The Handmaid’s Tale: will the TV hit break its cycle of cruelty?


Show caption ‘What was the point in rooting for her, if she would inevitably end up back at the start?’ … Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale. Photograph: MGM/Hulu Television The Handmaid’s Tale: will the TV hit break its cycle of cruelty? Season four of the drama based on Margaret Atwood’s novel has seen Elisabeth Moss’s June in near-constant peril. However, it seems her latent rage could be the thing that sets her free Rebecca Nicholson Sun 22 Aug 2021 13.00 BST Share on Facebook

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I find myself wondering why I am still so invested in The Handmaid’s Tale on a weekly basis, as the camera slowly closes in on Elisabeth Moss’s face, her character June pained and broken by cruelty after cruelty. The apocalyptic drama is coming to the end of its fourth run, and when this season began, it found itself boxed into an inevitable corner. How could it sustain the story far beyond Margaret Atwood’s novel, without keeping its characters in a cage, and becoming an unrewarding display of relentless misery?

It had begun to go around in circles. June would defy the rules, escape the authorities, get captured, undergo torture, and then begin the whole cycle again. It made it hard for viewers to feel satisfaction in her victories. What was the point in rooting for her, if she would inevitably end up back at the start?

Season four opened with the potential for change, however. June had escaped, again, and this time, she appeared to be on the run for good, with a band of rebel women who would follow her into battle. She took a broken young handmaid under her wing, and though they were damaged by the abuse and violence that had been forced upon them, both hung on to a bloodthirsty and near-indiscriminate desire for revenge. In a twisted way, this stood as the viewers’ reward for enduring so much horror.

It did not last long. By episode three, June had been captured again, brought face to face with Aunt Lydia (the ever-brilliant Ann Dowd), again, and was forced to watch her friends suffer brutal deaths, while being told repeatedly that this was a consequence of her actions. Would she do the worst thing imaginable, to save her child, and betray her sisters? She did. And then she escaped, of course, on a more permanent basis this time, it seems, but this presented another problem. As the protagonist of an ongoing series, June is unkillable, near superhuman. She survives unsurvivable situations; she escapes from the seemingly inescapable. What could the show do with her?

It let her escape Gilead for good, at least physically – although psychologically, it seems unlikely that she will ever be able to leave. The smaller stage became bigger, the grim domestic despair transformed into geopolitical wranglings between desperate nations. It needed to change gears, and it did. By the later episodes in the season, June returns to her friends and her husband, but she is not the same woman as she was when they saw her last. (I did wonder just how small Gilead and the US are supposed to be now; these characters just keep on bumping into each other, no matter what war zone they happen to be in).

It explored this territory last season with Emily (Alexis Bledel), who struggled to reconcile her new-old life with the trauma she suffered in Gilead. Unsurprisingly, June is finding it equally tough to re-enter free society and return to Luke, particularly when she has left Nick behind, and, to a lesser extent, Janine. This is where it gets interesting again. The show asks its audience to weigh up a series of moral dilemmas and to decide where they stand. We consider what redemption might look like, who deserves it, and who decides. We consider what justice should look like, and what it looks like in reality, and whether revenge might be more efficient, and more satisfying. What will we get, and what have we earned?

By the penultimate episode (directed by Moss), June is burning with rage. Throughout, the show has doled out small rewards for enduring its harrowing scenes. June may have been forced to betray those who followed her with such loyalty, but the moment in which she confronts Serena Joy offers some relief. Her testimony to the international criminal court is vivid, cool and damning. Moss’s performance in this show is frequently phenomenal, and those scenes are among her very best.

As much as June and the audience deserve it, there are no happy endings. Justice is complicated by politics, while revenge is much more simple. It has circled back to the season’s opening episodes to reignite that desire to burn it all to the ground. It may not be pleasant, but it would be satisfaction, of a kind.

The season four finale of The Handmaid’s Tale airs in the UK on 22 August, 9pm, Channel 4