know it: indoctrination and torture, betrayal and blackmail, war, murder, sacrifice. But this season (five episodes have aired to date) promises something different. Offred the handmaid has become June the vigilante. And, she ain’t taking prisoners.

My husband often wonders aloud why someone like me, who pretty much lives for Downton Abbey and anything by Jane Austen, returns again and again to a series that some have justly described as torture-porn. The production values, writing, directing are of the highest caliber, certainly. But, a beautifully art directed, perfectly cast, and meticulously appointed scene of a sadistic official using pliers  to pull out a fingernail is still cringeworthy (maybe even more so because of all that artistry). 

What keeps me coming back is twofold. First, as a feminist living through the past few years, The Handmaid’s Tale provides a startling object lesson in what could happen if/when women are seen as “less than” and as mere “vessels” for the unborn. There are still countries where women can’t vote. There are still cultures that sanction marriages between grown men and pre-pubescent girls. There are still families who have daughters genitally mutilated rather than risk their coming into their own sexual agency. And, as lawmakers in parts of the U.S. continue to make it harder for women to control their own reproductive health and choices — including the Supreme Court’s decision to review a Mississippi abortion ban that would undermine Roe v. Wade by narrowing the window for the procedure — we’re hardly in a position to throw stones.

When she wrote Handmaid’s Tale in the mid-80s, Atwood herself chose to depict only situations and practices grounded in real-life. “The thing to remember,” she said, “Is that there is nothing new about the society depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale. All of the things I have written about have been done before, more than once.” What’s unsaid, but also true, is that they could be done again.

The second reason I return to the series is that while it may tell the story of subjugated women, the show itself features an incredible cast, most of whom (and certainly, the most powerful of whom) are women. Elisabeth Moss, whose work in Handmaid’s Tale has already earned her a Golden Globe and an Emmy, continues to deliver one of the most riveting performances on TV today. Season four includes her directorial debut as well and she’s clearly up to the task. And Moss is surrounded by a simply phenomenal supporting cast of women, including Samira Wiley, Madeline Brewer, Alexis Bledel, Yvonne Strahovski, Amanda Brugel, and the magnificent Ann Dowd as the monstrous Aunt Lydia. The new season also welcomes the addition of McKenna Grace (Gifted, and I, Tonya) as the conflicted young Mrs. Keyes who hides the handmaids and has her own reasons for hating Gilead.

The men of Gilead stole June’s personhood and declared her fit only to be a mother. But in doing so, they sowed a seed of fearless strength and rebellion. By season four, June is no longer just the, albeit absent, mother to Hannah and Nicole (the fruit of her labors as a handmaid). She’s become the mother of a movement, of Mrs. Keyes, of all Marthas, children, and handmaids, and particularly wounded handmaid Janine (Brewer). She is fighting for all of them, and it’s a fight to the death. This season, June says, “Bring it.”

Men may rule Gilead, but it’s women who make The Handmaid’s Tale one of the most extraordinary experiences on television today. And, four seasons in, their characters — and truly outstanding performances — keep evolving.

The Handmaid’s Tale is available on Hulu. New episodes are added on Wednesdays.

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