One of the recurring motifs of The Handmaid’s Tale is the raising and then the dashing of hope. It’s a dramatic device that the series has used time and again as handmaid June and her allies have risen up against the tyranny of Gilead, only to see their aspirations crushed. The success of the “Angels’ flight” saw dozens of children and babies flee across the Canadian border to freedom. June’s escapee handmaids have also successfully evaded Gilead’s trackers. The series’ writers have decided that it’s time to extinguish any spark of optimism that events might finally be moving in the rebels’ favour.
“Nightshade” splits its narrative into three strands. It spends some time confirming June’s new steely-eyed determination to take the fight to the oppressors, and to accept responsibility for the fate of others suffering under the tyranny of Gilead. The episode also explores some of the uncomfortable complexities facing the freed children and the Marthas now trying to make sense of a new life in Canada. In addition, it introduces a surprise twist in the dynamic between the imprisoned Serena and Commander Waterford.
When a search party visits the Keyes’ farm, June realises that it’s time for her group to move to the next safe house. Visiting a Mayday contact at a nearby estate, June learns that commanders are enjoying a party at a pop-up Jezebels club ahead of a major military push around Chicago. While she instructs Janine to prepare the handmaids for departure, she enlists the help of Esther Keyes for a strike against the unsuspecting commanders.
In Canada, Luke, Moira and the others are rallying support and raising funds for the newly freed children. It pains them to realise that not all of these traumatized youngsters feel that they have been rescued rather than kidnapped. Serena Waterford’s counsel encourages her to better her legal chances by painting her husband in the darkest colours possible. She seems reconciled to this, until wholly unexpected news triggers a rethink.
The quality of cast performances in The Handmaid’s Tale remains exemplary. Elizabeth Moss continues to shine as the redoubtable June, now recovered from near-fatal injury and reinvigorated with the zeal of the freedom fighter on a mission behind enemy lines. Yvonne Strahovski keeps on delivering an extraordinarily textured performance as the brittle but resentful Serena, while Mckenna Grace has remarkable presence as the young and impassioned Esther Keyes.
With news of growing acts of dissent within Gilead and of preparations for a counter-offensive by its military leaders, there’s a great deal of scene-setting in "Nightshade". The status of some of the key protagonists in the coming showdown is reaffirmed, and some important shifts in the balance of power between them are introduced. The recalibration in June’s moral compass - enabling her to embrace acts she might previously have considered unconscionable - is also brought powerfully to the fore. “Gilead makes it really hard to be good,” she concludes.
But the episode’s shock ending upsets matters entirely, dispensing with the expectation that the narrative direction of the fourth season might follow a predictable, linear path. Once again, defeat is ripped from the jaws of victory and the implications for those committed to the overthrow of Gilead might just be devastating.
THE HANDMAID'S TALE Season Four is screening on Sundays in the UK on Channel 4 and available on ALL4.
Read our previous reviews of THE HANDMAID'S TALE below: