The Handmaid’s Tale is back, picking up right where we left off — with June having led a shocking murder and Canada’s tenuous connection to Gilead growing stronger. Let’s get into it…
Opening Shot: Fresh off her stint killing Fred Waterford, June (Elisabeth Moss) dangles her bloody fingers into clear bathwater. The blood swirling against the bathtub’s pristine white surface is immediately evocative of Handmaids’ own red and white color palette, because if there’s one thing this show loves, it’s some handsome, on-the-nose visual storytelling.
The Gist: Still riding the high of murdering her former Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), June (Elisabeth Moss) is grappling with what her next move should be. Since the murder took place in the No Man’s Land between Gilead and Canada, she’s able to confess to Fred’s murder and face zero repercussions. That leaves her weary confidantes Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and Moira (Samira Wiley) to aid June as she fights to reunite with her lost daughter, Hannah, and confronts the dark impulses that the trauma of surviving Gilead have brought out in her — namely, a desire for revenge against her primary abuser, Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski).
More than anything, Season 5 is a tense chess match between these two women and their very different visions of Gilead’s future (or lack thereof). Although she remains in Canadian custody, Serena is quick to leverage Fred’s death as an opportunity to present a more sympathetic vision of Gilead to the world. In return, June and her allies are forced to reckon with the small but growing faction of people who have come to idolize the “return to the old ways” that Gilead represents.
As a series, The Handmaid’s Tale has always (somewhat accidentally) riffed on real-life events. In its first season after the collapse of Roe V. Wade, the threat that a small but vocal ultra-conservative minority can pose to the rest of society is easily Season 5’s most timely thread.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Since 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale has built upon Margaret Atwood’s original novel to create its own distinct, brutally dark dystopian world. The closest you could probably get is Alias Grace, another Atwood adaptation that tackles the horrors of patriarchal violence through the eyes of a 19th century maid accused of murder.
Our Take: Beautifully shot and led by one of our best working actresses — really, how much does golden age TV owe to withering Elisabeth Moss close-ups alone? — The Handmaid’s Tale has spent several seasons leaning on its considerable artistic merits to distract from the fact that its brutal dystopian world fares much better as limited series allegory than an expansive, serialized drama.
Season 4 gave the show some much-needed momentum, as June finally escaped into Canada and led the show out of the grim cycle of violence and vague gestures at rebellion that it had become trapped in.
Sadly, Season 5 finds The Handmaid’s Tale spinning its wheels once again. Despite Moss’ best efforts, the show is breaking at the seams when it comes to its larger narrative. After running out of source material by the Season 1 finale, showrunner Bruce Miller and co have proven that they’re more than willing to sacrifice world-building credulity for maximum narrative drama. Despite the supposed life-and-death stakes of Gilead, key characters are easily able to rebel without serious consequences or hop back and forth between Canada’s borders whenever the writers wish, making what started out as an acceptable metaphor for American patriarchy into a fictional world too riddled with contradictions to feel worth investing in anymore.
While watching Gilead’s influence creep into Canada is interesting, it’s hardly enough to sustain a 10-episode season. Perhaps if June’s vigilante instincts were explored more, her increasingly incredulous face-offs with Serena would have more narrative heft. Strahovski, as always, is a standout, nimbly mining the tragic irony of a woman who’s subjugated by a system she helped create. But knowing that another season of The Handmaid’s Tale waits in the wings, June and Serena’s central conflict only feels like stalling.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: By the end of the premiere, June is back in the bathroom. This time, she cradles her baby daughter Nicole, but make no mistake! The Waterfords’ demise is still very much on her mind.
Sleeper Star: Last season, McKenna Grace’s turn as rebellious young Wife Esther marked an impressive career pivot point from sought-after child star to more mature dramatic actress. She’s back to steal even more scenes in Season 5, as her character navigates her newfound position as a Handmaid with a twisted sense of vengeance that makes for one of the season’s early standout scenes.
Most Pilot-y Line: Not too many pilot-y lines, since we’re five seasons in, but it wouldn’t be a Handmaid’s Tale season opener without a few refrains of “Under his eye” and “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (don’t let the bastards grind you down).”
Our Call: SKIP IT. Unless you’re already a dedicated Handmaid’s Tale fan, you can skip the drudgery of this season and check back in with June when the series comes to a close with Season 6.
Abby Monteil is a New York-based writer. Her work has also appeared in The Daily Beast, Insider, Them, Thrillist, Elite Daily, and others.