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. 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.
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.
Because of the pandemic, The Handmaid’s Tale has been away since June 2019, and the new episodes pick up immediately where we left off. June (Moss) has successfully orchestrated the liberation of dozens of children from Gilead as part of Angel’s Flight, a Kindertransport/Operación Pedro Pan-style escape. As her Exodus-reading voiceover at the end of last season indicated, June has begun to view herself as a Moses figure, which is how she’s being looked at by fellow handmaids and Canadian authorities. Yes, she ended last season possibly seriously wounded, but it isn’t spoiling much to say that she’s gonna survive.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, we have June’s husband Luke and best bud Moira (O-T Fagbenle and Samira Wiley, with some of their strongest material to date) raising baby Nichole, while nefarious Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, always chilling) are facing charges for their fundamentalist crimes, though they may have tricks up their sleeves.
Moses, as the Bible-literate can tell you, led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert, but he didn’t enter the Holy Land. This is a warning for June and for audiences watching The Handmaid’s Tale thinking there’s somehow a happy ending coming, at least for The Handmaid Formerly Known as Ofred. These new episodes, especially the first two and last two sent to critics, are entering one of my favorite phases of antihero construction, the “We hope you realize our main character has crossed enough lines that pure redemption is no longer possible” phase.
Even if the show keeps putting her back in identical situations, June has changed over the course of the series as her anger and need for vengeance have consumed her. In flashbacks, the pre-Gilead June has become a different and completely unrecognizable person, rather than a sad extension of a character we recognize. As Moss plays her, the current version of June is far closer to Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia — currently facing consequences for her adjacency to Angel’s Flight — than the new Canadian-chill versions of Moira or Emily (Alexis Bledel). She’s no longer simply rebellious, she’s an embodiment of hatred. And Moss carries that weight in her gait, in the intense clenching of her brow, in the voice that sounds increasingly dragged from some Stygian depths. Over three seasons, June has been through some shit, and now she’s ready to inflict some shit.
The first two episodes, set at a temporary safe house overseen by traumatized child bride Mrs. Keyes (a terrifying Mckenna Grace), are exactly what I felt Handmaid’s Tale required, insofar as they’re different and invested in consequences and, as June becomes an increasingly malevolent mentor to Mrs. Keyes, they presented a circumstance I wanted to dwell in, at least a bit longer.
Instead, the third episode represents a hard reset of the sort the show has done nearly every time June has gotten loose in the past. Not only that, the third episode is 63 minutes of torture, wallowing in punishment. That the episode is nearly unwatchable in its sadistic familiarity shouldn’t be wholly blamed on Moss, who makes her directing debut here, though she’s not without some responsibility for an episode made unpleasant by excesses instead of actual gravity. It’s full of resonant, eye-popping visuals and then beats of excruciating obviousness, to the point where there’s a newly introduced character who gets his kicks by waterboarding prisoners through some sort of crucifix-emblazoned priestly vestment. However allegorically heavy-handed this show has been, this was a bridge too far for clumsy symbolism.
Moss exhibits much more confidence and relative subtlety with her direction of the season’s eighth episode, in which Elisabeth Moss the Director gifts Elisabeth Moss the Actor with a seven-minute, single-shot monologue that would be Moss’ Emmy showcase if every episode of this show weren’t basically that.
Behind the camera, Moss maintains a sharp visual eye that befits what remains one of TV’s best-looking shows. The season has a new cinematographer in Stuart Biddlecombe — Emmy-winning DP Colin Watkinson directs the first two episodes — and there’s perhaps less eye-catching use of color, while the show’s commitment to being pornography for lighting source enthusiasts is unabated. No show on TV does sconces and stylized lamps like The Handmaid’s Tale. If “Shafts of Light” were a character, they would earn second-billing after Moss.
The tail-end of the episodes sent to critics takes the story to a point that fans and characters have probably been wanting. But that comes after a run of restless episodes in which no location or situation is given any time to develop or breathe, a string of narrative reboots so relentless that I lost all faith in the show’s capacity for even short-term concentration. Sure, it’s a meaningful place the show reaches, but I’ve been trained just to assume a reset is coming.
The restless movement is Walking Dead-esque in its refusal to pause and engage with most of the new places it visits, and the show suffers thematically as well, falling into less-than-profound observations about how corrupt systems shape otherwise decent people. Instead of post-Trump specificity, the show has found a post-Trump nebulousness in its commentary on infectious ideology.
These are unremarkable observations that I buy when they’re delivered through nuanced performers like Strahovski or Bradley Whitford. But they feel irksomely superficial when they have to play out through Fiennes or Max Minghella’s Nick Blaine. “Evolving” isn’t the thing Handmaid’s Tale does best, narratively or thematically, and for all its great elements, the show has reached a point where I don’t want it to end so much as I want it to set an ending, a destination it has no choice but to stick to.
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, O-T Fagbenle, Max Minghella, Ann Dowd, Madeline Brewer, Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley, Bradley Whitford
Adapted by: Bruce Miller from the book by Margaret Atwood
Episodes premiere Wednesday on Hulu, starting April 28