Deep into its run, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has found itself — or a version of itself, at once leaner and stranger — again.
In the past, I’ve written that this show, which boasts a strong ensemble cast supporting probably the most agile performer on television, has been frustratingly unable to emerge from the potency of its set-up. Season after season was spent re-litigating the harms done to Elisabeth Moss’ June, all while reducing her from a recognizable human into a character history. The show made the point that June had been altered by trauma too well. Now, though, June feels liberated; in the wake of Season 4’s conclusion, in which our heroine led a mob killing of her tormentor (Joseph Fiennes), Moss’ performance feels opened up, and so does the series’ creative universe.
This new season, cannily, largely takes place outside of the show’s post-America theocracy of Gilead, and beyond the immediate concerns of Handmaid life. Progressing the story admirably, June is now figuring out her next act, as a person who has freed herself, slain her enemy, and helped to jump-start a resistance that’s clearly winning. The scrappiness of the forces of good, and the surprising resilience of Gilead, generate interest, as does June’s restlessness: Who is she, years into her crusade, if she’s not fighting? Elsewhere, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the formerly world-beating antifeminist who sat at the center of Gilead’s power structure, finds herself punished by the tools she’d helped craft in what proves a satisfying example of narrative math. Without her husband, after all, she’s not a power broker. According to the rules she’d devised, she’s nothing.
It’s not her punishment we root for, exactly: indeed, a question haunting this season is what it means, and whether it is possible, to forgive true harm. But the reversal allows every character to show a new side. In Strahovski’s case, that’s a penitence that’s still shaded with Serena Joy’s pride and near-total inability to truly concede wrong. For Moss, pride enters the equation as well, with her collisions with Serena Joy granting June the sense that, finally, her belief in herself as a transformative figure isn’t all in her head, and raising the question of how much farther she can push things.
Those collisions strain credulity, even this far into a series whose tricks we know by now: “Handmaid’s” has got to be “Handmaid’s.” This means shoving characters together in permutations that only really make sense within a world where June has the profile of a superhero and Serena Joy of a supervillain. They’re among the only figures in or of Gilead, especially given the marginalization of the supporting cast. Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia feels tangential to the proceedings; Alexis Bledel’s Emily, in the wake of the performer’s leaving the show, is explained away in a single hasty scene. And Bradley Whitford’s Commander Lawrence, emerging as the final boss of Gilead, reigns over all with a performance of admirable complication (even if, deep in the season, the writers can’t resist the temptation to let him explain a bit too much about his thinking and schemes in a Bond-villain style).
And yet the show feels unbounded, as we see our way towards both a possible end to Gilead and, crucially, a world outside it. June had reached Canada before this season, but it’s now that the choices that lie before her feel clearly outlined and revealing of a character, not just the problems a character faces.
Even as a person who’s faulted “The Handmaid’s Tale” plenty in the past, one must grant that it’s been an above-average attempt at cracking a near-insoluble problem. To wit: we have arrived at an intriguing place, one in which June must make choices about how to proceed against her abusers, precisely because of the many hurts she’s suffered. But getting there wended viewers through television that was frustratingly recursive, holding the show and its talent effectively in stasis (with June inching towards freedom, then getting slapped back) for years. What’s happening now matters because of what came before, which was in its own moment ineffective due to repetition. We feel all the more aware of June’s liberation because of how tied in we were with events that came to feel as banal as they did evil.
What’s done is done, and “Handmaid’s” is in a new, fascinating era, one that’s at its best when it’s unbounded from current events. Attempts, for instance, to tie the world of Gilead to the new American tradition of child-parent separations at the border are understandable in their intent but fall short: If there’s a show that could take on the gravity of that shame, it isn’t this one. The show, which was planned before the rise of Donald Trump and based on a generation-old novel, once got heat from its adjacency to a vivified right-wing movement. But the recent overturning of a woman’s fundamental right to choose happened so recently that these latest episodes could not have responded; instead, the new “Handmaid’s” approach allows for a different kind of insight. It’s another reversal: The show, in its fifth season, excels when it treats its situations as symbolic and its characters as real.
The first two episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” will launch on Wednesday, September 14 on Hulu, with new episodes to follow weekly.