In the five years and more than 50 episodes since it arrived, The Handmaid’s Tale (streams on Crave, new episodes Wednesdays) has changed direction. But some would say it has not changed or evolved enough.
Reading reviews of this new and fifth season – it will end with the sixth season – by U.S.-based critics is a revelation. There is one constant theme: The show has run out of steam and is now repetitive. Main character June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), the Handmaid in the dystopian America called Gilead, has been raped, tortured and emotionally abused over and over again, the reviews point out. It is also pointed out that while the initial first season had ominous real-world connectivity, that connection is now frayed.
It seems hard to imagine that in a United States in which abortion rights have been suddenly restricted, the emphasis on terrifying misogyny in The Handmaid’s Tale might seem less meaningful. But, often, what coverage focuses on is conventional character development and story arc.
Looking at what’s been written, one phrase is repeated often. It is said that June has, “found freedom in Canada.” Now, that’s true, in that June escaped Gilead for Toronto and is with her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley). At the end of last season – look away if you haven’t seen it – she carried out the brutal punishment-murder of her former tormentor, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes).
There’s an intense smirk of rightful revenge on her face, a lip-smacking relish. But she expects to be punished for her action. That doesn’t happen. In one early scene, she’s told, “These events did not occur in Canada, it is not a concern of the Crown.” Absurdly, she’s told to pay a fine of $80 and she can do that online. So, in an interesting way, the series is now more about Canada and what freedom means here, than it is about a cockeyed, Christian-fascist United States.
The series is made here, has been since the beginning, employs Canadian actors, directors and others, and is, of course, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel. Somehow, it seems, after spending part of each year here, for everyone involved, the matter of Canada has truly seeped into the texture and storylines.
It is not entirely blissful and benign, the Canada featured here. There are more supporters of Gilead than before, people who sympathize with the hard-line, right-wing religious country next door. Thematically, this is a fierce twist, and may explain the disgruntlement of some reviewers. They realize it’s not about the United States any more, but are reluctant to see it as more about Canada.
Certainly, it continues to be about revenge, and there is a shift in that the two main protagonists are June and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the now-widowed wife of Waterford. She takes his body back to Gilead for burial and, knowing that June is responsible for the savagery inflicted on him, is far less forgiving than the Canadian authorities.
As the season progresses, the battle between these two women is shockingly raw, with Serena using June’s kidnapped child Hannah as a pawn. And in Gilead, Serena finds herself not quite as powerful as she imagined, now that she doesn’t have a husband. As for June, how will she use the freedom and refuge that Canada has provided?
As before and in almost every series featuring Moss (she directed the first two episodes), there are many close-ups on her face, which embodies so much fury and hurt. Now, however, some familiar characters from earlier seasons are diminished or gone. The rebellious and pragmatic Emily (Alexis Bledel) is gone, having retuned to Gilead to enact revenge, we’re told. The strict and brutal Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is more on the margins than before.
What’s not on the margins is Canada. June and her cohorts are in a place that has seen so much American craziness, even if the place is called Gilead now. June is liberated, to some extent, by Canada and it is up to her to determine how that liberation transforms her.
There has always been something almost unhinged about the density of the action and the horror in The Handmaid’s Tale. It may have won multiple Emmy Awards, but to some viewers, it’s too intense, too furious, too merciless.
Yet this season does feel different. The first clue is in the opening episode. When Serena returns to Gilead, the guy who seems to be in charge, the mischievous Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford, who energizes every scene he’s in) wisecracks about seeing the Leafs in Toronto. Serena says she has no interest in hockey. To which he replies, “Oh, you’d love it, elegant yet brutal.” Yes, we’re definitely in a Canada-themed context now.