‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 4 Promises a Light at the End of the Tunnel

It’s been almost two years since season three of “The Handmaid’s Tale” ended, and while the world has changed greatly during this time, June (Elisabeth Moss) is still not out of the woods, literally. Season four follows her during her most difficult ordeals to date, as she finally looks to a new chapter and a long overdue fight for justice.

When we last saw June, she had just successfully orchestrated a mission to smuggle over 80 children and several Marthas, including Rita (Amanda Brugel), out of Gilead to Canada. In the aftermath, she was shot, and now she has to make an arduous journey to safety and freedom with her fellow handmaids, including Janine (Madeline Brewer). Although Janine has long ago retreated to an almost child-like state, and after gratuitous scenes of her getting repeatedly beaten up in past episodes, we finally see her take some control this season, and a Janine-centric episode gives us a window into her past and the defiant woman she still is deep down.

Be forewarned, the first three episodes of season four are tough to watch. What has made the show bearable is that in most episodes, the darkly dramatic narrative in the dystopian present has been broken up with flashbacks to the world before, and/or scenes of characters grabbing happiness. But the brutality is relentless in these first three episodes, which sometimes even feel like torture porn. The best part of the first two episodes is June’s relationship with Mrs. Keyes (promising young actress Mckenna Grace), the unstable teen wife of an aging commander with dementia. June and the other handmaids take refuge on the Keyes’ farm, and June finds herself forming a maternal bond with the traumatized girl, but even these scenes have a horror film-like quality.

Meanwhile, Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), await trial in Canada for the crimes they turned each other in for at the end of last season. Just when it seems that the model Gilead couple may finally be broken for good, a shocking development ties them to each other, Serena’s surprise pregnancy after years of infertility. Being incarcerated is a big adjustment for anyone, but especially for Fred, who is used to having mostly unchecked power.

“He’s surviving, but fast running out of oxygen. It’s about time for a rat to go down,” said Fiennes to Entertainment Voice during a recent Zoom call. “It’s an interesting season for Fred. This season’s really about the fight back, and I think fans will be really enthusiastic and happy to see, through all the pain and turmoil, a sense of justice. How it plays out, it may be a bigger twist than we think. It’s certainly a rollercoaster, but it’s the season of the fight, and June has big teeth to bite back with.”

Most of season four was shot after a hiatus due to Covid. Fiennes revealed how the safety protocols put in place, which limited the number of actors on set at a time, actually enhanced many scenes and his experience. “You get to see these wonderful duologues play out between characters. You get these characters revealing layers upon layers. I so enjoyed witnessing amazing performances and being a part of that myself.”

As Nick Blaine, the Waterford’s former driver who has climbed the ranks in Gilead to become a commander, Max Minghella finds himself a part of many great duologues, not only with June, but also with Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), who continues to be the wisest man in Gilead. The two end up forming an allyship, which looks more natural than one would think, and this is partly due to the fact the two actors are close friends in real life. Lawrence also finds himself in a mutually beneficial partnership with Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), of all people, who faces a forced early retirement due to handmaids repeatedly running off and getting into trouble on her watch.

“To get to work with one of your friends on a show this well-written and elevated, and to really get to dig into those scenes was pretty unique and exciting,” revealed Minghella to EV. “The characters share this kind of removed pragmatism, what Brad calls it. I think it’s a great way of putting it. They have this shared interest in June, and also a shared apathy towards the Gilead structure that they’re trapped in.”

Part of what makes Nick an interesting character is his opaqueness, although Nick’s motives are not murky to Minghella. He spoke of the changes we see in Nick after having spent most of season three fighting in the war. “I think he’s quite changed, coming back. And we’ve been doing the show for long enough now that we’re all evolved off camera too. I can sort of sense a development in him in a not entirely tangible way, but more of a spiritual way.”

