Hitting the midpoint of its third series, The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4) has by now surrendered the power to shock. We understand the rules of Gilead, where woman are ranked by their reproductive capacity and men, to one degree or another, are accessories to institutionalised ovarian slavery.
But episode four does its best to jolt us by violently ratcheting up the claustrophobia. It works too, to the extent that we can gloss over the fact that the plot is, were it possible, proceeding at an even slower pace than in the previous two seasons.
Back with a pang is poor disfigured Janine (Madeline Brewer), still too sweet, innocent and tightly coiled for these dangerous times. She’s reintroduced at a church ceremony in which Handmaids, Marthas and Commanders and their wives gather to give thanks for the infants that Gilead’s ghastly system of indentured breeding has produced.
With her is June (Elisabeth Moss). She’s on day release from the unpleasant Commander Lawrence and haunted by recollections of the christening, in the before times, of her daughter Hannah. The present-day rituals are a horrific parody of Hannah’s anointing. As waves of memory hit, June struggles with her composure.
The Handmaids’ collective emotional torture is extenuated at a function at the home of Commander Putnam. Hobbling along is Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), whose fragility since her brush with death has apparently brought out her empathic side. She shares a genuine moment with Janine, who apologises for having caused trouble in the past. Their polite interaction is disorienting; clearly the bonhomie is a cruel misdirection.
That doesn’t make what comes next any easier to stomach. Smile fraying, Janine asks Commander Putnam’s wife, Naomi, if she can cradle the newborn – her daughter, after all. The situation is seemingly defused when the woman assents. But then Janine begins to loudly declaim that she could give the couple another child, if allowed the opportunity. It’s too much for Aunt Lydia, who beats Janine until June intervenes.
This is in many ways the sound of the Handmaid’s Tale spinning its wheels. The story doesn’t really advance. The only significant development comes later as Luke (O T Fagbenle) appears in TV footage of a street protest in Canada. With him is baby Nichole – June’s daughter by Commander Waterford and, in a warped way, Serena’s too. That Luke is alive, with the baby, is worryingly interesting to the Guardians (the armed-to-the-eyeballs religious police). Is Luke as safe as he believes in the far north?
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We visit Emily (Alexis Bledel), who reconnects fitfully with wife Sylvia (Clea DuVall) in Canada – and with their son Oliver. It’s a slow journey for the traumatised former Handmaid. But she’s getting there. Glimmerings of change are similarly visible in Aunt Lydia who slumps away from her attack on Janine, stuttering an apology. June – a mere Handmaid – faced her down and nobody, in a room full of Commanders, presumed to intervene.
That circumstances might be pivoting inexorably in June’s favour is later hinted at when Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) shares with her one-time chattel the location of Hannah’s school playground (so as to facilitate an illicit visit by her mother). This is texture rather than storytelling. Yet, handsomely shot and grippingly performed, Hulu’s vision of a God-fearing American dystopia continues to chill and bewitch.
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