"The plodding, frustrating fourth season is not unlike the plodding, frustrating third or the plodding, frustrating second," says Kelly Lawler as the Hulu drama returns for its fourth season. "Handmaid's has uniformly struggled after surpassing the source material in Margaret Atwood's book. Seasons 2 and 3 tried (and failed) to move the plot forward in significant ways, falling back on the series' increasingly grating crutch of making June (Moss) suffer rather than allowing the story to grow. Handmaid's had the chance to change for the better, to prove it could run for years and years. Instead, Season 4 teases something bigger, a pivot to the future, and then takes two steps back once again. By the end of the eight episodes made available for preview, there are hints of something different and promising. But to get there, viewers are subjected to the worst of the series' impulses, as if the first seven episodes were a thumb-twiddling waste of time. And in many ways, they are."
The Handmaid's Tale gets its mojo back in Season 4: "In seasons two and three, The Handmaid’s Tale got stuck in a bit of a hamster wheel in which June would face off with her adversaries — principally her former masters Serena and Fred Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes) and brutal handmaid minder Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) — over and over, almost get out of Gilead, and then be compelled to stay at the last minute," says Jen Chaney. "Thankfully, season four finally regains some momentum and forward motion. Based on the eight out of ten total episodes made available to critics, this is the best The Handmaid’s Tale has been since its first season." She adds: "It’s challenging to explain what specifically makes the Hulu drama more compelling this season without walking into spoiler territory. But the key difference is that the stakes feel higher and more urgent. There are twists this season that will genuinely catch viewers by surprise, and some moments we’ve been waiting to see since the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale that finally arrive. While the last two seasons meant sitting through a lot of ugly conflict with no relief, this season brings some truly emotional rewards."
The Handmaid's Tale is stuck in the crisis stage: "It's validating, seeing characters speak the frustrations that many viewers feel about June's stagnant journey," says Kristen Baldwin. "The quality of Handmaid's Tale isn't suffering because the political climate in America has changed; a woman's lack of autonomy over her own body is, unfortunately, an evergreen subject. It's suffering because Miller and company have become so enraptured by the show's grandly executed atmosphere of prestige misery — used to stunning, Emmy-winning effect in season 1 — that they've started mistaking garden-variety brutality for brutal truths. Revolutions take time, but they also evolve."
Fans of the trolley problem will love this season; people who enjoy sleeping through the night may not: "There are very few 'wins' in Season 4 that don't come with devastating consequences, to the point that The Handmaid's Tale's past reputation for going too hard on scenes of physical torture is supplanted with going too hard on the constant moral distress," says Alexis Nedd. "Fans of the trolley problem will love this season; people who enjoy sleeping through the night may not. Perhaps most interesting is Season 4's further exploration of the greater world's reaction to Gilead. Up until this season it has been easy for viewers to assume that everyone outside of Gilead is horrified at whatever news leaks out of the violent fundamentalist enclave and therefore represent the 'good' people in the world, but Season 4 disposes of that idea very quickly. Gilead does to other nations what it does to its people — it corrodes the very notions of right and wrong and turns everyone it touches into monsters. Seeing how other Americans, other Christians, and other refugees react to Gilead is one of the best elements of Season 4 and builds towards a long overdue examination of the social forces that still make the threat of Gilead seem possible in the real world."
Season 4 offers a light at the end of the tunnel: Margaret Atwood's follow-up novel The Testaments "gave the series an implied permission to start thinking beyond Gilead, which seems to have finally given the show a necessary reset," says Ani Bundel. "As the season progresses, it appears to both start considering what might happen once June escapes and to begin to shake its profoundly June-centric point of view. That, too, is a necessary change because, from the moment events of the original novel ended, the show's biggest flaw was that it hero-worshipped its lead — which the book never did. June of the series could do no wrong, even when her schemes obviously had terrible consequences that mostly came down on characters who, unlike her, are not protected by their white, cisgender and heterosexual privilege. The series was long overdue to acknowledge how June's rebellion often destroys everyone around her while she continually walks away from her wreckage unharmed."
