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As soon as it became clear that The Handmaid's Tale would grow beyond the scope of its source material, viewers began to wonder how, and if, the acclaimed series could sustain itself as a story outside the bounds of Margaret Atwood's landmark novel. The Hulu original series has earned Emmy, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Peabody Awards over the course of its run, and helped establish star Elisabeth Moss as one of the great acting powerhouses of her generation, but as the show heads into its fourth season, questions linger.
Will the show be able to grow beyond the bounds of what many fans and critics alike have come to consider wheel-spinning? Can June's transition from captive to freedom fighter push the show into new territory with a fifth season already on the way?
Reviews for Season 4 are rolling in ahead of its debut on Hulu this Wednesday, and even as the series tries to head in new directions, critics are still very much divided over whether or not the show is able to break out of its old cycles. For some, the nature of June's situation hasn't evolved enough to make the show feel like it's growing, as The Handmaid's Tale continues to fall back on tried and true storytelling resets.
Here's what critics had to say:
"The Handmaid's Tale is solidly entrenched in the things it does well — with Elisabeth Moss' performance as an unimpeachable centerpiece — and most frustrating in its bleak and repetitive rhythms," Daniel Fienberg of THR wrote. "It becomes harder and harder to trust that even when big things happen on The Handmaid's Tale — and big things happen in these new episodes — the show will commit to follow-through."
"Some of the Big Moments viewers have been waiting (and waiting) for do happen in the second half of this season, but their emotional power is blunted by the slog we've gone through to get to them," Kristen Baldwin of EW wrote. "And even as some stories lurch forward, others seem poised to circle back on themselves yet again."
"But, as the fourth season moves along, so do plot similarities to past seasons and repetitions. Captures happen. Tortures happen. People die; sometimes because of June and sometimes not. And yet, at least as far as the eight episodes released to the press suggest, June survives with only some battle scars," Whitney Friedlander of Paste wrote. "Although plenty of the real-world dangers that fans related to Handmaid’s Tale during the first season still exist, the show itself throws out increasingly preposterous hurdles for June to easily clear with bewildering agility. Therefore, much of the fear factor is lost."
One thing critics do seem to agree on about the new season is that something shifts in the latter episodes, something they're not spoiling but are nevertheless intrigued to watch unfold. The difference lies in whether or not you believe these developments will actually push the series into new territory. For some reviewers, it feels like they've been burned before and are wary of the show's commitment to breaking new ground. For others, there's hope of exciting things in Season 4 and the already announced Season 5.
"Plus, say this for three full seasons of torture and despair — there's plenty of justice we as viewers still need to see doled out. Enough to warrant more seasons beyond a fourth? It's hard to say as yet," Liz Shannon Miller of Collider wrote. "But those who have seen the previous three seasons and choose to come back for more, brace yourselves, because you can still expect this show to dig into the darkness, as much as ever. But you might be shocked as well, to also feel something rare and precious and new: Hope."
"It’s challenging to explain what specifically makes the Hulu drama more compelling this season without walking into spoiler territory. But the key difference is that the stakes feel higher and more urgent," Jen Chaney of Vulture wrote. "There are twists this season that will genuinely catch viewers by surprise, and some moments we’ve been waiting to see since the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale that finally arrive. While the last two seasons meant sitting through a lot of ugly conflict with no relief, this season brings some truly emotional rewards."
Which side of this debate will you fall on with the new season? Find out when The Handmaid's Tale returns Wednesday on Hulu.