The dystopian series continues to explore the ramifications of a Christofacist reality.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 premieres with two all-new episodes Sept. 14 on Hulu, followed by weekly episodes on Wednesdays.
In the fifth season of The Handmaid’s Tale, the series continues to exist in an odd, singular space of being both a vital harbinger of near future, dystopian Christofacist possibilities, and an exhausting watch. In the five years since it first debuted on Hulu, the fictional scenarios posed in Margaret Atwood’s cautionary novel about patriarchal totalitarianism, then translated into this series, have only inched closer to reality. This season drops in a post Roe v. Wade world, which seemed impossible back in 2017, and only goes to show the speed in which rights and protections can change. And that also applies to former handmaid/now Canadian refugee June Osborne’s (Elisabeth Moss) reality, as she’s finally made it out of Gilead and this season finds herself struggling with outsized rage, PTSD symptoms, and the overwhelming grief of not being able to rescue her older daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake). As always, The Handmaid’s Tale tackles dire storylines inside and outside of Gilead with unflinching brutality, and it hasn’t gotten any easier to watch from a distance, especially if you’re a woman. While the shift in June’s existence does bring some much needed light to the series, it’s almost always tempered by something equally awful and that makes willingly spending time within its world a tough choice to make.
After two seasons of some story wheel-spinning, it is refreshing to have this installment open with some quantifiable differences. June is now reunited with her husband, Luke (O. T. Fagbenle), baby Nichole, and her best friend and fellow former handmaid, Moira (Samira Wiley). Getting to see where those relationships are now is inherently intriguing, especially in light of how much June’s body may be in Canada but her soul remains in Gilead with her daughter. There’s also a wellspring of vengeance still bubbling inside of June in the wake of what she did to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in the Season 4 finale. Finding a way to blend the throbbing call of justice with the quiet normality of a Canadian life peppered with reconnecting with Luke, baby bathtimes, and lighthearted game nights with friends is near impossible for June. And many of the early episodes feature her getting triggered by the mundanities of her new life, so she mentally goes back to the inhumanities that she suffered in Gilead, which only stokes her need for violent justice to be bestowed upon collaborators like Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). It’s clear June won’t be able to attain solace in her own skin until that happens so she’s compelled to confront and push everyone around her to want to lash out and still fight like she does. Moss conveys all of this with aching realism in her expressive face, and the series’ signature camera style of capturing the actor’s faces in framing-filling close-ups continues to make this one of the most bravely acted series on television for the entire cast.
Even with the change in location and situation for June, the series continues to be myopic with its intention of telling small stories that build slowly which means there’s a constant issue with pace in the season overall. The overarching stakes also feel too small in comparison with what’s going on in reality, and within the series as nations around Gilead just exist alongside the theocratic nation. It’s disappointing to not have the storyline strive for bigger stakes, like an actual revolution, because at this point it might make the series a more cathartic watch.
That said, it’s still understandable why showrunner Bruce Miller and his writers have kept the scale more intimate and rooted in the ensemble of core characters. Tight budgets are a real thing and staying small reinforces focus. But it’s also exacerbating that there aren’t a lot of new places to take these characters within the slow-burn pace of its storytelling. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is still doing her true believer brutality, while frail handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer) continues to be the series punching bag. Serena may be pregnant, but the lady continues to love her power and going full Karen on anyone who thwarts her desires. Those Commanders, meanwhile, remain misogynistic creeps and their wives continue to be baby obsessed and awful to their handmaids. There’s a lot of familiar paths traversed once again.
That makes Bradley Whitford even more admirable for continuing to be the sardonic MVP with his portrayal of Gilead lone wolf Commander Joseph Lawrence. A brilliant strategist of the nation, he’s also the breath of fresh air who gives the most human reactions to an array of uncomfortable Gilead scenarios presented throughout the season. His line readings are consistently the tension release valves of just about every scene he’s in, and are a very welcome counterbalance to the dogmatic figures around him. Also, Max Minghella continues to make his now Commander Nick Blaine a compassionate collaborator making amends for his former sins and trying to make an impact from the inside.
Of the eight episodes made available to reviewers (there are 10 in Season 5 overall), the very best is number seven, “No Man’s Land,” where avowed adversaries Serena Joy and June are forced into a situation where they have to exist in the same space with one another. Through flashbacks to Gilead and their present-day scenario, Moss and Strahovski get to add new facets to June and Serena’s wholly complicated relationship. The two actresses are at their best when they’re placed next to one another, finding commonalities and expressing their characters’ bitter truths. They reinforce the reality that people can be more than one thing, and they each pointedly struggle with that knowledge about one another in this well written, acted, and shot episode.
With the final episodes of the season seemingly pointing to some shifts in character perspectives and turns that create more stakes for June, Serena, and their children, the last two hours could shake up the series for the better. But more than anything, it feels like it’s very much the time to bring June and Gildead’s stories to their inevitable climax. Whether that’s going to be incendiary or more political remains to be seen. There’s no doubt how important The Handmaid’s Tale has been in the ongoing current political discourse including as a visual motivator for women around the globe. But as a series, the story needs its ending to come sooner than later, while we take its lessons to heart in the real world.