The Handmaid's Tale has become like Homeland and The Walking Dead in its repetition: "In mathematics and science, the symbol 'delta' is used to represent change, the comparative way of measuring difference in value or position or other things I haven't understood in decades," says Daniel Fienberg. "Something similar is necessary in television, where one of the great differentiators in longform storytelling quality is the willingness and ability to engage in narrative change, to push a storyline or a character to a new place and live with those changes. It's a metric that makes a Mad Men or Breaking Bad great, that marks the limitations in a Dexter or Homeland. As it begins its fourth season, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale has reached that point at which, more than any other factor, comfort with change has become central to both its long-term legacy and short-term success. It's here that, based on eight episodes of the new season, I'm seeing more similarities to a Homeland or The Walking Dead than the true pantheon shows. The Handmaid's Tale is solidly entrenched in the things it does well — with Elisabeth Moss' performance as an unimpeachable centerpiece — and most frustrating in its bleak and repetitive rhythms. It becomes harder and harder to trust that even when big things happen on The Handmaid's Tale — and big things happen in these new episodes — the show will commit to follow through."
Viewers will have to be patient before getting to the good part in Episode 6: "Some storytelling blunders are the result of adapting an acclaimed novel beyond its pages," says Ben Travers. "Others feel guided by forces beyond creative intentions, like, say, a streaming service with an originals brand forever tied to one landmark series. Either way, viewing fatigue is real, and bloat shouldn’t be tolerated, especially for serious, saddening fare like The Handmaid’s Tale that’s already stretched itself rather thin. And yet here I am, telling you to be patient, plow through the first five episodes, and revel in the bounty waiting on the other side. While Season 4 doesn’t transform the Hulu drama into essential TV again, for those who’ve stuck by it this long, you owe it to yourself to savor the payoffs waiting around the midway mark — as well as a handful of satisfying surprises."
The Handmaid’s Tale has begun to feel less like a poignant story and more like an expanding media universe steeped in trauma for trauma’s sake: "With each successive season, it’s become more difficult to imagine what point there could be to extending all this anguish," says Laura Bradley. "Season 4, which debuts its first three episodes Wednesday, is no less punishing to watch, especially in early episodes. (Episode 3, the first of three installments directed by Elisabeth Moss, is nearly unbearable in its brutality.) But it also brings a renewed sense of purpose, as June and her fellow rebellious handmaids regroup and try to decide what’s next. It’s not that this season gets any less dark. (It definitely does not, figuratively or literally.) Still, the storytelling feels almost as clear and deliberate as it did when The Handmaid’s Tale first began, even if this series might never recover its initial urgency. After non-stop pain, it seems we’re finally in for at least a little catharsis."
The Handmaid's Tale is dark, but it's not trauma porn: "The Handmaid’s Tale has never shied away from gore," says Clémence Michallon. "We have seen blood. A lot of it. We have seen a woman’s eye gouged out. We have seen transgressors getting hanged. We have seen death. We have seen rape. We have seen a thousand shades of brutality. For those reasons, some have deemed the series problematic, or likened it to 'torture porn' or 'trauma porn.' But it’s a description that has never rung true to me – even as the season four opener brought me deeper into Gilead’s darkness." Michallon adds: "The violence in Handmaid’s is jarring precisely because it’s not played for laughs. There are no farcical effusions of blood, no cartoonesque escalation bringing us back to the safety of humour. That doesn’t mean the show devolves into gratuitousness. On the contrary, there is something compelling in its use of violence. In the season four opener, as it has in the previous three seasons, physical and mental cruelty often comes as the result of one’s own trauma and oppression."
How involved was Margaret Atwood in Season 4?: “She is at this point just an excited fan," says creator Bruce Miller. "She’s sent the toddler off to walk and she’s just excited to hear how things are going in college. Every once in a while, she puts the kibosh on something, but usually it’s when we’re talking way before (it films). So we maintain as close of a relationship as we can. In the past she’s come to the writers’ room once or twice a season to say hello and chat. Really, I’ve been on a lot of shows that are based on books, and this is the ideal relationship to have. She’s still very interested and supportive but doesn’t tell me I’m ruining it.”
Bruce Miller says the pandemic changed his long-term Handmaid's Tale plans: "I certainly don't (have a number of seasons in mind)," he says. "I always thought I did and that, I think, is a pandemic change. I thought I had a beginning, a middle and an end — and I still feel like I very much have an end — it’s just that I’m finding more interesting paths along the way and more interesting things to do as we move towards more fascinating parts of the story."
Elisabeth Moss promises fans will get "what they've been waiting for": "I think it was important to all of us to kind of fulfill the promises that we had made with the show and with June," she says. "We don't make the show in a vacuum...I think we felt like ok it's time to reward (fans) for watching this for three years. It's time to give them what they've been waiting for."