The Handmaid’s Story season 4 assessment – hope finally in essentially the most harrowing present on TV | Tv

I am not sure if “enjoyment” is quite the right word in relation to watching The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4). It has been, at various points over the last three seasons, either a harrowing slog or an extremely harrowing slog. But at its best, it is impressive, inventive drama that pushes unfamiliar buttons with great skill. It had a magnificent, haunting first season, which largely stuck to the plot of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel, but afterwards it struggled under the weight of its own misery. June (Elisabeth Moss) escaped from Gilead, and was captured, ad infinitum, which made it feel like a gruesome hall of mirrors in which hope was pointless. It made me wonder whether continuing to watch was pointless, too. But a diversion into global politics gave it a shot of new life, and season four continues to explore new ground. It needed it, and it works.

The lengthy recap at the beginning is useful, given that the pandemic delayed production. According to its showrunner, Bruce Miller, the logistics of shooting in Canada also had a direct effect on shaping the story. June organised a cohort of rebels, pulling together an underground network of Marthas and Handmaids, to smuggle 86 children out of Gilead, saving them from life under a brutal regime. The Waterfords have been arrested by the Canadian government and are in captivity, but at the end of season three, it looked as though June may have run out of luck. Still, without her, this is Handmaids’ Tales, rather than The Handmaid’s Tale. If the question is, how much more can one woman endure, then the answer comes quickly: using no anaesthetic, Janine cauterises the shotgun wound in June’s abdomen with a red-hot poker. Welcome to season four.

Janine, played by Madeline Brewer, in The Handmaid’s Tale. Photograph: Sophie Giraud/Hulu

Moss portrays June’s transformation from victim of the regime to the Boudicca of the rebel Handmaids with all the expertise you might expect from such a fine actor. She is so good at showing what pain can do to a character, in the smallest of movements and gestures. In this opening episode, June is broken and battered, almost dying on her journey to a Mayday safe house in Massachusetts. As she recovers, wondering if hiding at a semi-pleasant rural farm might be the most freedom she can ever expect to find now, she meets a 14-year-old wife called Mrs Keyes. For a while, the teenager seems like a mad monarch type, a Joffrey-esque monster whose sympathetic attitude to the rebels is not to be trusted. But soon, the truth about her reveals that, like everyone in this series, she has truly suffered, and has placed all of her hope in June and in Mayday.

As those who have stuck with The Handmaid’s Tale will know, hope is a precarious state here, at best. But June has become someone very different from the Offred of earlier episodes, taking on some of the cruelties that were bestowed upon her. There is a well-executed, so to speak, nod to the particicutions of Gilead, as Mrs Keyes and June become a kind of mother-daughter vengeance team, although that makes it sound more cartoonish than it turns out to be. “I’m a bit afraid of her, to be honest,” says Mr Keyes, an old, drunken, pathetic mess. “You should be,” says June, who considers picking up the knife against him herself. It is not particularly subtle, but it is certainly satisfying to see Mrs Keyes seek revenge. And then it adds a note of subtlety, anyway: is cruelty ever justified? It’s an open question, not laboured, just left to linger.

Equally satisfying is the moment the Waterfords find out that June is responsible for removing the children to Toronto. “This will start a war,” warns Joseph Fiennes’s Commander Waterford, still as slippery as ever, even in captivity. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is desperate for her own reunion with June, having been beaten and imprisoned by a council that makes Handforth parish council look calm, though the diminishing power of Gilead (and the need for her to remain in the story) means she is soon returned to her post. Fans of The Testaments, Atwood’s follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, will surely be wondering whether some of Aunt Lydia’s story there will begin to emerge.

This remains a big, bold, brassy show. It is shot like a music video, and filled with expensive, classic songs, by Carole King and Aretha Franklin, set to horribly gruesome scenes. It never felt like style over substance, exactly, but for a while, it was hard to love a drama that yielded only misery and pain. Thankfully, June’s adventures in rebel land have reignited the spark, and given viewers something, and someone, to root for. After all that suffering, though, the tension now lies in working out what kind of heroine we have been left with.

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