Film & Television

Season 5 of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’:
As Relevant As Ever

A month before the Supreme Court effectively overturned Roe v. Wade (but just after a draft opinion was leaked), Margaret Atwood contributed an op-ed to The Atlantic, entitled “I Invented Gilead. The Supreme Court is Making it Real.” In it, she wrote:

“In the early years of the 1980s, I was fooling around with a novel that explored a future in which the United States had become disunited. Part of it had turned into a theocratic dictatorship based on 17th-century New England Puritan religious tenets and jurisprudence … Although I eventually completed this novel and called it The Handmaid’s Tale, I stopped writing it several times, because I considered it too far-fetched. Silly me. Theocratic dictatorships do not lie only in the distant past: There are a number of them on the planet today. What is to prevent the United States from becoming one of them?”

She continued to dismantle Justice Alito’s majority opinion, “True enough. The Constitution has nothing to say about women’s reproductive health. But the original document does not mention women at all. Women were deliberately excluded from the franchise … Women were nonpersons in U.S. law for a lot longer than they have been persons. If we start overthrowing settled law using Justice Samuel Alito’s justifications, why not repeal votes for women?”

No matter where you land politically (because the June decision, technically “Dobbs, State Health Officer of the Mississippi Department of Health et al. v Jackson Women’s Health Organization et al,” was arguably a political — and religious — decision as much or more than a judicial one), and whether or not you want to ban her (in)famous dystopian novel, you have to admire her logic.

With this in mind, the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale is as relevant as ever. If you’ve been engrossed in the saga of June Osborne over the past four seasons, you’ll be pleased to learn that nearly all of the most loved (and most hated) characters are back: June, Luke, Moira, Rita, Nicole, Nick, Janine, Aunt Lydia, Commander Lawrence, Serena, even wife-turned-handmaid Esther —pretty much everyone except Emily (actor Alexis Bledel recently left the franchise) and Fred. Fred is dead.

The new season picks up exactly where we left off. Led by June, a pack of vengeful handmaids has torn Fred Waterford to pieces. June returns home to her husband, friend, and baby daughter, covered in his blood. In fact, season five finds June covered in blood more often than not. Watching (Hulu provided rough cuts of the season’s first eight episodes to reviewers), I found myself silently urging her to go wash her hands already. At other times, I found myself comparing the series to some of the bloodiest productions of Macbeth. “It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood.”

June’s PTSD and insatiable thirst for violent retribution have practically become their own separate character in Handmaid’s Tale. When Moira hesitates in letting June hold the baby, explaining she’s afraid of her, June admits, “Me too.”

Meanwhile, June’s Gileadean alter-ego Serena Joy mourns the death of her husband. In her memory’s flashbacks, we see them dancing together, powerfully connected, deeply in love. We don’t see, however, him whipping her with his belt or allowing the Council to cut off her finger. She may have helped her husband establish Gilead, but she is as much at his mercy as June (or, in that household, “Offred”). Now, Serena is alone, pregnant, detained in Canada, and widowed. She can disappear. Or, she can use her situation to regain the status she’s lost and help Gilead win international sympathy and support. Dressed and veiled in black, she walks behind her husband’s casket, the Divine Republic’s own Jackie Kennedy.

If this all sounds rather dark, you’re on the right track. The sun rarely shines in Gilead or, apparently, in Canada. Interiors are drab and shadowy; covert action whether that’s Mayday, the Eye, bounty hunters, or the increasingly vigilant border patrol, by necessity takes place at night. The accusations against Gilead, while just and true, become redundant at some point. The violence and rapes become ubiquitous. Even June’s ability to stay alive begins to erode credibility. The Handmaid’s Tale was always an emotional and intellectual workout. By season five, it’s downright exhausting.

So, why do I wholeheartedly encourage you to tune in again (or start at the beginning if you somehow missed the series much heralded 2017 premiere)? First of all, there’s the feeling that in watching, we are somehow bearing witness. Here are the worst imaginable outcomes of some of today’s almost unimaginable events. But, more than that, the acting is sublime.

As Serena, Emmy-nominee Yvonne Strahowski somehow balances archvillain with victim. Despite her machinations, season five eventually finds her in territory familiar to many of Handmaid’s characters. Her sudden, unexpected fertility has made her more valuable to the state as a vessel than as an autonomous human being. (Why does this sound so familiar in real-life 2022?) After circling each other for several episodes, Serena and June finally come together mid-season, and the result is not the violence each has threatened, but inevitable — if temporary — feminist unity.

As handmaid-handler Aunt Lydia, Emmy-winner Ann Dowd, is given more opportunity to expand, recognizing Gilead’s flaws and connecting with her charges in new and human ways. As Esther, relative newcomer McKenna Grace (prodigious star of 2017’s Gifted) drives home the horror of Gilead in an Emmy-worthy hospital-bed scene. Meanwhile, as Moira, Emmy-winner Samira Wiley has less to do this season than in some others, but always holds her own alongside the show’s titular hero.

Because, last, but certainly not least, as June/Offred, Elisabeth Moss, who won both individual and ensemble Emmy awards for the first season, continues to raise the bar. And this season, as in last, she adds director to her resumé, proving herself as courageous behind the camera as she is in front of it. The fact that we can still root for June, after she has lost most traces of her humanity, is a testament to Moss’s incomparable talents.

Speaking of Testaments, Atwood’s long-awaited sequel is currently in production, along with the sixth and final season of Handmaid’s Tale. Regardless of when (not if) this country rights itself where women’s right are concerned, Gilead will continue to serve up cautionary tales for the foreseeable future.

The first two episodes of season five premiere on Hulu September 14th. New episodes stream Wednesdays.

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