‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 5 Remains Relevant While Grasping for New Story Threads

Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is becoming a storyline that’s vision seems to be inching closer to reality. With Roe v. Wade overturned and Republican politicians proposing nationwide abortion bans, the misogynist, theocratic dystopia of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel is blurring the lines betwen fiction and nonfiction. The great irony for this series is that it’s happening just as the writing is starting to lose steam. It of course began as a striking adaptation of Atwood’s 1985 work, full of eerie images and a powerhouse performance by Elisabeth Moss which is still her best. Hulu then decided to follow the HBO route of going beyond the original material and keeping the story going and going. Now in its fifth season, the dreariness is outdoing the more original content. Reportedly, this is the penultimate season and it is indeed easy to feel the wheels start grinding down.

The season opens with June (Moss) dealing with the moral and literal implications of killing Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), her former overlord and rapist in the Christian dystopia of Gilead. The murder occurred in No Man’s Land, a spot between Gilead aka the U.S. and Canada where the laws don’t apply. In her rage, June also mailed Waterford’s ring finger to his wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski). But what will June have to face as a consequence of this act into which she also pulled other handmaids? Now in Canada with Luke (O-T Fagbenle), June decides to turn herself in. To her shock, the authorities don’t plan to do much other than to fine her $88. Not only that, but 22 handmaids have been given asylum by the Crown. This whole lack of justice helps further push June’s psychological state to a breaking point. Meanwhile, Serena watches as Gilead officials make funeral arrangements for Waterford, excluding her from discussions of power because she’s a woman. But she won’t be pushed aside so easily.

At this point we can certainly continue admiring the stances or ideas being taken by “The Handmaid’s Tale,” while critiquing how it’s functioning as just a show. Season five begins with a lagging tone as the writing wants to allow June to wallow in a darkened state, wondering what kind of monster she’s become by killing the monster who tortured her for so long. The other handmaids who helped her cheerfully eat breakfast celebrating that Waterford is dead. We can completely sympathize. Mark (Sam Jaeger) assures June what she did was right. Essentially the narrative falls into an inner debate on whether revenge is right or not, but with a pacing that doesn’t feel fully fleshed out. More compelling is how June feels the pain of still not being able to rescue her older daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake). The bottom line is that the show doesn’t know where else to take the personas involved. In figuring out what to do with Emily (Alexis Bledel), the series decides to send her back into Gilead to fight against the theocratic order. The cinematography also becomes even moodier this season, with nearly all sense of color drained from the images.

Other story threads become a bit more engaging. Serena wants to find agency and authority within a system designed to keep her gender second class, even in elite circles. Gilead commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) is sympathetic to her aims and quietly shocks his fellow commanders when he admits he has no plan to remarry. Such moments recapture the vivid, unnerving way this series does accurately capture the mindset and language of fundamentalist movements. You also can’t have a good dystopia without resistance fighters and June soon comes across a group of women guerrillas who have been smuggling handmaids out of Gilead. It’s entertaining material with the usual moments where fighters brandishing machine guns show off to June that they can get in anywhere. Photos of rescued women are kept on a large board and June can’t help but be impressed. Gilead commander Nick Blaine (Max Minghella) continues to bring more dramatic richness to the theocrats by remaining within the system while trying to do some good by collaborating with the resistance. On the other hand, the once dreaded Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is kept more in the background this season.

This season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is much more of a slow burner than its predecessors. There is less of a grand scale to the images, which robs the series of its visual power which has helped contribute to the aesthetic of contemporary protest movements (the handmaid’s dress at women’s rights protests is the most obvious display of the show’s influence). Confined to darkened corridors and chambers, “The Handmaid’s Tale” can still thrive on continuing to have important things to say. Characters ponder a time when the word “toxic masculinity” was part of the general lingo while others warn someone like Serena that now being unmarried in Gilead is dangerous. No longer is such drama mere speculation. This country is seeing a growing clash between the forces of progress and regression fueled by fundamentalism. And there are still some good moments of high tension, like June watching helplessly from Canada as Serena marches with Hannah in a public procession for the murdered Waterford then later discovering just what fate Serena has planned for her daughter. This will probably never become a “bad” show. It is simply nearing the finish line, just as its nightmares are becoming part of our daily headlines.

The Handmaid’s Tale” season five begins streaming Sept. 14 with new episodes premiering Wednesdays on Hulu.