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Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ season 4 finally envisions a future past pain and Gilead for June



Fans who tune in to season four of “The Handmaid’s Tale” to see if it — and its seemingly endless barrage of women’s pain, deaths and torture — is changing with the political times would not be blamed for tuning right back out again. But they should also be aware there’s a light at the end of the 10-episode tunnel, as the series readies itself for some sort of a future beyond the horrors of Gilead.

Season three, after all, ended with June (Elisabeth Moss) failing in her efforts to escape to Canada yet again but rescued from certain death due to gunshot wounds by her supporting Handmaids. The new season then opens with her convalescing in the Gilead countryside, where she and her friends are disguised as “Marthas” — lower-status but socially compliant women who, due to their supposed infertility, are relegated to housewife status and menial labor serving elite households and their Handmaids. The revolution, too, is resting, regathering its strength to bring down Gilead’s fundamentalist theocratic regime.

One would think the series might take this moment to let June and the other women of Gilead breathe and show some joy.

Instead, the opening episodes center on a new elite female character, Mrs. Keyes (Mckenna Grace), a 14-year-old forcibly married to the farm’s aged Commander. Her story thus adds a forced child marriage — one in which her septuagenarian husband not only rapes her but invites other men to do so as well — to the horrors the series has already shown viewers. But like many of the awful plotlines that populated the last two seasons, it’s just a diversion from the main storyline: By episode three, June is back under the thumb of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), who spends yet another hour reveling in abusing her.

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.

It’s become all-too-familiar territory, with which even devout fans had audibly begun to tire.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” 2017 debut benefited from its timing: That initial season — which was a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the original 1985 novel, chronicling a religious theocracy that rises from the ashes of the American democracy — arrived in the early days of the Trump administration, when his conservative bent and evangelical vice president were seen as frightening potential harbingers of what was to come. Season two premiered with plotlines that echoed the growing authoritarianism of the administration, while season three’s story of stolen children came as immigration at the border surged and tales of adoptions of kids of deported parents and disappeared children were in the news.

But then the pandemic upended filming for season four, pushing its premiere into a post-Trump (and still-mid-pandemic) world. Now, “The Handmaid’s Tale” almost feels like a relic of another time, from an era in which prestige TV defined itself as “art” by forcing viewers to bask in nightmares. And, after a year of nightmares, that feels a lot less artful.

But something else — something more positive — also happened in between seasons three and four: Margaret Atwood, inspired by the series, released a sequel to her original book called “The Testaments.” The bestselling second novel is set about a decade ahead of where the show is now and features three narrators: Aunt Lydia; June’s daughter Hannah, who is still trapped in Gilead; and June’s other daughter, Nicole, who is living in Canada’s Little America.

The book does not, however, include June — but it does confirm that she, and not just her tapes that comprised the first book, made it out of Gilead alive and disappeared into the wilds of Canada.

Revolutions and revolutionaries are inherently messy, and letting the show explore both is another sign that it is finally starting to grow up.

That last detail is critical because, from its inception, the show has had a “Canada problem.” The series envisions June’s escape as the show’s happy ending; once she’s out, that’s it for the series. But since Hulu keeps renewing it, June can only almost escape, and fail, but not die — and has done so for three consecutive seasons.

But the refusal to move the story on to Canada has been a disservice to both the characters and the fans. The idea that June’s escape would be the show’s happy ending is an oddly incurious angle for a series that claims to be about women’s trauma. After all, trauma is not just the torture; it’s the healing afterward, too, which can be more complex and may take far longer than the point of initial crisis.

“The Testaments” gave the series an implied permission to start thinking beyond Gilead, which seems to have finally given the show a necessary reset. 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.

Revolutions and revolutionaries are inherently messy, and letting the show explore both is another sign that it is finally starting to grow up.

This season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” returns to its 10-episode format after a 13-episode run in seasons two and three; the shorter run helps tighten the storytelling. But the real improvement is knowing these characters finally have a destination and won’t have to endlessly tread water to make a fifth season happen. Hulu has already optioned “The Testaments,” though it’s unclear if it will be used as material for the aforementioned season five (which has already been greenlighted) or a spinoff show once this one concludes.

But the fact that season four of “The Handmaid’s Tale” finally recognized there’s more to trauma than just the traumatic experiences themselves is a step in the right direction toward making either or both much more watchable.

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