Season 4 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the first three episodes of which are now streaming, is replete with more pain and misery than any one woman should ever have to endure. The bruised and battered June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), a.k.a. Ofjoseph, formerly Offred, survives to fight the patriarchy another season, and this time the feminist superhero in red is taking the battle to a whole new front.
But are viewers still invested in the battle?
Hulu’s hourlong drama, created by Bruce Miller and based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, once painted a frighteningly plausible picture of America after a second civil war, when the religious right’s militarized theocracy of Gilead responds to the planet’s plummeting fertility rates by enslaving all fertile women as breeders and coercing or severely restricting others — sex workers known as Jezebels, domestics known as Marthas, even elite, educated Wives. Religious persecution, a ban on all media and 24-7 surveillance are just some of Gilead’s other delights.
The series, which deviated from Atwood’s book after its first season, was always just a step ahead of today’s headlines: The state’s targeting of journalists. Children separated from their parents by military forces. A country divided by politicians who weaponized religion. It was too grim for some audiences but for the rest of us, this beautifully shot, written, performed and directed drama was cathartic.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” has consistently projected our worst fears, which are much easier to watch when performed by Ann Dowd (the terrifying Aunt Lydia) or Bradley Whitford (the enigmatic Commander Lawrence), and when there’s an escape hatch (Canada on the screen, the pause button on our remotes). It has also long promised a grand comeuppance led by Gilead’s enslaved women, which it delivers in fits and starts. But the necessities of serial TV storytelling mean the yoke is always back before too long.
Season 4 starts off as seasons 2 and 3 did, with June in captivity, this time facing hanging at The Wall after narrowly missing another chance to escape. She helped nearly 100 people flee Gilead last season, mostly children, and was shot in the process. Now she’s on the run with the other women who joined the resistance. The series positions her as a Harriet Tubman figure, helping others leave through an Underground Railroad manned by Handmaids and Marthas.
The saga drives the story out of the stifling mansions and cellars of the town and into the countryside. New topical themes include violent insurrection, criminal prosecution of former heads of state and the depressing reality that even the perceived good guys are willing to sell women out — or monetize their sexuality — to meet their goals.
Torture, payback, imprisonment, freedom, love and redemption are all here — and watching June’s former master, Commander Waterford, (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), eat each other alive while facing charges for war crimes is worth the price of admission.
I’ve stuck with the show this long because it captures the trauma of a country at war from the viewpoint of those we rarely see on the news in real-life combat zones: women. They suffer the worst indignities, often behind closed doors, which I know from my relatives who went through multiple foreign invasions, a brutal dictatorship, religious persecution and destabilization in Baghdad.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” draws inspiration from heartbreakingly true tales of conflict all over the globe , and the sad truth is that justice and peace take ages if they arrive at all. Men’s wars cause misery on a loop, from which generations suffer and rebellions spring. Some revolts succeed. Many fail. “The Handmaid’s Tale” reflects that hard-to-digest reality. The hangings on Gilead’s infamous Wall look like the Shah’s Iran. The torture, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the U.S. military’s Abu Ghraib.
It’s understandable why former fans of “The Handmaid’s Tale” checked out of the series by the end of Season 3. Our country was a mess, so why watch it fall apart on TV? They could not stop June from heading back into the fray one more time. In some respects, I share their frustration with her and with the series’ brutality. But as much as I wanted June to leave Gilead, I also am glad she stayed to fight another day.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)