That second half of the season focuses not only on justice, but also recovery from trauma. Along with June, Rita, former handmaid Emily (Alexis Bedel), and Moira (Samira Wiley), who was basically a sex slave in Gilead, have all had their share of deep emotional and physical scars, and even Serena is sympathetic at certain points, as is Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), who has never lived in Gilead, but has still experienced much pain and uncertainty these past several years since his family was broken apart. Their experiences spark interesting conversations on trauma and forgiveness, as well as an insightful debate about if complete healing should always be the endgame when it comes to dealing with trauma.

Moss really gives her all this season, not only in her performance, but also from the director’s chair, as she helmed three episodes. Fiennes revealed that being directed by his co-star was the biggest highlight for him. “To see her direct with such confidence, and such style, and such cinematic flair, and such connection with the cast has really been special.”

Minghella also had nothing but praise for Moss, with whom he spends a few precious moments with early in the season. “We got some great stuff to do this year, and to get to work with Lizzie Moss is such a humbling experience,” he said with a laugh. “She is just the best at what she does and just imbues everything with so much honesty and truth. It’s impossible to do anything artificial when you’re working with somebody that present.”

What was once a love marriage between Fred and Serena has turned increasingly into a marriage of convenience. Serena still holds out hope that the Fred she once loved will return to her, but after everything that has happened, is there hope for either of them? Fiennes likes to think that there was good in them at some point. In order to deliver such a fine performance, he had find some humanity in Fred to grasp onto.

“I might not have agreed with [his] vision, but certainly Fred never went out to be a rapist or murderer,” explained Fiennes. “His weak spirit and mentality coupled with being in a high-powered position in a theocracy, the patriarchal regime that is Gilead, kind of led him down a corrosive path of power. They’re a twisted couple, and they’re haunted in many ways, but that’s not to let them off the hook.”

We see cracks in Fred this season, and Fiennes believes that his impending fatherhood has given him some ability to have empathy. “I think that will alert him to the pain he caused June and her family. There’s a lot of nuances in this season. He’s evil, but I think he’s evil because he’s human.”

While Fred is a creation of author Margaret Atwood, Fiennes points out that he’s not unlike the unscrupulous people we see in the news daily. The former commander is desperate to hold onto his power, and we continue to see him subvert the truth and religion, especially in a pivotal scene in episode eight. Fiennes called the Waterfords journey a “cautionary tale of the extreme pitfalls of power and the abuse of Scripture.”

“I think it’s less about being a champion of a good cause and more about twisting it to suit your narrative and your own warped sense of superiority, because you’re actually really weak and nasty,” said Fiennes when asked if he believes Fred really buys into what he preaches. “He is a product of his environment and that kind of totalitarian, patriarchal regime, and I think there’s a part of him that can see it, that is aware, but he cannot escape the monster. The monster has grown too far. It’s rather like a Shakespeare play, like ‘Macbeth,’ where you end up murdering so many people that you can’t go back. You keep murdering.”

So far, Nick has managed to not completely buy into Gilead and give himself over to the dark side, but it’s a balancing act. Explained Minghella, “I see him as somebody who sees helping June and trying to protect this person whom he loves as a journey towards redemption. At the same time, he can’t sabotage his position too much in the infrastructure, otherwise, he can’t be useful anymore.”

Through it all, Nick and the viewer cannot help but think about Nichole, the daughter he conceived with June for the Waterfords who is being raised in Canada by Luke and Moira at the beginning of season four. Does Nick hold out hope of being a real father to the little girl someday? According to Minghella, this is where his being pragmatic also comes in. “I think he not so quietly dreams of such a thing, but he’s also very practical and very conscientious. Since season one, he has recognized that June had a relationship before him, a marriage before him, and a child before him. Nick is many things, but he’s not naive.”

On a lighter note, Minghella talked about the fact that we often see Nick smoking, as we do other characters, as cigarettes seem to be a popular stress-reliever for those in Gilead. “I don’t know why this is, but I’m constantly cast as characters who smoke. It’s this weird thing that happens, right? I think it happens to a lot of actors, there are certain character elements or traits that seem to keep recurring throughout your career. I don’t know what that means, but for some reason, I’m often asked to have a cigarette in my hand.

”The first three episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season four premiered April 27 on Hulu with new episodes streaming every Wednesday.