Content warning: Mentions of rape, torture
Laying down with her head firmly resting on Serena Joy’s lap, her hands pinned, the overhead shot focuses on Offred’s face as she is raped by Commander Waterford. Still clothed in his tailored suit, he thrusts into her before quickly walking away and exiting the room without a word. Offred lays frozen on the bed, her face lost as she regains the clarity of reality after disassociating during the ceremonial rape. Serena Joy releases Offred’s hands and quickly shuffles to the side of the bed with disgust — not for what just occurred, but with pure hatred for Offred — as she barks for her to leave the room. Since debuting in April 2017, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” has captivated audiences with its deeply disturbing and graphic depiction of the United States overrun by a totalitarian theonomic patriarchy called Gilead.
After mass infertility plagues the U.S. and the Republic of Gilead takes full control, the women within society (those who didn’t escape) get placed into different factions. Fertile but older women become Marthas, homemakers and wives for the Commanders. Fertile young women become live-in sex slaves to Commanders and must participate in the aforementioned “ceremony” once a month. Everyone else in society who is not part of the elite or the imperialistic police force called The Eye are sent to the colonies, where they will perform hard labor until death can free them.
The protagonist is Offred, or June Osborn, a Handmaid who struggles to survive, with her initial hope being that she will one day escape with her daughter, Hannah. However, June quickly learns that the consequences of breaking Gilead’s laws could include digital amputation, eyeball extraction, female castration and death by hanging upon the infamous Wall, where fellow Handmaids will pass on their way to the market.
The show quickly achieved widespread acclaim, being the first Hulu original drama to win an Emmy for best outstanding series in 2017, along with seven other Emmys. What could have been a catalyst for the show’s success is Donald Trump’s presidency and the worldwide response from women, who feared their autonomy was now in danger from religious conservatives. It’s fitting, considering that author Margaret Atwood has said that inspirations for her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” included the American backlash to feminism, the woman’s movement and the Reagan administration.
So when Trump was elected president with evangelical Mike Pence as his vice president, many feared this was the beginning of overturning Roe v. Wade. Remembering the show’s 2017 inception, The Atlantic writer Megan Garber wrote, “The show was a textbook piece of Trump-era resistance art — a direct reply to the preening misogynies of the newly elected president.” Whether it was intended or not, the show’s first three seasons felt like a mirror reflecting the potential horrors of what could come as the United States hurled backward, led by Trump’s administration and right-wing legislation. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was relevant and tantalizing — until it felt like each season was repeating itself.
If you were to identify the overall theme of the show by season, some might describe Season 1 as that of suffering; the story is told through flashbacks of everything that June has lost and how she and the other Handmaids in the present are raped, beaten and mutilated by the leaders of Gilead under the guise of Old Testament religion. Season 2 takes that suffering and refocuses on survival for June, who is now pregnant after having an affair with Commander Waterford’s driver, Nick. These first two seasons, which occasionally veer into the realm of torture porn, scratch the surface of Gilead’s grotesque society. They also happen to mirror the peak of Trump’s presidency, where there were an estimated 58 anti-abortion health care bills proposed — with some protested by Planned Parenthood supporters dressed as Handmaids.
Viewers began to wonder what else June and the other Handmaids could go through after witnessing relentless violence, Commander Waterford’s mental and physical manipulation of June, and the painful and graphic delivery of her daughter Nicole. People wondered if “The Handmaid’s Tale” was becoming too repetitive and possibly even glorifying its subject matter, since Season 2 ended with June again choosing to stay behind despite getting help from Commander Lawrence, Gilead’s lead architect. Even I worried about where “The Handmaid’s Tale” could go after the first two seasons ended on positive (albeit somewhat sour) notes, overshadowed by grim feelings of what was to come.
Season 3 saw June’s character come full swing: The season ended with her successfully getting a plane full of Gileadean children and Marthas to Canada, as well as the arrests of Commander Waterford and Serena Joy. Fans could finally see the tides changing — until June once again decided to stay behind, this time with the goal of dismantling Gilead. As a budding writer, I wondered and worried about where the writers would take the show and if they would ever take June out of Gilead. That’s finally what Season 4 did, but it nearly fell flat in trying to save the show.
Season 4 opened with four amazing episodes full of tension, death and heartbreak until they finally did what I thought the series finale would do. June gets out. On the run in Chicago, she gets bombed and a strange Coldplay song plays in the scene as June is rescued by her best friend, Moira. The next three episodes focused on recovery outside of Gilead, and like a double-edged sword, I found myself wondering again what was left to happen and why “The Handmaid’s Tale” was so boring.
Grief can emerge only if those around you let it. June is angry, and the season continues to build tension as June’s character development seemingly stalls. She finds herself free in a country that doesn’t understand her with a husband who can’t relate and fellow survivors who have been told to count their blessings. But she still wants Hannah, and that’s where the true arc for the season finally materializes. After testifying against the Waterfords yields no results and June discovers that Commander Waterford will be released for revealing Gileadean secrets, she goes rogue. While talking to Emily, June says, “I want him scared…. like I was in the forest when they took Hannah.” At this point, it is evident that she won’t stop until Waterford is dead. June will never be free while Waterford, Serena and Gilead are still alive.
The last 15 minutes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 4 finale concludes with a horrifyingly satisfying callback to Season 1. A group of women beats a rapist to death, only this time, instead of feeling shock or terror, the audience is left smiling with a long-overdue cathartic satisfaction. The Salvaging in Season 1 was to scare viewers into seeing the indoctrination of Gilead. The Handmaids were forced to beat a horrible man in the name of justice despite not wanting to carry out the sentence. The irony is perfect: Now the Commander is dropped into no man’s land and told by June to “run” as a wave of Gileadean survivors chase him before beating him to death. Finally, we see vengeance.
Vengeance for June, the other survivors and the audience: The Commander’s death under the law he drafted was perfect. The terrifying shot of June as she spikes the lens with a wide smile full of the Commander’s blood feels way overdue, but the excitement it is meant to provoke only proves how far the show has come from the torture of Season 1. The audience is not only desensitized to Gilead’s violence like June, but it also craves it. If the show had ended any other way, people would have been outraged. Like June, the audience can’t move on without seeing blood.
Once June confirms with Commander Lawrence the fate of Waterford in Gilead, he tells her that whatever they do to Waterford won’t be enough — and he’s right. Now that June and the audience have seen a victory, we want more. Season 4 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” gave the audience vengeance without a grim shadow and left a cliffhanger not shrouded in darkness, which is exactly what the show needs as the country moves out of the shadow of the previous administration. We don’t know what will happen next, but we are out of Gilead and hungry for more vengeance.