WARNING: Significant spoilers ahead for the first five episodes of season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale. Earlier thoughts on earlier seasons can be found under my Handmaid’s Tale tag, because that is literally how much I talk about The Handmaid’s Tale.
Oh, hell. I haven’t had the energy this season to stay up till midnight just for the sake of catching each new episode, but I think I’m going to have to make it this week because after last week’s exquisitely cruel cliffhanger the thought of having to wait until 7 or 8 p.m. tomorrow night is unbearable. I suppose this is good, because it at least gives me a good chunk of time to catch up on my neglected book blog by…………blogging about a TV show. I swear it makes sense in my head.
Anyway, if you’re new here: Hi, I’m Carolyn and normally I blog about books except when I take sharp detours into TV territory to scream about The Handmaid’s Tale (the Hulu show, not the book). Bruce Miller has been making threatening noises about ten seasons, so I fully expect said detours to occur every spring for the next six years, or until I run out of patience and rage-quit the show. That almost happened in the middle of season 3, which was a doozy, but I did manage to hang in there long enough to get swept off my feet by the season finale. I really did not know what to expect from season 4, given my fractious relationship with season 3, but so far it’s mostly delivering? My feelings are extremely mixed.
The good stuff first:
- It’s watchable.
- I am living for these book quotes they keep throwing in at random.
- We’re not in a Commander’s house. I was going to light my TV on fire if we went through all the drama and the violence of the season 3 finale but still ended up in a fucking Commander’s house.
- Moira literally said what we were all thinking, which is that JUNE DOESN’T FUCKING THINK. Don’t get me wrong: freeing 86 children and a handful of adults was far better than leaving them in Gilead, but it also ties into June’s well-documented habit of throwing caution to the winds and leaving other people to deal with her messes.
- Rita is a goddamn queen.
And now the bad stuff:
- I’m not a fan of the particicution scene. Esther’s revenge set the tone for the season, in that it inspired a lot of mixed feelings. On the one hand, that scene was about a sexual abuse survivor getting a little bit of retribution, and I support the hell out of that. On the other hand, I do not feel good about June handing her a knife and telling her “Make me proud” in an Aunt Lydia-esque moment. I do not feel good about the Aunt Lydia-esque speech that preceded the execution. I think the main reason this scene makes me feel so icky is that it continues with the trend of turning June into Aunt Lydia, and that is not okay.
- I’m not really sure how I feel about Luke. He kinda goes back and forth for me, and I wish they would do more with his character.
- I am upset about the “Free the Waterfords” signs I saw in the season trailer. NO. FUCK THE WATERFORDS. CHOP OFF THEIR HEADS AND THROW THEM OUT WITH THE REST OF THE GARBAGE. CANCEL THE SIGNS I HATE THEM
- They still have a race problem. In 3.5 seasons, race has been explicitly mentioned maybe once, but there has been zero acknowledgement of systemic racism, which is not realistic for a show built on American politics. I will never believe that Gilead fixed systemic racism by getting everybody to agree that repopulating the country was more important. I have also noticed that while June has made at least some effort to get along with white women she doesn’t like (Exhibit A: Serena), it was a different story with Lillie and Natalie. Perhaps this is a coincidence, but it seems odd that June would go out of her way to show compassion towards a Commander’s Wife while coldly rebuffing her fellow Handmaids. Don’t tell me it’s because Lillie and Natalie were believers, because Serena was the biggest believer there was up until she turned Fred over to the Canadians.
- I am so tired.
Bad Stuff #5 sums up my general feelings about the show. I am so fucking tired. I have been deliberately avoiding reviews with titles like “God, let it die” and “This is so tiresome” because I feel like if I read those I would agree with them, and then I would get mad and I would also feel bad for more or less enjoying the show. At the same time, I cannot pretend that it is anything other than tiresome, and I have also recently learned that it was renewed for a fifth season (to which I say, “God, let it die”). The problem with long-running dramas, at least from my perspective, is that I don’t like drama and I end up dreading rather than anticipating new episodes. I don’t look forward to Wednesdays for the same reason I didn’t look forward to Sundays when Game of Thrones was still running, because even though I know I’m going to devour every episode the anxiety is a real mind-killer. I’m sure there are people who live for that kind of anxiety, but I am not one of them.
Part of the trouble is that the show has become a repetitive mix of torture porn and absurdist wish fulfillment fantasy. They need to find another shtick, because this whole “Handmaids escape – Handmaids get caught – Handmaids escape” routine was old by the middle of season 2. I am so tired of wondering if June is ever going to get out. This isn’t thrilling. It doesn’t have me on the edge of my seat. We’ve been doing this for three years, and I just want an answer. And, though it breaks my heart just a little bit to be saying this, I have to say it: I don’t like June.
