Where “The Handmaid’s Tale” Went Wrong

There’s escapist TV after which there’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a collection so steeped in despair that many viewers have merely opted out. It didn’t need to be this fashion. Yes, the present is innately upsetting: It takes place in a world the place closely restricted roles are imposed on ladies, a few of whom are handmaids compelled into sexual servitude to provide youngsters for high-ranking males. But the present’s second season — free from the constraints of adapting Margaret Atwood’s novel of the identical identify — may have pivoted to a story of resistance. Instead, for probably the most half, it doubled down on distress.

That’s simply one of many missteps made by the Hulu collection in its sophomore season. The present nonetheless has moments of greatness, thank to persistently compelling characters like June, Emily, Aunt Lydia, and Serena, and the large performances by the actors taking part in them: Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, and Yvonne Strahovski. Nevertheless, The Handmaid’s Tale as a complete has turn out to be one thing of a slog, burdened by aimless plotting and a seemingly infinite onslaught of trauma. Here are a few of the methods the present failed its viewers, with MAJOR SPOILERS by means of the season finale.

The Handmaid’s Tale’s largest drawback — and the one from which so lots of its different issues spring — is that the present appears terrified to maneuver the plot ahead. The first season ended, just like the novel, with June being carted off to an unknown future. Without the supply materials to information the plot, the present’s writers had the liberty to take the story in numerous instructions. And whereas the Season 1 cliffhanger is resolved shortly — June (Moss) had been taken away as a part of Aunt Lydia’s (Dowd) sadistic retribution for the handmaids’ revolt — the Season 2 premiere really does see June break away from her life as Offred. Nick (Max Minghella) helps her escape the Waterfords, and the episode ends along with her burning her handmaid’s gown and reducing the monitoring system out of her ear.

It’s a cathartic second of reclamation: She is June, not Offred, a reputation that defines her as belonging to Fred (Joseph Fiennes). And then, two episodes later, she’s captured by the Guardians. In “Other Women,” the fourth episode of the season, June is Offred once more, and so overwhelmed down by the horrific oppression of Gilead that she appears totally resigned to her destiny. The return to the established order is extremely miserable, to not point out irritating as a viewer — and it occurs repeatedly all through the season. In the 11th episode, “Holly,” a stranded June evades discovery by Fred and Serena (Strahovski) and has her child on her personal. The subsequent episode reveals that she was captured and returned to Gilead offscreen. And in probably the most irritating instance of The Handmaid’s Tale’s stalling, the season ends with June and her child almost escaping Gilead — just for June to provide the child to Emily (Bledel) and switch again.

The writers presumably have a plan for June, and it probably includes her beginning a revolution from inside Gilead. That’s a sound story to inform, however the issue with the fake-outs of her repeated close to escapes is that they contribute to an overwhelmingly dispiriting narrative through which resistance to an oppressive regime is quashed over and over. The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t obligated to supply hope — and the portrayal of how tough it’s to beat a violently patriarchal society is definitely true to life — however this season has been genuinely disagreeable to observe. The moments of optimism are few and much between, and they’re largely crushed underneath the load of the brutality June and her fellow handmaids endure.

The quantity of violence — each bodily and psychological — you possibly can take as a viewer varies from person to person, however the trauma of Season 2 is particularly upsetting due to its failure to propel the plot ahead. Take, for instance, June’s mutilation of her ear within the premiere. It’s an exceptionally graphic scene (kudos in case you have been in a position to watch it with out turning away), nevertheless it works as a result of it represents June’s willpower, in any respect prices, to interrupt free from Gilead. That she’s so shortly thrown again into that world undermines the second: Her ache earns her nothing. It’s true that struggling is endemic to The Handmaid’s Tale — it’s constructed into this world — however with out a lot hope to latch onto, it begins to really feel superfluous. The present is tough to observe, sure, however to what finish?

Another results of the collection dragging its toes, and particularly of its reluctance to disrupt the best way issues are, is that it permits for some unbelievable plot contrivances. No one is extra emblematic of this than Emily, a personality The Handmaid’s Tale can’t let go of, even though she actually shouldn’t be right here anymore. While Bledel is without doubt one of the present’s strongest belongings, the collection shouldn’t need to sacrifice logic to maintain her round. When Emily made her triumphant exit in Season 1 — taking a Guardian down along with her — it seemed just like the final we’d see of her. And but, she not solely survives into the second season however manages to make her manner again to Gilead, because of a suicide bomb–induced handmaid scarcity.

