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The Handmaid’s Tale invites its viewers to Joe Biden’s Gilead

Season four was more accidentally timely than ever.

June, wearing a red coat, holds a baby while in Canada.
June cradles baby Nichole, getting blood all over her, in The Handmaid’s Tale’s fourth season finale.
Sophie Giraud/Hulu
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Handmaid’s Tale operates with the emotional logic of an abuse survivor. How could it not? Its protagonist suffered endlessly at the hands of a couple whose systemic rape and assault of her were supported by the state. She could recover. She could gain a semblance of her normal life again. But she’ll never escape what happened to her.

The remarkable thing about The Handmaid’s Tale’s fourth season, which wrapped up with a bloody and beautiful finale Wednesday, is how completely it snaps a sometimes-wayward story back into focus. It’s probably the show’s best season since its first, particularly in its second half, which becomes a rolling ball of catharsis that is almost impossible to resist. (I say “probably” because I do love the ultra-grim season two.) It also underscores, however, just how much The Handmaid’s Tale seemed lost in the wilderness for a while there.

Season four does something I’ve never quite seen a TV show do, which is that it tells a story that retroactively makes sense of its dour second season and scattered third season but also proves how much the storytelling in those seasons failed to explain what The Handmaid’s Tale was trying to do. Now that I can see the plan, I wish the show had spent more time assuring me it had a plan.

Yet season four also gains at least some power from the moment in which it is airing. This is a show about a woman who’s been through an intense, traumatizing event, who feels incapable of leaving that event behind. As everyone around her attempts to have a nice, peaceful, “normal” life, she keeps insisting they look back at what happened to them, to the degree that some of her friends and loved ones start to seem a little bit exhausted by her. She’s kind of a pain, but it’s also hard to ignore that she’s right. Horrors are happening right next door, and whatever anger everybody feels is unsatisfactory because it doesn’t match the void inside her. You tune those horrors out — even for your own well-being — at your own peril.

The Handmaid’s Tale has always been accidentally timely, but season four is its most accidentally timely season. It’s kind of about the long hangover from Covid-19 and quarantine and kind of about a whole bunch of other things. Most of all, it’s about telling yourself things are okay because your circumstances have changed while the lives of millions of others remain as terrible as they were before.

Season four doesn’t take place in our world, but also it does. Call its reality Joe Biden’s Gilead.

Spoilers follow for the entirety of the season.

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

The Handmaid’s Tale season four goes a long way toward escaping the show’s “torture chic” aesthetic

The Handmaid’s Tale has always made sense to me on a level I couldn’t quite explain. It made me feel vaguely masochistic to look at a series about incredible torture and abuse and say, “Ah, yes, I understand!” when the perils visited upon June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) are so far beyond the comprehension of most humans alive at this point.

By the end of season four, June has not only survived all the horrors of being a handmaid in Gilead but also several explosions, tense court hearings, and a long ride in a refrigerated train car meant to carry milk. She is vaguely superheroic or maybe antiheroic, and The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t particularly interested in separating those two ideas.

The power of season one laid in two aspects: one within the show’s control and the other outside it. The former was in the decision to depict what happened to June as vaguely ordinary, hewing closely to the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name that served as its source material. The events of the first season focus on what life is like for a fertile person in Gilead, an idea underlined by the show’s many, many, many close-ups. Viewers were invited to put themselves in June’s shoes. Here was a scenario, the show seemed to argue, under which cis straight white women of means could understand just how tenuous their grasp on power really was.

A car on fire is the backdrop for June’s visit to Chicago.
June stands in the burned out remnants of a city block in Chicago.

The powerful aspect that laid outside The Handmaid’s Tale’s control also underlined that feeling of tenuousness. The series debuted in the early months of the Donald Trump presidency, in a world where a lot of those very women with access to privilege and a progressive streak were questioning just how little that access mattered when the country was electing a president who had openly bragged about committing sexual assault. Gilead wasn’t real, but it felt vaguely like it could be, like our reality was brushing up against it from time to time.

The Handmaid’s Tale also commodified the suffering of women who didn’t have access to privilege, providing a kind of proxy access to it for richer, whiter women who struggled with structural misogyny, to be sure, but weren’t grappling with structural racism or classism. By its third season, the series’ aesthetic had almost entirely reinvented itself not as torture porn but as torture chic. What happened to June was unbearable, but what she had to overcome was so bad that it just made her more badass, right? And how about all those billowing red Handmaid capes against the white wintry backdrop of Toronto?

That “torture chic” quality didn’t completely disappear in season four. The finale features the image of Fred Waterford’s corpse hanging from a noose in front of a wall on which the women who killed him have spray-painted “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” The Latin phrase from Atwood’s book translates to “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” and the TV show has turned it into a marketing slogan. (When my wife saw the corpse shot, she snarked, “Well, there’s my new desktop background.”) But the show has gotten smarter about the ways in which the horrors June survived have only made her seem more badass. She’s also tremendously, horrifically broken.

There’s a truism in support groups for survivors of child abuse that quotes an unnamed person telling the survivor, “But it made you stronger.” To that, the survivor replies, “I was a child. I didn’t need to be stronger. I needed to be safe.” June isn’t a survivor of child abuse; the abuse she has lived through occurred when she was an adult, and it came at the hands of what had been her government. Still, the principle holds. She only seems superficially stronger. What she really needed, all along, was to have autonomy, to be left alone, to be safe.

