Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 19, 2022)
After one year’s hiatus – presumably due to the COVID-19 pandemic - The Handmaid’s Tale returned. After Season Three ended in August 2019, Season Four came to us in April 2021.
With this three-disc DVD set, we get all 10 episodes from The Handmaid’s Tale’s fourth season. The plot synopses come from IMDB.
Pigs: “On the run, an injured June (Elisabeth Moss) and the fugitive Handmaids find refuge at a farm. In Gilead, an imprisoned Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) tries to avoid a death sentence. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) reels from the loss of 86 children on Angels' Flight.”
Though I liked the first two seasons of Tale, S3 largely left me cold. At least this opened room for improvement with S4.
Does “Pigs” portend a rebound? Maybe – it seems hard to tell after just one show. However, I see some promising signs, so I hope to get a bounce back from subsequent episodes.
Nightshade: “June plots revenge at the local Jezebels, before she and the Handmaids plan to leave the farm for the next safe house. In Toronto, Moira (Samira Wiley) deals with the fallout of June's choices. Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Fred (Joseph Fiennes) are bound together by a miracle.”
Does “Nightshade” thicken some plot points? Sure – it moves along events in a moderate manner.
I can’t claim that it helps substantially renew my interest after the doldrums of S3, though. Perhaps matters will intensify as we go, but through two episodes, S4 feels underwhelming.
The Crossing: “Captured by Gilead, June faces a vengeful Aunt Lydia and endures a torturous interrogation. Nick (Max Minghella) and Lawrence collaborate to protect June. In Toronto, Luke (O-T Fagbenle) struggles with how to help June and Hannah (Jordana Blake).”
With “Crossing”, we get some stakes cranked up, and tension/drama result. However, the overall narrative seen so far in S4 just doesn’t feel all that strong, as the series tends toward basic character threats without much other dimensionality so far.
Milk: “June takes a harrowing journey with Janine, trying to escape Gilead, as Janine (Madeline Brewer) remembers a stressful experience in her past. In Toronto, Serena tries to manipulate Rita (Amanda Brugel), who seeks advice from Moira.”
During the series’ first two seasons, it felt like it made important social comments. Now it feels more like a generic character drama – when it doesn’t echo The Fugitive. I continue to hold out hope that S4 will improve, but so far it seems without a lot of real narrative drive.
Chicago: “June seeks out more active rebels in the Chicago war zone, while Janine tries to help her fit in with their new group of survivors. Moira goes on her first field aid mission.”
As I mentioned, prior S4 episodes largely avoided the social/political commentary of the first few seasons. That changes here, but not in a positive manner, as “Chicago” makes ham-fisted allusions to the Trump era. Throw in more dull character meandering and “Chicago” lacks punch.
Vows: “After a shocking reunion with a dear friend, June contemplates the possibility of freedom, and confronts the unfulfilled promises she's made to herself and to Luke.”
In theory, “Vows” ratchets up the drama, as it brings some real life or death consequences on a bigger than usual scale. Some of this adds drama but the ennui of the prior episodes seems hard to overcome. Still, “Vows” acts as a step in the right direction, so hopefully S4 will continue to improve from here.
Home: “June struggles with her newfound freedom, reuniting with loved ones and confronting her nemesis, Serena.”
After some fairly dramatic moments in “Vows”, “Home” feels less compelling, mainly because it goes into semi-dull legal issues and some melodrama. I continue to think that Tale used all its social commentary juice in its first two years and it tends to sputter now with less obvious purpose.
Testimony: “June confronts Fred and Serena in court and challenges Emily (Alexis Bledel) to face a painful reminder of her Gilead past. Lawrence presents Aunt Lydia with a newly captured and familiar Handmaid.”
Given June’s ability to confront her tormentors, one might expect some real tension and fireworks from “Testimony”. Instead, we largely find the usual moribund melodrama.
Progress: “June and Luke work together to save Hannah. Serena and Fred greet unexpected visitors from Gilead. Janine tries to assist Aunt Lydia when a Handmaid-in-training goes on hunger strike.”
With little time left in S4, one would expect “Progress” to push toward a big climax. One would expect incorrectly, as it becomes just another collection of mopey character beats that fails to make much impact.
The Wilderness: “June draws on all her resources and relationships, risking everything to ensure her own kind of justice.”
Whereas the first couple of seasons used June as a way to depict the social structure and political domains of the Tale universe, subsequent shows got too caught up in June to the exclusion of much else. This becomes why I see S4 as character melodrama and not a lot else, for the series lost its ability to provide biting commentary.
“Wilderness” tends to feel like “fan service” as June seeks her revenge and redemption. This should pay off emotionally but it doesn’t, so “Wilderness” offers a flaccid conclusion to a forgettable season.