In one of the most harrowing scenes from The Handmaid’s Tale’s debut season, Elisabeth Moss’s June Osborne and the handmaids of Gilead surround and beat a man to death. In the dystopian theocracy of the books, these ceremonies are called “Particicutions”—a portmanteau of “participation” and “execution.” They’re reserved, nominally, for men who rape and assault handmaids—but as author Margaret Atwood makes clear, the government often uses these ceremonies to execute its own enemies. The women’s blows never really stand a chance of landing on their oppressors.
The handmaids’ participation is perhaps even more important than the execution. Gilead incites these women to violence to make them a part of its work—enforcers, in their own way, of its ruthless belief system, even if their complicity is never a choice. In doing this, Gilead not only gives the handmaids an outlet for their rage, but also distances them from their humanity. It’s an attempt to destroy any hope they might have that one day they could emerge from this nightmare to resume life as normal.
Famously planned when a Hillary Clinton presidency seemed like a foregone conclusion, The Handmaid’s Tale nonetheless embodied all of the anxieties surrounding Donald Trump’s administration when it premiered in April of 2017. The premiere season brought Atwood’s work to screen with urgency and style, sweeping at the Emmys and securing Hulu’s place in the burgeoning streaming wars. But the two seasons that followed were brutal and circuitous. And with spin-off series The Testaments on the way (based on a book Atwood wrote after the show’s runaway success), Handmaid’s has begun to feel less like a poignant story and more like an expanding media universe steeped in trauma for trauma’s sake. With each successive season, it’s become more difficult to imagine what point there could be to extending all this anguish.
Season 4, which debuts its first three episodes Wednesday, is no less punishing to watch, especially in early episodes. (Episode 3, the first of three installments directed by Elisabeth Moss, is nearly unbearable in its brutality.) But it also brings a renewed sense of purpose, as June and her fellow rebellious handmaids regroup and try to decide what’s next. It’s not that this season gets any less dark. (It definitely does not, figuratively or literally.) Still, the storytelling feels almost as clear and deliberate as it did when The Handmaid’s Tale first began, even if this series might never recover its initial urgency. After non-stop pain, it seems we’re finally in for at least a little catharsis.
As we saw at the end of Season 3, June successfully smuggled dozens of children out of Gilead on a plane but chose once more to remain behind. The fourth season opens as she and her fellow handmaids take refuge and try to figure out their next moves—and it quickly becomes apparent that there’s some disagreement as to how that should be done. Some are ready to stop fighting; they’d rather find whatever joy they can in hiding. For June, that’s clearly not an option. The episodes that follow revisit that tension again and again.
In the past two seasons, June Osborne began to feel more like a superhero than a person. Thanks to some thick plot armor, she’s constantly evaded bodily harm while peers who’ve committed lesser crimes have lost eyes and digits. Here, however, we start to really see what this fight has taken from June—what Gilead has taken from her—in more depth.
Moss’s bracing performance has always anchored this series, but in this season, she constantly outdoes herself. Her is face an ever-shifting canvas for micro-expressions of anguish, love, fury, and hope. At multiple points this season, June finds herself in a position that for years has belonged to the Commanders and Aunts in her orbit: She must determine what a just outcome should be people for who’ve transgressed. It’s in these moments, when it’s unclear whether June will choose mercy or initiate a “Particicution” of her own, that we begin to see what Gilead has done to her, and by extension to all her fellow handmaids.
Samira Wiley, who plays June’s best friend Moira, also gets some meatier material this season. She’s helping support June’s bereft husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) as he raises baby Nichole and working with refugees from Gilead, some of whom have formed a support group, and is still struggling to find her own path forward in Canada.
But the real triumph is Janine, whose characterization over the years has been shaky. (At times, the vulnerable handmaid’s fragile mental and emotional state has felt like a poignant reminder of how deeply Gilead can rupture a person’s spirit; at others, the show has seemingly sympathized with the way those around Janine infantilize her.) Through flashbacks, we see a little more of Janine’s story—and as we get to know her better, she seems to regain a shred of herself that she’d lost somewhere along the way.
By the eighth episode of the season, the final installment available for review, June, Moira, Janine, and Emily (the other wayward handmaid played by Alexis Bledel) have each faced the same question, albeit from distinct emotional and geographical vantage points: How does one move on from a trauma like Gilead? And perhaps more importantly, when does that moving on begin?
Even for those handmaids who make it across the border to Canada, Gilead has cut too deeply to simply forget. The droves of refugees arriving in Canada and elsewhere are traumatized, and their recovery will be, as Moira says at one point, “a bumpy fucking road.”
It’s hard to blame anyone who gave up on The Handmaid’s Tale’s graphic misery and relentless dourness a season or two ago. Some of the problems from those entries continue here. (As pointless as it’s become to keep coming back to Aunt Lydia, this series will never let Ann Dowd go, and at this point the same seems to go for Bradley Whitford’s Commander Lawrence.) But after two seasons of wondering whether there’s any way to satisfyingly end this story, this season feels like a return to form that could set up the nuanced conclusion that June’s harrowing journey deserves.