The Handmaid’s Tale, once an urgent parable for our times, has become merely adequate

Season 4 review: Elisabeth Moss is the best thing about an only occasionally gripping series

The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 lands at cultural moment very different from the original

The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 lands at cultural moment very different from the original

 

Arriving mere weeks after the inauguration in 2017 of Donald Trump as US president, The Handmaid’s Tale was the right show at the right time. Its warning of the dangers of populism, religiosity and state-sanctioned misogyny touched a raw place in the American psyche – and there were plenty of bad portents for the rest of us, too.

The series’ fourth season (Channel 4, 9pm) arguably lands at a very different cultural moment, so that it no longer feels like quite such a gesture of resistance.

The other problem is that this portrayal of a near-future where women have been reduced to chattels has long since left behind the original Margaret Atwood novel. And as the final two years of Game of Thrones demonstrated, when TV outstrips the source material the results can be dire.

The Handmaid’s Tale season four is not dire. It is instead largely adequate and occasionally grippingly tense. Fans will be pleased it immediately resolves the cliffhanger from season three in which protagonist June (Elisabeth Moss) was left bleeding to death in the woods. She had been shot while providing a distraction so that a precious conveyance of children could flee “Gilead”, the Evangelical hell previously known as the United States.

June lives! The other handmaids solder her wounds with an iron (which looks as gory as it sounds). And then they flee to a safehouse that is part of the Mayday women’s resistance.

The Mayday bunker is presided over by Esther (McKenna Grace), 14 year-old indentured wife of the doddering Commander Keyes. As with June, Esther has been through the wars, potentially suffers from PTSD, and is determined to destroy Gilead (in the meantime, she keeps her elderly husband sedated).

In Canada, meanwhile, June’s former captors, the show’s ghastly first couple Mr and Mrs Waterford – can we start a campaign to have them referred to as the O-Blah-mahs? – are shocked to discover the children have escaped. “The families,” gasps a horrified Serena (Yvonne Strahovksi), referring not to their mothers but to the Commanders in Gilead to whom the kids had been distributed as keepsakes.

A sci-fi parable about the enslavement of women and the imposition of a medieval religious hierarchy was never going to be packed with humour. And a studied grimness is a well-established part of the lexicon of The Handmaid’s Tale. But if season four is bleak, it has yet to plunge the horrifying depths of series two (where the punishment of June tipped into sadism and degradation)

The best thing going for it, as ever, is Elisabeth Moss. As June she simmers with the clenched fury of a woman who has endured lifetimes of hurt and humiliation and has found a way to keep going.

In Ireland, a drama about women stripped of their humanity in the name of religion obviously carries additional resonances. But few parts of the world can claim to be entirely free of institutionalised misogyny. And for that reason, and even with Donald Trump apparently vanquished, The Handmaid’s Tale remains a story that needs to be told.