What happens when the world is falling apart and you’re the only one who notices?

Moira holds baby Nichole in a sunlit room.
In contrast to June, Moira seems like she is trying to process her trauma and move forward with her life.

Halfway through season four, June escapes to Canada. She is dragged there against her will by her closest friend Moira (Samira Wiley, always The Handmaid’s Tale’s stealth MVP). June would rather stay behind in Gilead to find her oldest daughter, Hannah, and bring her to safety. But the show spends the rest of the season emphasizing that Hannah isn’t all that’s keeping June in Gilead. She’s going to be stuck in Gilead forever because of how deeply scarred she is psychologically — and if she has to live there, then she needs to make sure the rest of the world watches it burn.

At times, season four seems like it’s adapting the consistent Twitter invocation from the 2020 election: Once Trump is out of office, we can’t just go “back to brunch.” This shorthand was always at least a little misogynist — “going to brunch” is vaguely coded as an activity that women enjoy in American society, so the “we” is too often assumed to be vaguely feminine — but there was something true about it all the same. A lot of people, many of them upper-class white women from blue states, saw Trump as almost an anomaly, whose defeat would mean a return to normalcy.

But that return to normalcy would mostly be reserved for people whose suffering under any president would still be less than that of others. The election of Joe Biden didn’t end or even significantly curb racial injustice or workplace sexual harassment. It could not prevent a wave of anti-trans legislation at the state level. It has not dramatically upended the US military’s actions overseas. If you are someone directly affected by any of those things, your life might have changed marginally around the edges, but was it enough to make any material difference?

I am not trying to shame anyone for wanting to get back to brunch in the wake of a world-changing pandemic. I am also not exempting myself from thinking more about what normalcy means for those with less power and privilege. (I’ve been back to brunch myself; it feels good to be outside with friends, enjoying the sunshine and some nice breakfast-y foods.) What I am trying to say is that The Handmaid’s Tale, because it is positioned as a show about the very crowd being mocked with the “back to brunch” gibes, is accidentally well-suited to discussing how uneven normality really is.

June’s storyline in season four is all about escaping a traumatic situation to arrive at something resembling normalcy, only to be so marked by the traumatic situation that nobody will listen to you when you keep yelling about it. There’s something eerie about its presentation of Canada as a bougie paradise, with gleaming supermarkets and cozy homes, situated right next door to an abject nightmare. By the end of season four, the vast majority of The Handmaid’s Tale’s characters live in Canada, even if only temporarily. They’re all trying to grieve what they’ve lost and heal their wounds. Except June. She wants everybody to be as mad as she is.

There is value to this particular character on this particular show saying, “Things might finally seem normal, but they’re not. The world is still on fire, and the inferno can still come for you.” When The Handmaid’s Tale began delivering on the catharsis it had been building toward for three and a half seasons, it over-delivered. Yes, it was a little melodramatic to have June yell until she was hoarse at Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), the woman who kept her in bondage all those years, but it was satisfying. Yes, it was terribly contrived to have June be so savvy at manipulating the geopolitical situation between Gilead and Canada that she could secure an audience alone with Fred in the middle of nowhere — the better for her and many other women wronged by Gilead to beat him to death — but god, was it beautiful to see anyway.

The second half of season four finally achieved a tone the show had been going for for much of season three and season four — a kind of operatic camp realism. Everything was heightened, but it was all portrayed as if deadly serious. The show would nestle, say, the soapy fun of June’s inability to decide between the fathers of her two children right alongside stories about how hard it was for the children she liberated from Gilead to adjust to their new lives in Canada when all they’ve ever known was oppression. It made me laugh, and it made me sob. Sometimes it was doing those things intentionally; sometimes it wasn’t. I almost never knew the difference.

Astonishingly, it all came together in such a way that you could probably just dive into season four even if you previously abandoned The Handmaid’s Tale. You should probably read a plot summary of the season three finale, but it’s fascinating how little actually happened between the end of season two and the end of season three, outside a couple of characters escaping to Canada. Even in season four, The Handmaid’s Tale found its oldest habits dying hard; the season’s third installment was likely its grimmest hour yet, and it really did tip over the line into torture porn in places.

In the midst of everything, though, The Handmaid’s Tale is still a series that can deliver an arresting image. Season four ends on June cradling her second child, Nichole, while still bathed in the blood of Fred Waterford. Some of that blood rubs off on the kid. Of course it does. June, even when she does the right thing, even when she does the satisfying thing, passes her pain and despair to others. She can’t help herself.

Multiple times during the season finale, director Liz Garbus levels up The Handmaid’s Tale’s close-up game so much that June’s face is no longer a full face but a collection of parts — eyes, lips, chin, brow. Garbus rarely lets us see this woman in full; instead, she turns June into something recognizably human but also not. She is literally in pieces. Wouldn’t you be?

Those were the images that, at long last, made me understand why The Handmaid’s Tale has always had such power over me, even when I could realize how ridiculous it could get. I am a woman who was used by the evangelical Christian community I was raised in, and abused horribly by people I should have been able to trust. The reason I can say this show operates with the emotional logic of an abuse survivor is that I am one, and the reason it speaks to me so deeply is rooted in how badly I want the world to see how much I’ve been hurt. Like June, I spend every day living on a thin ice that many call normal, sure that the fire is soon to follow.

The Handmaid’s Tale’s first four seasons are available on Hulu. A fifth season has been ordered. There is no word on when it will air.