“The Handmaid’s Tale” would seem to return at an auspicious time, as the reversal of Roe v. Wade thrust Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision into the limelight. But this fifth season’s arc is ill-suited to the moment, more narrowly focused on the bond of hatred between June and Serena, to the detriment of almost everything else.
The brutal and cathartic fate of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), orchestrated by June (Elisabeth Moss) at the end of the fourth season, left its mark on Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), his widow and accomplice in the crimes of Gilead.
Yet even in a patriarchal society, Serena is not without the political skills of a survivor. And while she escaped Gilead, June remains unable to let go of her simmering anger (no one watches with intense rage like Moss), bringing it back again and again.
While shedding old grievances would surely be the practical decision, it’s just not in her, much to the chagrin of her husband, Luke (OT Fagbenle). The season thus becomes something of an extended battle of titans, even with the characters separated, providing splendid showcases for Moss and Strahovski as well as an extended reflection on the sacrifices associated with motherhood.
With Moss once again wearing many hats as star, producer and occasional director, “Handmaid’s Tale” rarely fails to deliver some tough or shocking moments. At the same time, the final season (based on watching eight of its 10 episodes) feels even guiltier for indulging in chapters that play like filler and at best advance the story.
After announcing that the sixth season will be its last, the series should take the opportunity to build towards an endgame, one that hardly anyone could accuse of being premature.
The macro story explores Gilead’s relationship to the wider world and uncomfortable questions about what its neighbors will tolerate in the pragmatic pursuit of political accommodation. There are also other less developed subplots, including Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), and What Burdens of a Conscience might look like; Nick (Max Minghella), who still yearns for June as he seeks to chart his own path; and Bradley Whitford’s Commander Lawrence, whose belief in the goal of silently reforming Gilead from within has become a central tension on this broader level.
Fundamentally, though, “The Handmaid’s Tale” worked to match the searing urgency and striking imagery (all those crimson capes, which even showed up at a Supreme Court protest) that made its award-winning first season. at the memorable Emmys in a way that practically jumped. off screen.
The Hulu series has obviously lost none of its relevance, and indeed some of its themes resonate more pointedly. Yet as this season continues the frantic march towards the end of the June story, it reinforces the sense that despite the promise of a conclusion awaiting us, the show’s best days are behind it.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” begins its fifth season September 14 on Hulu.