Ever since we met June Osborne in season one of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s unrelentingly dark adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, hers has been a life of unbroken tragedy. Her daughters were abducted. Her husband was missing and maybe even dead. She spent years in sex slavery before making a gruelling escape to Canada.
How cathartic it was, then, to see her finally exact revenge during season four’s brutal denouement. June chases Commander Fred Waterford into the woods, where she and a group of refugee handmaids tear her former captor to pieces. June bites his face and severs his finger, which she later posts to his wife. In the series’ grisly vernacular, this is what victory looks like.
Or at least it should be a victory. Yet on The Handmaid’s Tale, returning for a fifth season today, women never win. June, played with restless menace by Elisabeth Moss (seriously, even her eyeballs fidget), goes home bloody and picks up her baby daughter, who she’s only been reunited with since seeking asylum in Toronto. Her husband looks at her with heartbroken, what-have-you-done eyes. “Just give me five minutes with her,” she tells him. “Then I’ll go.” The price of vigilante justice is freedom, it seems: June’s bound for prison, eventually, or headed back on the lam.
I hope against hope that I’m misinterpreting the moment – that the punishment for killing your enslaver is time served. Instead, I want Fred’s death to mark a watershed in the history of Gilead. From this point forward, I want more agitation, more revolution and many more dead commanders. It’s time for June to start winning.
The Handmaid’s Tale, shown in the UK on Channel 4, premiered just three months after Donald Trump’s inauguration. At the time, the series was lauded for its prescience and its symbols were occasionally invoked by those who opposed Trump’s presidency. Abortion rights protesters dressed up in the red cloaks of handmaids; as did some of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mourners. If there had ever been doubt as to why a Canadian author would look south of the border to set her dystopian novel about the slow, steady infringement on women’s rights, the 2016 election seemed to clear things up. The show worked in the key of warning: this is how bad things can get.
That was then. In the seasons since, The Handmaid’s Tale has grown steadily bleaker. Women are the enemy as often as they are the victim: Fred’s wife Serena, played with sinister poise by Yvonne Strahovski, is singularly vindictive; Aunt Lydia, a magnificently malevolent Ann Dowd, is merciless with her charges; even June uses people. Season four’s harrowing coda is matched in tone by the season five trailer, a two-minute clip in which four different female characters are featured screaming in agony. No, this is how bad things can get.
When I first read Atwood’s novel at high school, I loved it so much that I nicked the school’s paperback copy (sorry, Miss Anderson). But the book never made me feel this despairing. Even its ambiguous ending invited speculative hope: Offred escapes into an unmarked van, unsure whether it’s the state or the rebel group Mayday that have come to collect her. In the story’s epilogue, it’s confirmed that by the year 2195, the non-existent country of Gilead is a subject of academic research. The book expressly rejects the nihilism that has come to define the TV series. Atwood puts only 300 pages between meeting our heroine in the depths of hell and the restoration of a humane world order.
On TV, though, it’s been five years and counting. The series has taken all that is awful from the source material and, for the most part, swerved to avoid its optimism. When June helps a plane of children escape to freedom in Canada, for example, she ends up riddled with bullets. When she risks her life to escape Fred and Serena’s house and find Mayday, she doesn’t find much of a revolution to join. The further she gets from Gilead, the clearer it becomes that no one was ever coming to help June. Now that she’s in Canada, she can see there’s no one fighting to free her daughter either. So I get why some viewers are begging to see June die already – to see her freed from this pointless suffering. But I’m more selfish than that.
Because without that thin sliver of hope, The Handmaid’s Tale no longer works as a warning and the whole thing was pointless. There’s nothing to learn from a world that only gets worse. If the novel had gone on like this, inventing new and different kinds of torture, I’d never have stolen it. Atwood has explained her book as taking “certain casually held opinions about women” to “their logical conclusions” – a terrifying thought experiment that should work as profoundly in reverse.
It’s time – please! – for The Handmaid’s Tale to show the wild transformation that happens when a compassionate ideology overtakes a hateful one. Let stolen kids be reunited with their parents. Let rapists be punished. Let more commanders be murdered, if that’s what it takes. It needs to be as joyful as the last four seasons have been desperate. I don’t want June to die or even escape to a peaceful new life in Canada. For the high-school girl who couldn’t imagine returning a book that meant so much to her, I need to see her win.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ returns on Hulu in the US tonight. It will air in the UK on Channel 4 in the autumn