Season 5 of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Struggles to Make a Case for Itself

3/5 angry close-ups.

Hulu’s flagship drama The Handmaid’s Tale returns for a fifth season, testing the audience’s emotional endurance for yet another journey into the dark heart of Gilead. While the first season of the award-winning show was met with great (and well deserved) acclaim, the ensuing seasons have struggled with momentum and narrative direction. Season one had the spine of Margaret Atwood’s iconic 1985 novel to build on, but since then the series has felt like a ship without a rudder. Plot machinations saw June (an always excellent Elisabeth Moss) repeatedly try and fail to escape Gilead, only to be recaptured, tortured, and punished some more. It was a punishing experience for the audience as well, as the series frequently dipped into trauma porn. But THT always retained what made it such a hit to begin with: powerful performances, gorgeous cinematography, and lush production design that delivers a fully realized dystopia. And there was always the urge to see June finally escape and get revenge on her tormentors.

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Season 4 finally liberated June from Gilead, as she claims asylum in Canada and is reunited with best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), estranged husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle), and baby daughter Nichole. But while June’s body is in Canada, her mind remains in Gilead, and she finds herself alienated from her family unit. June does get to testify against the Waterfords in court (who are held in custody in Canada), but Gilead negotiates a prisoner release for Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). With help from American agent Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger) and Gilead allies Nick (Max Minghella) and Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), June intercepts Fred in No Man’s Land. Joined by several former handmaids, June chases Waterford through the forest, where the women beat him to death.

It was a powerful, propulsive, and well-deserved moment of vengeance for June. Season 5 picks up in the immediate aftermath of Fred’s murder, where a blood-soaked June confesses to Luke and Moira. Not only did she kill Fred, but she loved it. Refusing a shower, June runs off to have a hearty breakfast with the handmaids, and everything is lighter, brighter, and better. Food has never tasted so good, the sun has never felt so warm. June is high off of her violent revenge, but all highs have a come down. Soon, June must contend with her actions, which frighten Moira and herself.

Much of season 5 concerns actions and consequences. Can we ever really forgive the people who harm us? Can revenge salve the wounds of trauma and abuse? And how do we move on from life-shattering events? These are heady issues to contend with, but The Handmaid’s Tale struggles to go deep into these issues. The show lasers in on the cat-and-mouse dynamic between June and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who is pregnant, widowed, and without a country. Both women are trying to move on, but their toxic relationship grows more complicated as both women struggle to establish new lives in Toronto.

Serena Joy’s first order of business is to return to Gilead to arrange a lavish state funeral for her late husband. But she finds her power much diminished upon her return: an unmarried pregnant woman without a husband has much less influence than a commander’s wife. Still, Serena Joy desires to stay and have her baby in Gilead, despite her intimate knowledge of its horrors. But Gilead won’t have her, at least not within their borders. After the funeral garners international sympathy, Serena is tasked with being a global ambassador for the country, and who better to put a PR spin on Gilead’s many horrors than a pregnant woman? As Serena sets up a Gilead Information Center in Toronto (and finds a loyal band of pro-Gilead supporters and religious extremists), she encounters June again and again. June and Moira are, of course, terrified of the encroaching Christo-fascism movement as Gilead plants seeds in Canada.

The two women keep having tense confrontations, spinning their wheels but never making real moves against one another. By the time you’re halfway through the season, you’re desperate for someone, anyone to take action. Nobody glowers at the camera like Elisabeth Moss, but not even her talents can propel the plot in a satisfying and engaging way. With a sixth and final season ordered, here’s hoping The Handmaid’s Tale can ramp up to a gratifying conclusion.

The first two episodes of season 5 of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ premiere on September 14 on Hulu.

(featured image: Hulu)

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Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.