The Handmaids Tale continues to surprise

by | Oct 30, 2022 | All, Reviews

The Handmaid’s Tale is back and – yes, I’m going to say it – better than ever. Season 5, which began airing on Channel 4 and Amazon Prime Video on 23rd October, is the penultimate season. It was recently announced that season 6, which is likely to air in the autumn of 2023, will be the last. Plans for a spin-off based on Margaret Atwood’s sequel titled The Testaments are already underway. With this being the penultimate season, all bets are off and the stakes are high. No character is safe: not our courageous Handmaids, not the complex characters we love to hate, and thankfully, not even the Commanders. Even though we won’t see the last of Handmaid’s until 2023 at the earliest, it’s clear to see that the showrunners are already planning to wrap up this chapter with a bang.

The season 5 opener picks up the morning after the events of the season 4 finale. Directed by Elisabeth Moss (who also plays lead protagonist June Osborne and is an Executive Producer), it’s clear that June is dealing with the aftermath of Fred’s (Joseph Fiennes) brutal death. Or perhaps ‘dealing with’ isn’t the right phrase to use here, because the Handmaid-turned-hitwoman quite rightfully shows no remorse for her part in the night’s events. June drops by a local diner to eat breakfast with her bloodthirsty companions, and the scene is one of catharsis and empowerment. The raw energy as the women, who are all covered in blood, eat together is contagious. You’re led to believe this group of women can do anything they put their minds to – and it just so happens that as long as their crimes take place in No Man’s Land, they can.

She may feel no remorse for the killing she was a pivotal part of, but she is worried about how her actions will impact the people she cares about.  June isn’t exactly adjusting well to her new civilised life in Canada after the atrocities she’s been through. Her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) and live-in best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) are the only family she has left on the outside, and they’re more than concerned about her violent urges. If we look back at who June was before the Gilead takeover – a quietly rebellious book editor and happily married mother – it’s night and day. The complexity of deep-rooted trauma is something the series has always portrayed well, and it’ll be interesting to see whether she can reclaim her or if most likely, whether her horrendous time in Gilead has irreversibly changed her forever

Despite the opening episode being superb overall there’s one plot point that doesn’t quite land, and it involves the one person missing from the post-murder breakfast: Emily (Alexis Bledel). Dr. Emily Malek has been a fan favourite from the start.  Her torturous journey with Nichole over the border to Canada, followed by the heart-warming reunion with wife Sylvia (Clea DuVall) and son Oliver some of the most emotional scenes of the show to date. It was announced shortly before the premiere of season 5 that Alexis Bledel would not be returning this season, so of course, they were forced to write a particularly clunky scene to explain her absence. June turns up at Emily’s home where an angry but resigned Sylvia informs June of something quite frankly unbelievable… Emily has decided to leave behind the life she fought so hard for and return to Gilead to fight from the inside. In my opinion, Bledel’s exit could have been handled better. Understandably, Emily is a deeply traumatised character, and it’s well known that victims of trauma often cling to their darkest moments and are unable to thrive in a peaceful environment (like we’re currently seeing with June). However, after the tortures Emily went through and the miraculous journey she survived in order to be with her family, it’s difficult to believe she would suddenly turn her back on them at the drop of a hat. Emily deserved better.

Moss also directs ‘Ballet’. The second episode of the season which kick starts this season’s dangerous cat-and-mouse game between June and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), who Moss and Strahovski have started referring to as the show’s ‘Juliet and Juliet’. Without a doubt, their complex relationship built on hatred, one-upmanship, and rare moments of understanding is the strongest and most fascinating of the show. Moss and Strahovski’s on-screen chemistry is unmatched. Fans of this toxic duo are in for a treat later on in season 5 when their storyline culminates in a turn of events that will leave your jaw on the floor.

As we saw last season, their dangerous back-and-forth can have fatal consequences. Serena knows June is responsible for her husband Fred’s death, and she’s not about to take that lightly. She also knows Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) and Nick (Max Minghella) played a part in Fred ending up in No Man’s Land and in June’s clutches. Serena wants June to pay but as always she’s willing to play the long game, subtly blackmailing them to arrange a no-expenses-spared televised funeral for Fred.

In Canada, as June and Luke walk around the city in a rare moment of peace, huge billboards showing a live news report catch their attention. The report shows Fred’s funeral taking place live in Gilead, and June stops in her tracks when she sees a familiar little girl taking part in the proceedings. The girl walks to Serena’s side, and Serena smirks at June down the camera like the cat that got the cream as she kisses the girl on the cheek. It’s Hannah (Jordana Blake), and June watches helpless and furious, as her beloved lost daughter stands smiling by her enemy’s side. It seems the next move is June’s, and with no Fred between them this time, Serena is firmly at the top of her hitlist.

As someone lucky enough to have already watched the majority of season 5, I can quite confidently say that Handmaid’s is still one of the best and most important shows on television, constantly subverting expectations and finding new ways to shock as well as mix the character dynamics.

The legendary Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia is, of course, a major part of the season. Dowd’s Emmy-winning performance as the harsh Aunt has often had us second-guessing Lydia’s true morals or motivations. Is she a devoted believer of Gilead’s rules, or does she enjoy the power that comes with her role? Does she want the best for her ‘girls’ (the Handmaids), or does she want them to fear her? This season, Lydia’s eyes are opened to the dark actions of the Commanders, which, for the first time, sees her take a new approach with the Handmaids. One based on compassion. It seems that until recently Lydia didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, how Handmaids are treated at their postings in Commanders’ households. Now the sickening truth has been revealed to her, will she finally protect the women?

Mckenna Grace, playing Wife-turned-Handmaid Esther, is also a standout this season. An incident with a certain Commander leads to a shocking turn of events – both for the Commander and for Esther herself. Grace’s performance, particularly in episode 6 as Esther learns some heartbreaking news, is haunting. Esther is not always the most likeable character – honestly, what teenager wouldn’t have an attitude after everything she’s been through – especially this season in an incident involving the mentally fragile Janine (Madeline Brewer), but a chilling scene in episode 6 shows the audience exactly who she is: a terrified child with no power growing up in a barbaric country.

Luke also goes on quite the journey this season. Reminded of his lack of doing… well, anything by a certain recent widow, he finally decides to throw himself into the thick of the action. It’s important to remember that Luke escaped Gilead in the very early days of the takeover, and has been living a relatively peaceful life ever since.  His enthusiasm and overprotective nature can be frustrating at times, considering he hasn’t actually had any first-hand experience in anything to do with Gilead. However, O.T. Fagbenle’s sympathetic performance makes it difficult to stay mad at the out-of-his-depth Luke, who it’s clear to see will throw himself into anything to ‘protect’ June, as misguided as those attempts might be.

With so many action-packed storylines continuing to unfold it’s difficult to speculate what the season 5 finale will look like, or who will be around for 2023’s final season. Handmaid’s is coming to an end, and that end is going to be unforgettable.

The Handmaid’s Tale season 5 is available on All 4 and Amazon Prime Video.

Amy Beth

Amy Beth

30/10/2022

An avid TV watcher, particularly fond of comedy and horror. Film studies graduate. Contributor at The Custard and Resource Writer at Collider.

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