The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 Review: A Repetitive Season Bolstered by Strong Performances

For a little while now, The Handmaid's Tale has been dealing with a challenge that is somewhat unique to adaptations of beloved, acclaimed literary works, in that the series has well outplayed the pages of its inspiration. Even with the release of a sequel novel, The Testaments, in 2019 offering at minimum a hint of a path forward, the Hulu series has been largely left to fill space and engineer its own way forward to mixed success. Season 4 of the series churned along until just beyond its midpoint before wildly blowing things up with the brutal — and deserved — murder of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) by June (Elisabeth Moss). It seemed in that season-ender that the series had turned a corner, but with Season 5 at our doorstep, it seems that the series is still struggling to not only advance the tale in a timely fashion but advance most of its characters as well.

To be clear, Season 5 of The Handmaid's Tale is not bad. Hulu made eight episodes of the upcoming season's 10 available for review and once the series hits, again, the midpoint of the season, things become genuinely interesting with a couple of larger developments closer to the end that begin to feel like both emotional and narrative payoff. However, therein lies the problem. The series takes too long to get there, meandering its way with a great deal of repetitive scenes, moments, and even story. Season 5 picks up essentially where Season 4 left off with the aftermath of Commander Waterford's execution by enraged Handmaids in the woods. Viewers are taken into the immediacy of June's reaction to this particular brand of justice while, alongside this, are also taken into Serena's (Yvonne Strahovski) new reality as well. It is an interesting juxtaposition, if not familiar. Serena is all (mostly) cold resolve while June is unhinged, only barely holding herself together.

These reactions to not just Commander Waterford's murder, but by extension, the entirety of the events of the series, are central both to the story of the season, but also the season's greatest weakness. Moss does an incredible job of portraying a woman who has completely come unmoored and who leans into the idea of vengeance as justice in that she's chilling at times and unsettling at others, but it's also largely her only tone for most of the season, to the point that it feels like we are watching some sort of fetishized version of a woman come undone. On the other side of the coin — and indeed, Serena and June are very much two sides of the same coin — Strahovski's Serena remains as calculating and composed as ever, though over the season, her storyline allows for a bit more development and, in Strahovski's hands, we start to see cracks in Serena to the point that one actually may start to feel for her.

It is, ultimately, performances that keep the season afloat even as many episodes fill space with overly cinematic shots meant to emphasize what we already can see laid out plainly. Ann Dowd's Aunt Lydia is, as always, an impressive force, but she is incredible this season as some experiences begin to shift Aunt Lydia's perspectives. Also of particular note is Genevieve Angelson's new addition, Mrs. Wheeler, who is downright unsettling, though simultaneously criminally underutilized as we get to her a bit deeper in the season. Madeline Brewer is still superb as Janine, as is Samira Wiley as Moira.

Without these performances, the series would be awash in bloated episodes that stretch story to fill space — again, things don't really start to cook until roughly the season midpoint — and, unfortunately, a series of subplots. There is a lot going on this season in The Handmaid's Tale and while the writers try to give each of the primary players something of interest and intrigue, not all of the stories make sense or feel particularly satisfying. Nick (Max Minghella) in particular is set up with what feels like is intended to be an issue of conscience, but really just feels wooden. There's a suggestion of a romance — genuine or machination, that's up to the viewer — for another character that is quickly just brushed past. And there are a few developments in Gilead that seem a bit too convenient and too simple, though if the final two episodes play them out well, could result in the series landing in a place that would serve as a satisfying end should Season 5 be the last.

And it's that bit, the idea that Season 5 could be the series' last, that really is important here. Season 5 has just enough weaknesses that it is very clear that this is a story that has run its course. While the acting is still top-notch, and there are episodes and moments that are absolutely incredibly done, when taken as a whole it's very obvious that the story of June and Gilead is getting thin. Part of what makes The Handmaid's Tale, the novel, such a compelling piece of literature is that it knows where to stop. Season 5 of the Hulu series should take from that and understand the same.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Season 5 of The Handmaid's Tale premieres September 14th on Hulu.