It strains credibility lady who has proven fixed rebel towards Gilead’s values, culminating in her actually murdering a Guardian, can be introduced again from the Colonies to return to her function as a handmaid. She is — with good cause — dangerously homicidal and a confirmed risk! That she stabs Aunt Lydia ought to come as no shock to anybody. (And then she will get away with it, as a result of she by some means managed to get assigned to a commander who’s sympathetic to her plight. Season 2 Emily has shockingly good luck.)

While The Handmaid’s Tale slowly shambles on to its inevitable conclusion, it has to do a good quantity of plot padding. In one sense, that’s a aid — viewers want a break from the repetitive story of June getting crushed by this method. Sadly, the present hasn’t been all that profitable at telling different tales. Every time the motion cuts to Canada, The Handmaid’s Tale deflates. Luke (O-T Fagbenle) has by no means been all that attention-grabbing — actually not one of the males on this present are! — and Moira (Samira Wiley) at all times looks like an afterthought. It’s disappointing given how a lot potential she confirmed within the first season; an arc exploring her PTSD may have been compelling, however for probably the most half, the present appears to overlook she exists. And it’s particularly unlucky as a result of Moira is considered one of only a few black characters on a collection that seems decided to willfully ignore race (extra on that under).

Then there are the flashbacks: During Season 1, they offered beneficial backstory that illuminated how the US had descended into the masculinist nightmare our characters discover themselves in. Season 2’s flashbacks are sometimes revelatory — Emily’s in “Unwomen,” the second episode of the season, is heartbreaking and eerily on level given our present political local weather — however, for probably the most half, they begin to really feel pointless. Not to say the truth that the extra The Handmaid’s Tale reveals in regards to the pre-Gilead world, the extra the timeline begins to collapse. (See above re: breaks in logic.) Or maybe it’s wishful considering to consider the nation couldn’t fall underneath totalitarian rule with such expediency.

Look, it’s one factor for Nick to be in love with June. It even is sensible that she would develop keen on him and switch to him for consolation or sexual escape or distraction. But Season 2 turns Nick right into a romantic hero, a confounding selection that displays the writers being way more invested within the character than the viewers is. Evolving what June and Nick have into some kind of forbidden love story simply doesn’t really feel proper — and that’s not out of any loyalty to Luke, as a result of, once more, the boys on this present hardly matter. It’s extra that it feels rushed and inorganic, a ham-fisted try and inject some romance right into a collection that doesn’t have loads to supply on that entrance. And whereas Nick definitely does what he can to assist June, he’s nonetheless been complicit on this system for a while and continues to learn from it. That makes it an actual problem to root for these two loopy youngsters making an attempt to make it work.

Meanwhile, Nick is compelled into marriage with a toddler bride, Eden (Sydney Sweeney). She’s pious and dedicated to him — although he desires little to do along with her — till she instantly falls in love with a Guardian named Isaac (Rohan Mead). It might be an attention-grabbing story to inform, nevertheless it occurs so shortly (and largely offscreen) that it’s arduous to take a position a lot in it. When Eden and Isaac select to die for one another, their torturous execution — they’re weighed down with chains and thrown right into a swimming pool to drown — looks like extra of The Handmaid’s Tale’s sadism. Sure, it’s a second of progress for Serena, who’s horrified sufficient to let June nurse her child, however Eden and Isaac (and their romance) weren’t developed sufficient for his or her deaths to resonate.

Failure of intersectionality

After the primary season of The Handmaid’s Tale drew criticism for its therapy of race — or somewhat, its failure to look at race in any respect — showrunner Bruce Miller insisted the second season would study from these errors. The thought of Gilead as a “postracial” society by no means actually made any sense, and whereas the present couldn’t precisely reverse that, there are many methods through which it may have at the least acknowledged the racial id of its nonwhite characters, whereas additionally giving some sense of how race would possibly play into the inflexible hierarchy of this world. Instead, The Handmaid’s Tale does roughly nothing to elucidate how the collapse of the US right into a dystopia the place ladies are subjugated and queerness is forbidden would instantly get rid of racism and the concept of race. There aren’t any simple solutions as a result of, once more, it is senseless.

The solely factor Season 2 actually does is add extra actors of colour — which is admirable however does nothing to handle the underlying drawback. The collection stays unable to contemplate race. Take, for instance, the flashback through which we meet Luke’s ex-wife, Annie (Kelly Jenrette); at no level is there any acknowledgment of the racial politics of a black man leaving his black spouse for a white lady, which earned the present extra criticism. This is a present all about gender — it’s constructed totally round that idea — however till The Handmaid’s Tale learns to make its feminism intersectional, it’s going to maintain letting its viewers down.

Louis Peitzman is a deputy leisure editor for BuzzFeed News and is predicated in New York.

Contact Louis Peitzman at [email protected].

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