At some point in Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale — Hulu’s serial thriller extracted from the Margaret Atwood novel — my wife bailed. Like everyone else who’d gotten hooked on Handmaid’s Tale during its magical, multiple-Emmy-winning debut season, she was waiting for Elisabeth Moss’s rebel handmaid June to lead her allies against the cartoonishly oppressive patriarchy running the American republic of Gilead. So she waited ... and waited, and eventually the weekly cycle of setbacks and torture scenes and cruelty and awful foreboding just got to be too much.
Lord knows how many households are like ours — streaming channels don’t have to report ratings — but judging from the boards and the very mixed critical reception for Season 3, my guess is a lot. And yet for better or worse, The Handmaid’s Tale remains Hulu’s signature franchise. Nothing that FX, its new sidecar brand, tossed out in 2020 was able to steal its thunder. And 2020 was good to the mostly Disney-owned Hulu, which got a nice subscriber boost thanks to an economical bundle with Disney+ and ESPN. Even as the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 are dropping this week, we already know that a fifth and concluding season is on the way.
All of which is to say that showrunner Bruce Miller and his writers can do pretty much what they want for the next twenty episodes because they’re already banked. I’m not comparing The Handmaid’s Tale to a baseball rookie-of-the-year who signed a multi-year extension and then spent the next three seasons underperforming and disappointing fans. But I could.
The more pressing concern is one my wife is already asking me: Now that I've watched the first three episodes of Season 4, should she bother? Should anyone bother? And my response to that question is, yes if. If … you genuinely enjoy following three talented actresses carry on the stories of June, her bête noire Aunt Lydia (played by Ann Dowd, the thinking man’s Margo Martindale), and the mystifying Serena (played by the always watchable Yvonne Strahovski), then yes, watch Season 4.
If you’d like to see a little payoff in the form of revenge-taking by the resistance, albeit against low-level and patently despicable male victims … if you want to see how Emily (Alexis Bledel) fares being in charge of 86 girls who were smuggled across the border to freedom in Canada … if you want to see Moira (Samira Wiley) find romance up north … if you don’t mind watching Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) and Serena being driven into ridiculous alliances with other characters … and if you don’t mind continuing to churn through a storyline that effectively adds up to one step forward and one, perhaps one-and-a-half, steps backward … then yes, watch Season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale.
As someone who has mainly sniffed around Handmaid’s Tale forums looking for a contact high, I admire the perseverance of the show's fan base. I suspect the political backdrop of the United States during the show’s first three seasons may have had something to do with this tenacity. So long as 45 was president it was entirely reasonable to ask if a novelist’s dystopian vision was where the world was heading (e.g., the “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again” sign-wielding, handmaid-cosplaying, mask-wearing demonstrator at a Women’s March last year).
But in Season 4, it seems, the show’s Achilles heel is being exposed, and it’s not much different from the fatal flaw that got the last occupant booted from the White House. There’s a revolution going on supposedly, yet in the end it always turns out to be about one person. And just as Trump could never seem to make it about anything other than Trump, The Handmaid’s Tale can’t help but make it all about June. I mean, that’s Hollywood. Yes, June is a commander and she can command a few angry charges to commit murder. But the result still feels like a boardroom drama, no matter how many times people on the show say “revolution.”
It doesn’t matter that Atwood never intended The Handmaid’s Tale to be treated as anything other than a monster she created in her lab. Even dystopian fantasy happens in a cultural context that is real to those living it, and in this case that context is 21st-century individualistic liberalism. “The show’s valorization of June turns her into something like a superhero — like Wonder Woman, whom so many #resistance folks look up to — thereby individualizing the resistance to oppression,” as an astute critic of the show’s second season noted.
To be sure, June is trying her darnedest to turn into a resistance leader. Recovering from the grievous wound inflicted at the end of Season 3, she tells herself the revolution needs her. “Pain makes your world small,” she says in a voiceover. She knows she has to overcome the pain because she’s a commander now, and if she doesn’t command meek handmaids to exact justice on their oppressors, who will? This is not a spoiler, but The Handmaid’s Tale will labor mightily trying to spring June from the trap of her own pain — and in my opinion, fall frustratingly short.
But hey, 17 more episodes to go, right? And maybe what Handmaid’s Tale viewers really want is a superhero, not a revolution. Just look at what comic-book characters are doing for Disney+. According to data supplied by JustWatch, the subscriber count for Disney+ ticked upward in the first quarter of 2021, while the count for Hulu dropped slightly. That means a significant chunk of people only want Disney+ at $8/month and are willing to forego all-you-can-eat Hulu (and ESPN) for just $6 more. Could it be that happy outcomes are only in store for a handful of wonder women who have carried water for The Handmaid’s Tale all this time, and that the revolution was a chimera? It wouldn’t be a Margaret Atwood ending, but it sure sounds on-brand for Disney.
The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 drop on Hulu April 28, with new episodes every Wednesday through June 16.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.