Returning to the action moments after the stunning finale to the last series, the opening episode of Season Four of The Handmaid's Tale reveals a reassuring sense of confidence. Exploring the dystopian alternate North America introduced in Margaret Atwood’s novel, the TV series has gone on to develop a wider geopolitical sweep and its own higher-stakes meta-drama.
One of the things that The Handmaid's Tale does so well is to invert established power dynamics in the series - so that those who previously enjoyed unchallenged authority find themselves marginalised and stripped of freedom, while those who were dominated and oppressed discover new ways to gain leverage and rebel. It’s a reversal in fortunes that is the central thread of Pigs.
Saved from succumbing to the near-fatal injuries she suffered during the mass escape of children to the freedom of Canada, June recuperates on an isolated farm beyond the reach of Gilead’s enforcers. Commander Waterford and Serena remain under lock and key, as their hope of finding sanctuary and immunity from prosecution in Canada continues to backfire. Back in Gilead, the imprisoned Commander Lawrence is manoeuvred by Nick into taking on the role of consultant and architect of the enclave’s war plans. Meanwhile, Aunt Lydia remains surprisingly defiant as she appears before a Commanders’ board of enquiry to account for her fall from grace.
If there's a common theme to these changes in fortune, it’s the desire for restitution that shapes these characters' response to their new predicament. The hidden truths that June uncovers on the farm leads her to realise how far the toxic misogynist influence of Gilead has spread. It also confirms for her the strength that can emerge from the resilience of women, when motivated by a righteous desire to secure justice and to exact revenge.
Emerging from her convalescence, June appears here to have rekindled her conviction that escape is not sufficient: those that profit from the wickedness of Gilead should suffer. There’s still warmth and empathy in her temperament, but there's a renewed steely-eyed sense of mission too. With the suggestion that Gilead might be preparing for an armed invasion of Canada to retrieve the 'kidnapped' children, and June more determined than ever to accelerate the tempo of the Mayday rebellion, the scene appears set for an explosive confrontation.
As series four begins, the tone of The Handmaid's Tale is startlingly bleak, with only the brief glimpses of a freer life in Canada providing a contrast to the enveloping darkness. There are few accommodations to the new or casual viewer, as the show's creators set out key lines of antagonism that will define the drama of the nine episodes to come. It's unlikely to win over many new devotees, but this is an impressive, assured start. Expect some hard-hitting viewing ahead.The Handmaid's Tale Season Four is screening on Sundays in the UK on Channel 4 and available on ALL4.