Over two decades of TV, the burden placed on Elisabeth Moss’ face would leave a lesser actor permanently disfigured. “Mad Men” pushed Peggy from a surprise pregnancy through bitter battles with a bitchy boss. “Top of the Lake” cast her as a sexual assault specialist. Hell, even “The West Wing” put President Bartlet’s daughter, Zoey, through a traumatic kidnapping plot. And then there’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a show that could’ve been titled, “How To Endure Oppression.” For five seasons (so far), June Osborne has been the audience’s envoy into a world of overt misogyny, casual torture, and emotional anguish, which makes Moss’ visage our primary translator of oft-unimaginable depravity. Reed Morano, the Emmy-winning Season 1 director and series’ visual tone-setter, recognized that framing June’s plight via extreme close-ups and long, lingering shots could utilize the intimacy afforded by television to build a deeper connection to a dystopian story.
But five years and 54 episodes later, both the series and its star are hitting their limits. For creator and showrunner Bruce Miller, the cracks have been evident for at least a few seasons, as repetitions and redundancies were magnified by the arduous nature of a grueling narrative. (You can only see the same bad shit happen to the same good people for so long.) An all-star cast of Emmy winners Ann Dowd, Alexis Bledel, Cherry Jones, Bradley Whitford, and Samira Wiley, along with Emmy nominees Yvonne Strahovski, Joseph Fiennes, O-T Fagbenle, Kelly Jenrette, Max Minghella, McKenna Grace, and Madeline Brewer can only breathe so much life into scenes covering similar ground. (And yes, those are just the actors’ accolades for this show.) But Moss, also an Emmy winner for “Handmaid’s,” never faltered. Every time the camera moved within millimeters of her exhausted, furious, or otherwise expressive face, her elasticity, tenacity, or sheer force of will managed to convey considerable meaning.
That’s why, during select scenes of Season 5, it’s so peculiar to be taken out of a scene centered on Moss. At least one instance feels like the actor is simply scraping the bottom of the barrel, searching for a new articulation of distress in a character who’s been through them all. In other moments, she’s let down by the elements around her: Either an anticipated piece of exposition rings hollow, or June’s internal arcs are trimmed short, steered back to familiar territory where the onus again falls on Moss to make them feel fresh.
Season 5 picks up in the aftermath of June’s revenge against her captor and rapist, Commander Fred Waterford (Fiennes), who she ripped apart with her bare hands (and teeth!), along with a dozen or so other angry handmaids. But taking her hunk of flesh in No Man’s Land — an area outside of U.S. or Canadian governance — wasn’t enough; June wants the rest of her enemies to know what she’s done, so she also mailed his ring finger, wedding band included, to Serena Waterford (Strahovski).
Such a vehement turn to the dark side is going to take some unpacking — so, of course, this is the one area “Handmaid’s” speeds through. Rather than wrestle with her desire for vigilante justice, June comes to a quick conclusion that’s never properly challenged or reconsidered. Over eight episodes (of 10 total), she’s tested from time to time, but there’s no suspense to each trial because we’ve already seen June make her choice, and the repeated, halfhearted attempts that ask us to doubt her conviction only grow duller by the episode.
Serena’s arc is similarly mismanaged. Without getting into spoilers, “Handmaid’s” makes another move toward timeliness by turning June’s safehaven against her. Canada, if you can imagine, becomes a less-than-hospitable host, both through the hateful protests of a vocal minority and the questionable choices of its government. Liberals living in Biden’s America after Roe v. Wade’s reversal should have no problem identifying with June’s frustrations, fears, and, yes, even violence. When you can’t trust the people who promise to protect your basic human rights, going rogue as a means to safeguard yourself, your family, and future generations seems like the only practical choice.
Courtesy of Hulu
But even with the ideal narrative set-up provided by Season 4’s ending — June finally got a taste for payback, and she “loved it” — the exploration itself is stunted, and soon dissipates. Season 5 keeps bureaucracy at arm’s length, using it when it needs to move people into place and abandoning it when inconvenient. Without seeing the season finale (which, by all accounts, won’t be the series finale), the story is still filled with minor resolutions that disrupt any kind of significant anticipation. To say “Handmaid’s” argues both sides should simply hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” would be an exaggeration — there’s more nuance to its eventual takeaway, albeit slight — but that’s nevertheless how it can feel to anyone still angry, scared, and seeking a proper outlet for these feelings.
As a whole, the season appears content to gesture toward real-world parallels without grabbing hold, and certain characters are similarly distanced from the main plot. (Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia is especially forsaken.) Curiosity dwindles, as well. The one question left after eight episodes is one that’s been asked since early seasons.
For some, citing limitations within “The Handmaid’s Tale” isn’t anything new. The series has leaned on its lead’s incredible abilities for years, and Moss’ recent roles aren’t always distinct from her time in Gilead. (“Shining Girls,” a sneaky-great Apple TV+ mystery, proved particularly reminiscent for select fans of Moss.) Still others won’t care. Moss remains an aughts-era TV star, deserving all the acclaim and allegiance once given to stars of the silver screen (before movie stars were replaced by superheroes and intellectual property). But no matter your impression of the actor tasked with fueling a hit show for a few more seasons, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is spinning its wheels in Season 5.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 5 premiered Thursday, September 8 at the Toronto International Film Festival. The new season will premiere Wednesday, September 14 on Hulu with two episodes. New episodes will be released weekly.