When The Handmaid’s Tale debuted on Hulu in April of 2017, the parallels between the misogynistic, religious conservatism of Gilead and the misogynistic, conservative politics of the new Trump administration were hard to ignore, so much so that the show almost immediately bled into the political rhetoric and protests of the time. Even though the project got a straight-to-series order well before the 2016 presidential election was decided, its arrival seemed perfectly timed to match the moment.
Four years later, the fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale, which begins Wednesday, also seems like it was designed to reflect the current American climate. Picking up where season three left off, with June (Elisabeth Moss) stuck in Gilead (again!) and a plane filled with 86 children and numerous women from Gilead landing in Canada, the new episodes explore the challenges of starting over after experiencing intense trauma. The question that acts as a common thread this season is this: When a person has focused for so long on escaping an oppressor, what do they do when they finally emerge and get to breathe real, liberating oxygen again? That quandary taps right into the “what now?” vibe of 2021, when the Trump era is (at least in theory) behind us and we’re starting to see signs of light at the end of our pandemic tunnel.
In seasons two and three, The Handmaid’s Tale got stuck in a bit of a hamster wheel in which June would face off with her adversaries — principally her former masters Serena and Fred Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes) and brutal handmaid minder Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) — over and over, almost get out of Gilead, and then be compelled to stay at the last minute. Thankfully, season four finally regains some momentum and forward motion. Based on the eight out of ten total episodes made available to critics, this is the best The Handmaid’s Tale has been since its first season.
As created by Bruce Miller and adapted (at this point, very loosely) from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t altered its sensibility. Its directorial style is still deliberate and a bit conspicuous. The show’s love affair with high overhead shots and images of its characters overpowered by massive spaces continues, but is still sometimes used to great effect. In episode four, there’s a striking scene in which Rita (Amanda Brugel), the former Martha to the Waterfords now free in Toronto, is filmed at an angle that makes it look like walls are quite literally caving in on her.
The feminist rage that fuels The Handmaid’s Tale is still omnipresent, as is the harrowing depiction of the torture inflicted by the authority figures of Gilead. In the third episode, the first of three this season directed by Moss, June is subjected to some especially intense punishments that avoid tipping over into torture porn, but just barely. If the relentless nature of The Handmaid’s Tale has occasionally motivated you to seek, um, external substances to help take the edge off, please know that for this episode at least, you’re going to need a bigger edible.
It’s challenging to explain what specifically makes the Hulu drama more compelling this season without walking into spoiler territory. But the key difference is that the stakes feel higher and more urgent. There are twists this season that will genuinely catch viewers by surprise, and some moments we’ve been waiting to see since the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale that finally arrive. While the last two seasons meant sitting through a lot of ugly conflict with no relief, this season brings some truly emotional rewards.
Moss has always been an absolute powerhouse as June, but this season, she does some work that is next-level in its ferocity. As June’s best friend Moira, still based in Toronto and helping to raise Nichole, the baby June gave birth to in Gilead, Samira Wiley gets to show a wider and deeper spectrum of emotion. There is also more deserved screen time devoted to both Rita and Janine (Madeline Brewer), with the latter appearing in an extensive flashback sequence that provides new insight into her seemingly fragile personality.
Every story line in season four of The Handmaid’s Tale is a testament to the idea that some experiences leave such a deep imprint that they change a person forever. The past remains a companion, welcome or unwelcome, no matter where you travel. That’s a hard thing for the characters in this series to reckon with, as hard as it is for all of us in this real, uncertain world to reckon with, too.