“The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 5 Review: Elisabeth Moss Takes an Odd Turn
Warning: This review has spoilers for all seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale and discusses the upcoming fifth season
Over its first four seasons, The Handmaid’s Tale put June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) through hell. She’s seen her home country, the United States of America, toppled by a cadre of Christo-fascists; she was separated from her family in an attempt to flee Gilead, the rogue state occupying the former U.S.; she was coerced into childbearing “service” for a powerful Commander and his wife; she gave birth to a daughter she was not permitted to raise herself; she watched as friends and compatriots were summarily killed; she survived sexual violence, both within and without the bounds of Gilead law.
June has had triumphs, too: arranging for more than 80 Gilead children to be resettled in Canada; fatally poisoning a bunch of political insiders at a brothel; escaping Gilead herself; testifying against her former captors at the International Criminal Court; joining a bunch of her fellow expatriate Handmaids in stoning her former Commander to death. But every time the viewer thinks “June’s work must surely be done,” June herself reminds us: her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) is still in Gilead, and June will not rest until they are reunited. June’s anxiety, grief, and guilt are all credible motivations for her violent actions, and Moss performs them convincingly. The problem with The Handmaid’s Tale is that there are a bunch of other stories swirling around Hannah’s, and they are increasingly straining the viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief.
We rejoin June in the season five premiere hours after the ritualistic stoning of Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). Her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and housemate/best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley) aren’t sure they should leave her alone with her toddler daughter, Nichole, after June tells them what she did. Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger), of the U.S. Government-in-Exile, advises June not to feel safe from a counter-attack by Gilead. Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), Waterford’s widow, tells Tuello she doesn’t feel safe from June. And she probably shouldn’t, because one of June’s fellow ex-Handmaids has given her a handgun. June and Serena may have left Gilead, but they can’t leave each other.
Serena has been detained on charges of rape and sexual slavery, but—having learned in the previous season that she’s miraculously pregnant—she’s eager to return to Gilead to raise her still-unborn son. But it’s not going to be so easy: her friend Mrs. Putnam (Ever Carradine) lets her know Gilead doesn’t distinguish between the status of a widow and a (gasp) single mother, so Serena might not be permitted to raise her child there herself. Serena’s Canadian fans, whom we first started to meet last season, grow bolder once her legal deal comes through and she’s able to move more freely around Toronto—but theocratic sympathizers outside Gilead may not be the allies Serena thinks.
The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale worked because it hewed so closely to the novel that inspired it, not just in terms of its plot, but also its setting. The Waterford house was outwardly comfortable and safe, a stark contrast to the perversions carried out within it; the viewer was trapped in claustrophobic domesticity. The June of the book is, at best, a flaky revolutionary, but continuing the TV series past the end of the novel required her character to be more active, more focused, more effective. So at this point, June is basically a superhero. (How many actions has June carried out against this oppressive regime? How many times has she been caught? HOW IS SHE NOT DEAD?!) On top of that, the details we learn about Gilead within the context of the wider world seem entirely elastic depending on what any episode’s plot may require.
Which leads me to another question: at this point, has The Handmaid’s Tale tipped over into camp?
I realize that might be strange to say about a show that, until fairly recently, featured scenes of physical torture and rape in every episode. (It’s more like every other episode these days.) But think about it. First, there’s the baseline sci-fi premise: what if American women found themselves robbed of their bodily autonomy in a horrifying dystopia? (Can you even imagine?) But there’s also the “romance” between June and her baby’s father, Eye-turned-Commander Nick (Max Minghella), which we’re supposed to invest in despite Minghella’s, shall we say, diminutive emotional range. There’s Bradley Whitford as Commander Lawrence, approaching his role as a would-be reformer and barely closeted apostate with a giddy cheer not seen in a villain since Harry Groener as Buffy’s Mayor Wilkins. In the season five premiere, we get a nearly silent scene in which June and her ravenous fellow murderers absolutely destroy their hearty diner breakfasts—still covered in their victim’s blood, about which their over-it server has no comment. The more scenes end with a tight close-up of June glaring up at the camera, the more I feel I must read them as a running gag.