The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 review: Resistance and rage fuel the ongoing struggle for freedom

In its fourth season, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to act as a mirror to our present troubling times.

The Handmaid's Tale season 4

By: Peg Aloi

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4.0 out of 5 star rating

As fans will recall, season three of The Handmaid’s Tale ended on an enormous cliffhanger, after June (Elisabeth Moss) organised a massive exodus of almost a hundred children from Gilead to Canada. After struggling with one of the guardians, June managed to shoot him with his gun right after she herself was shot. Some of her fellow handmaids managed to carry her to safety. We somehow know that this won’t – or can’t – be the end for June, despite her willingness to die for the cause.

The other huge cliffhanger of last season found Serena Joy (the excellent Yvonne Strahovski) and husband Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes, creepy and intense as ever) heading to Canada to retrieve June’s daughter Nichole, who of course they think of as their own. After plotting with a Canadian diplomat, Serena gave Fred up to the authorities at the border, planning to do her best to get Nichole back.

A third riveting plot point we watched unfold was June’s attack on Commander Winslow (Chris Meloni in a juicy role). During a visit to Jezebels to gain information, June murdered Winslow and the body was neatly disposed of by Marthas, to the rousing strains of ‘Cloudbusting’ by Kate Bush. (It’s not the first time Kate Bush’s music has been used to heart-stopping effect on the series: remember the gallows scene with ‘This Woman’s Work’? I hope we hear more from Kate Bush; ideally something from Hounds of Love. You know, the one about the witch.)

With all of these high-stakes storylines dangling, viewers will no doubt be on edge wondering how things will resolve.

Unsurprisingly, we will definitely be spending more time in Canada during season four. We’ve seen how Moira (Samara Wiley) is adjusting to her aid work with refugees, helping them adjust and showing real skills as a counsellor for them. Luke (O-T Fagbenle), having spoken briefly with June, still hopes to be reunited with her and with their daughter Hannah. We also saw Emily (Alexis Bledel, captivating as ever) escape with Nichole to Canada, now slowly adjusting to her freedom after years of trauma and brutality. She was reconnected with her wife (Clea Duvall) and son, but the adjustment has been very hard.

One of the things that characterises the resistance efforts of handmaids, Marthas, and their supporters is that for every one step forward, there seem to be two steps back. Punishment is usually swift and cruel. Despite having been injured by being beaten at the end of season three, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is more determined than ever to mete out her particular perverse brand of justice.

Things are somewhat scattered and strained in Gilead, after the loss of Fred Waterford to the Canadian government and what is being called the “disappearance” of Commander Winslow, who leaves behind a wife, six children and even a handmaid. One character who continues to fascinate is Nick Blaine played by Max Minghella. Despite rising in the ranks of Gilead’s patriarchal army, Nick still feels loyalty to June. The question is, who is he more willing to betray first: his lover, or his government that has bestowed him with power and wealth?

Several new cast members arrive this season, including the excellent Zawe Ashton (Wanderlust and Velvet Buzzsaw) as another aid worker who becomes friendly with Moira. There’s also Reed Birney (House of Cards) who plays a rather terrifying character in the upper echelons of Gilead. Bradley Whitford also shines as the conflicted and complicated Commander Lawrence, whose story arc intensifies.

As the show has progressed we’ve certainly seen some parallels to actual situations playing out in the United States, where I live; most notably the migrant children snatched at our borders and separated from their parents. The war against women is of course very clear-cut in The Handmaid’s Tale and we send out a cheer every time one of them escapes Gilead or exacts revenge on her oppressors. But we also see how frighteningly powerful ideology can be and how tightly peoples’ minds and hearts can be gripped by it.

I watched the first eight episodes and I can report that there are some mind-blowing plot developments to come: some of them quite soul crushing, while some of them are very moving, and others truly suspenseful and thrilling. My advice to those viewers unable to watch episodes soon after their broadcast is to avoid social media, because spoilers for this season are bound to be dramatic.

Far from being escapist television, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to act as a mirror to our present troubling times, and as a dark lens focused on our uncertain future.

The Handmaid’s Tale season four is released in the US on 28th April, on Hulu. Channel 4 will broadcast the drama in the UK, but an air date has not yet been announced.

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While you’re waiting, take a look at the rest of our Drama coverage, or check out what else is on with our TV guide.