always a degree of dread whenever a new season of The Handmaid’s Tale comes around, at least for this critic. Since the exceptional first season, which followed and finished Margaret Atwood’s original novel, the writers have clearly been scrabbling to retrieve that zenith. Season two was a boring, gratuitous slog across the land formerly known as America. Season three was a promising improvement, engendering a new appeal and reducing the violence on screen.
Despite being renewed for a fifth season and a sequel series in development (based on Atwood’s sequel The Testaments), season four feels like a final chance for creator Bruce Miller to snatch back the show’s former glory. From this opening episode, that prospect looks unrealistic – but it's occasionally engaging.
The magnetic Elisabeth Moss resumes her role as June Osborne (formerly Offred and Ofjoseph), who’s just smuggled 86 children out of Gilead by plane. She’s been shot, and a handful of supportive handmaids take her to a remote farm. This first episode kicks off immediately with close-ups of a bleeding bullet wound, and then the eye-patched Janine (Madeline Brewer) burns the wound to seal it. It’s a fraught and painful start.
Photo: Channel 4/Sophie Giraud/Hulu
The operatic visuals continue to be an enduring quality of The Handmaid’s Tale; they’re always flawless and memorable. (One of the series’ cinematographers, Colin Watkinson, takes the director’s chair again for this episode.) But despite these aesthetic qualities, the regular motif of red figures running through snowy woods has become a go-to visual cliché. Haven’t we seen this many times before? It's becoming as repetitive as all those damn 'Blessed Day's and 'Under His Eye's.
The owners of the farm allow the handmaids to hide as assisting Marthas. But the child bride of the house, Esther, is a little psychopath – for understandable reasons. Mckenna Grace (The Haunting of Hill House) is excellent in the role, igniting a genuine fury of adolescent sadism.
However, Esther’s traumas are sickening to listen to. Bruce Miller has the decency here to restrict these harrowing events to recollections rather than demonstrations – much like what Barry Jenkins achieved in The Underground Railroad. But hearing a child actor say these things is severely uncomfortable, to the point of nausea. In time, this turns into a messy revenge-thriller – clearly setting up a new direction for June’s journey.
Mckenna Grace stars as the sadistic child bride Esther. Photo: Channel 4/Jasper Savage/Hulu
Meanwhile in this dystopian existence, the reaction to the 86 children is rippling across Gilead and Canada. The vengeful Aunt Lydia (a terrifying, fascinating Ann Dowd) has been punished for her failures, and is intent on hunting down June once and for all.
Commander Lawrence, despite being in prison, is desperate for the ‘diplomatic opportunity’ that the 86 give Gilead. He's played by Bradley Whitford with such political grace, resembling his best-known role as Josh Lyman in The West Wing. Even Fred and Serena Waterford (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski), separated in a Canadian prison for crimes against humanity, are terrified about the impact. War’s brewing.
This is a tough episode to start the season with, and it’ll hardly convince those who’ve given up. But the lessons from season two remain learned and the potential boredom hasn’t hit yet. Although, with nine more episodes yet to go, that could easily change.
The Handmaid's Tale, season 4, airs on Sunday 20 June at 9pm on Channel 4
|What||The Handmaid's Tale, season 4, first-look review|
20 Jun 21 – 20 Jun 22, ON CHANNEL 4
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