In the five years since Season 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale premiered on Hulu, the question of what justice actually looks like has become imperative to American culture. In some cases justice is punitive, requiring conviction in a court of law and commensurate punishment. Other situations call for restorative justice, where material and social amends are allocated to make up for past wrongs. The default situation of most characters on The Handmaid’s Tale is unjust, and the show has taken a long time to imagine what form their justice might take when and if they achieve it. Season 4 only begins to answer that question.
When we last saw June and her Mayday army of Handmaids and Marthas, they were smuggling children out of Gilead at the cost of many of their own lives (not June’s, of course; the bullet she took in Season 3’s final moments was plot-conscious enough to avoid her vital organs). Season 4 picks up moments after that and continues June’s trajectory from Handmaid to rebel leader complete with all of the massive problems June’s actions regularly cause. By now it’s not surprising to find out that her stunt with the children put more women who helped her on the wall, or that members of the Martha network are kind of sick of her recklessness — in fact, Season 4 digs June deeper into a potentially irredeemable hole by making her quest for justice messier and bloodier than it ever was before.
Season 4 continues The Handmaid’s Tale‘s tonal dissonance between wanting to canonize June and calling her out for her increasingly ruinous behavior. It’s the first season to openly acknowledge that June’s abuse has made her abusive, her manipulative environment has turned her into a master manipulator, and the general toxicity of Gilead has transformed her into an incredibly toxic individual. At the same time, even as she burns through Season 4’s new environments like a slow-acting poison, the imagery of the show is obsessed with portraying her as an avenging angel complete with soaring choir music and, yeah, like a million more perfectly centered shots where she stares into the camera/our souls.
Most of the other Season 4 plots, including those with Commander Lawrence, now–Commander Nick, and Moira drive home the depressing idea that where Gilead is involved, doing good for one person always means doing evil to another. There are very few “wins” in Season 4 that don’t come with devastating consequences, to the point that The Handmaid’s Tale‘s past reputation for going too hard on scenes of physical torture is supplanted with going too hard on the constant moral distress. Fans of the trolley problem will love this season; people who enjoy sleeping through the night may not.
Fans of the trolley problem will love this season; people who enjoy sleeping through the night may not.
Perhaps most interesting is Season 4’s further exploration of the greater world’s reaction to Gilead. Up until this season it has been easy for viewers to assume that everyone outside of Gilead is horrified at whatever news leaks out of the violent fundamentalist enclave and therefore represent the “good” people in the world, but Season 4 disposes of that idea very quickly. Gilead does to other nations what it does to its people — it corrodes the very notions of right and wrong and turns everyone it touches into monsters. Seeing how other Americans, other Christians, and other refugees react to Gilead is one of the best elements of Season 4 and builds towards a long overdue examination of the social forces that still make the threat of Gilead seem possible in the real world.
The overarching truth behind June’s heel turn and the impossible choices each character faces in The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 appears to be that pervasive injustice cannot be corrected on an individual level. Abuse is a morally destructive act, and a state founded on sanctioned abuse cannot be destroyed by a single victim. In Season 4, the problems are bigger and the answers are further out of reach, which of course makes compelling television for straight-up masochists and those who want a sneak peek at next year’s Emmy nominations.
The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 are streaming on Hulu with new episodes coming each Wednesday.