To be perfectly fair, I don’t hate June (at the moment). I think she is a fundamentally decent person who has been trapped in Gilead for too long. I know that Gilead has changed her significantly, as it has changed every person who has had to live in it, and it’s brought out a number of traits that weren’t obvious before she was hunted through the woods and torn away from her family. That being said, I’m not really sure if I’m rooting for her. Leaving aside her habit of hatching terrible plans and squandering the lives that were literally laid down to protect her, she is an incredibly tiresome character. The writers are trying to build her up as the leader of the revolution, but for the life of me I have no idea why she inspires such fanatical support from the characters around her. She’s not smart. She’s not stupid either, but that doesn’t make her smart. She’s not charismatic. She’s not even particularly nice. She is strong-willed, which I admire, but that willpower – coupled with the things she has accomplished – has made her pushy, unreasonable, and entitled. She only gets things done because she keeps pushing until people give her what she wants, often at the cost of their lives. She is incapable of following basic directions and bristles at the idea of having to take orders from people whose survival skills exceed her own. She seems to think that any orders she doesn’t agree with (such as “Stop talking before we all get shot”) are stupid and expects to be automatically entrusted with information and weapons. It’s great that she’s proactive, but if she can’t get along with other rebels she’s not going to get very far.
It’s this unwillingness to connect with others that makes me doubt her potential as a leader. In earlier seasons she was able to rally the other Handmaids and became an unofficial leader in some respects, which was great, but in this season she’s gotten sidetracked into taking out as many Commanders as she can. Ordinarily I’d be onboard with that, but the problem is that her revenge missions have made her lose sight of the bigger picture, and her plans and personal rebellions also come with a high body count. If you add in the body count that comes from her single-minded quest to retrieve her daughter before she leaves Gilead, the numbers are troubling. I am currently somewhat worried that the writing team has decided that June’s incredible ability to get people killed will make her a competent leader. It would be unfair to blame every death on her, but her general inability to foresee consequences has literally ended lives.
This is something the show has consistently glossed over. Aside from one gloriously uninhibited Martha named Lori, who says more or less what I’ve been thinking for the last season and a half, we are asked again and again to understand that June had no choice and that the things that go on in Gilead are not her fault. This is true up to a point, but some reasonable precautions on her part could have saved lives. It was not, for instance, absolutely necessary to poison all the Commanders at the Jezebel’s. I understand that June had no way of knowing that Nick had tracked her to the Keyes’ house, but she really should know by now that time matters, and every second counts even when you think you’re safe. If she’d scrapped her plans and gone to the next safe house with the other Handmaids, they might not have been caught, and Alma and Brianna might still be alive. While we’re at it, am I the only one who’s bothered by how quick the Guardians are to shoot misbehaving Handmaids? Handmaids are said to be carrying out a sacred duty. They can’t really do that if they get shot. You cannot ask me to believe that the Guardians have no other way of restraining unarmed women dressed in cumbersome robes.
And, though it is brought up every now and then, it bothers me how little discussion there is of the consequences June’s decisions have brought to other people. There is no catalogue of the dead. People die and are rarely, if ever, mentioned again. If they are mentioned, it’s done either to guilt-trip June or to point out that there’s very little profit in helping her. This could be intentional – it’s always possible that the writers want us to really grasp how easily people are forgotten in Gilead – but I think it’s more likely that they just don’t care enough to make June slow down and think before she leaps. Equally grating is the fact that the writers have been steadily turning June into Aunt Lydia since the middle of last season, and they need to cut it the fuck out. I’m glad Janine called her out on that. It’s about time someone did. (And on that note I SWEAR TO GOD JANINE BETTER BE ALIVE OR I WILL BURN SHIT DOWN HOLY FUCK)
And now for some slightly more positive stuff…
I’m glad that the writers have at least been realistic about the transition from Gilead to Canada. I love that Rita has been working with the rescued kids to ease them into the real world in the gentlest way possible. I just love Rita in general. I love that she gets to tell Fred what she thinks of him. (FYI, Fred, “I was never cruel to you” doesn’t mean jackshit when you basically saw Rita as a warm-blooded tea trolley.) I love that she takes exactly zero prisoners when Serena tries to push her baby off on her. I really love that after all the trauma and abuse she finally has a place of her own and a table where she can sit by herself and eat sushi if she wants to. I hope the writers are kind to Rita. I want her to have a long and peaceful life.
Of course, it wouldn’t be The Handmaid’s Tale if I weren’t secretly worrying about something in the background, so I will say that I am mildly worried that the baby will unite the Waterfords. I’m pretty sure “fuck the Waterfords” is going to become my rallying cry for this season, because I am so over them. On the other hand, it’s the Waterfords, so they’ll probably fall out again over something incredibly stupid. I don’t see any long-term alliances in the cards, but, well, I guess we’ll see. I’ll be okay with them getting free if they get canceled the second they make it back to Gilead. Book Fred didn’t last very long after June’s departure, so if the writers want to go that route I am here for it. (Possibly irrelevant, but when the fucking fuck did Serena manage to get pregnant? Literally who has she been sleeping with? I could’ve sworn Fred was sterile, but if she’s been with anyone else they’ve hidden it extraordinarily well. I suppose they could’ve hooked up on their last night together before they got arrested, when they were getting along pretty well, though I didn’t really think they were on those kind of terms anymore. Mr. Tuello would be my first guess if it’s not Fred, but, again, if he and Serena have been doing the nasty it’s news to me.)
Overall I’m okay with season 4 so far. I like it better than season 3 (not a super high bar, but it’s good that it passed it). At the very least I’m looking forward to tonight’s episode, and I’m reasonably confident that June makes it out of Gilead this season. Whether she stays out is another question, but we’ll cross that exasperating bridge when we come to it.