The Handmaid's Tale season 4 review: Guys, just end it already
Hulu's dystopian drama delivers on some long-delayed promises, but ultimately it's too little, too late.
When last we saw June Osbourne on The Handmaid's Tale, she was being carried off the battlefield, gaze turned heavenward, whisper-praying Exodus 3:7 in voiceover — a red-draped savior prepared for martyrdom. Not-at-all-a-spoiler alert: June did not die. Elisabeth Moss is on the poster, after all. Also, killing June would qualify as "something actually happening," and that's not how this show rolls — at least, not for the last two seasons. Since 2018, June's story hasn't advanced much at all: She is forever fleeing Gilead, forever witnessing and enduring physical and psychological torture, forever staring into the middle distance — jaw set and eyes ablaze with rage and agony — determined to keep on keepin' on.
One year and eight months later, The Handmaid's Tale returns for its fourth season (April 28 on Hulu). "This season, we're delivering," creator and executive Bruce Miller told reporters in February. "We're delivering on a lot of things we set up, and I think it's very satisfying." Part of that is true. Some of the Big Moments viewers have been waiting (and waiting) for do happen in the second half of this season, but their emotional power is blunted by the slog we've gone through to get to them. And even as some stories lurch forward, others seem poised to circle back on themselves yet again.
Hulu made eight of this season's 10 episodes available for review, and in the interest of avoiding spoilers that weren't revealed in the trailer, I'll keep this summary as free from specifics as possible. Having successfully delivered a plane full of Gilead's children to Canada, June and her fellow renegade handmaids are hiding from the Eyes, hoping to hook up with the underground resistance movement known as Mayday. People around June keep suffering, getting hurt, dying — and her peers are starting to get real tired of it. "F--- June Osbourne," grouses one Martha, when Commander Nick Blaine (Max Minghella), June's forbidden love, asks for help finding her. "Everyone that helps her ends up on the f---ing wall." Or shot, or pushed off a building, or flattened by an oncoming vehicle.
Even some of June's ride-or-die sisters are losing their patience. "You're so bossy and judgmental!" snaps Janine (Madeline Brewer, still superb). "You need to stop trying to save me to make yourself feel better." Up in Canada, Moira (Samira Wiley) and Emily (Alexis Bledel) struggle to find homes for the freed Gilead children, who are understandably traumatized by their sudden relocation. "That's what she does," gripes Moira of June. "Takes the big swing and f--- the consequences!" Even our heroine, after one particularly grueling series of torture sessions, has a hard time keeping her heart in the fight. "I'm ready… for it all to be over," she whispers. "I'm ready. Please, just kill me." No such luck, ma'am. We're in it for the long haul. (And don't forget the spin-off!)
It's validating, seeing characters speak the frustrations that many viewers feel about June's stagnant journey. The quality of Handmaid's Tale isn't suffering because the political climate in America has changed; a woman's lack of autonomy over her own body is, unfortunately, an evergreen subject. It's suffering because Miller and company have become so enraptured by the show's grandly executed atmosphere of prestige misery — used to stunning, Emmy-winning effect in season 1 — that they've started mistaking garden-variety brutality for brutal truths. Revolutions take time, but they also evolve. The Handmaid's Tale is stuck in the crisis stage.
This season does offer a few rare notes of freshness. There's a glimpse into Janine's pre-Gilead life as a single mom. Amanda Brugel gets more screen time as Rita, the escaped Martha adjusting to a life of freedom in Canada. McKenna Grace (Young Sheldon) pops up for a memorable turn as a tyrannical child bride. Aunt Lydia (the formidable Ann Dowd) gets her steps in on a treadmill.
New things, things we've waited for, start to happen in episode 6. A few of these moments are genuinely cathartic and moving, but others feel underplayed and dulled by such a long delay. Late in the season, Moss delivers a monologue that is essentially a recap of the last three seasons — the most literal example to date of how The Handmaid's Tale repeats itself. Meanwhile, an implausible development with Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) — awaiting trial in Canada for their crimes against humanity — seems to be setting up another familiar showdown. As for Aunt Lydia, her bewildering new alliance with Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) feels forced, a writers' device to keep their brand-name actors busy.
If you're still watching The Handmaid's Tale — heck, if you're still reading this review — you've probably resigned yourself to seeing June's saga through to the end. Can the show deliver on a true second act, justifying the decision to keep the story going so far past Margaret Atwood's novel? We'll likely have to wait until season 5 to find out. Grade: C+