When The Handmaid’s Tale had its premiere on Hulu in 2017, it was a mere three months after the inauguration of Donald Trump – tensions were high, nerves raw.
The election of a president who had been, among other things, caught on tape making gleefully misogynistic remarks inspired a credible panic in some women and others who feared their civil rights might soon be further jeopardised.
Much of the coverage of The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted from the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel, mused on its inadvertent timeliness. The first season, which was relatively faithful to the book, was chilling and validating, an amplification of and a vessel for nagging fears and frustrations. “I wish this wasn’t so relevant!” we said, ha ha. It won a pile of Emmys including best drama, the first for a streaming series.
But even as the acclaimed first season chugged along, the slow dread that set in was not solely one of social despair – it was based on the realisation that the series, which had been quickly renewed for another season, might be running out of story.
Season two, which wrapped up on Thursday, has been almost entirely new. And while departing from source material is itself a virtue-neutral move, as The Handmaid’s Tale strays further from its origins, it also strays further from one of its significant ideas: that June (Elisabeth Moss) is ordinary. It is one of the haunting essentials of the book, where she is only ever called Offred, which reminds us that you do not need to be Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen or Jesus Christ to retain your humanity in even the most oppressive, heinous circumstances.
On the show, though, June is so special that her scowl might as well be on the currency for the revolution. Her husband confronts her captor in Canada. She delivers her own baby. Even though people died to help her escape at the beginning of the season, she is determined now to stay in Gilead, because I guess season three has to be about something. One read is that there is no escaping the suffocation of a subjugating regime. Except within the show, there actually is escaping it — and yet June has decided not to.
Season two has been dutifully brutal, complete with ample torture, rapes, executions and murders. It gave in to every one of the show’s most tedious instincts, substituting slow stares and endless montage sequences for any actual development or new interiority. Every inch of existence is awful. Cookies are inedible. Oprah is in exile. We are at the North Pole of misery and being told to walk north.
So all the show can do is walk in circles. June’s primal wound is being separated from her daughter Hannah. That cannot be heightened on, so instead, season two just repeats it. This, too, could seem eerily resonant, given the human rights crisis at the Mexican border that saw immigrant children being separated from their parents. But not entirely, because one essential flashpoint of present-day America The Handmaid’s Tale ignores is race and ethnicity. Our United States definitely does not.
June’s trauma repeats, and so does everyone else’s. June’s pal Emily (Alexis Bledel), who last season was punished by having her clitoris cut off, was sent to the gulag, as was Janine (Madeline Brewer), who last season had her eye removed. After they toiled for a few episodes, it was back to Gilead for them both – back to desultory trips to the market and conspiratorial whispers. Would Nick’s child bride ruin everything? No; she was executed, and then everything was back to bad-normal.
At the halfway point of season two, a group of handmaids sets off a bomb (a bomb in Gilead, get it?) and then … nothing major happened, except that the handmaids were given dramatic mourning veils, much in the way the cheerleaders on Riverdale have funeral-specific cheerleading uniforms.
June finds herself back with the Waterfords yet again, despite two jailbreaks and the opportunity to shoot both of them. Now we are just in the land of The Walking Dead, where identical problems will plague characters for a decade, and we are meant to see the protagonists’ obstinance as ethical rather than idiotic.
There are lots of shows where nothing really happens and there is plenty of torture porn to go around, but the aura and marketing of The Handmaid’s Tale suggest that watching it is in and of itself a political act. I am not so sure. There is a difference between exercising and simply sweating.
The show’s true calling card is not agitation, it is aesthetics – and that aesthetic, with the red dresses and the greyed-out Marthas and the teals for Serena, and so forth, is powerful and important. It is just not at all resonant for the current crises. If you think Zara jackets are being distributed to all the commanders’ wives right now, think again.
Rather than a wake-up call, The Handmaid’s Tale is part hair shirt, part commodification. We are gutted by the show’s savagery and then sold wine based on the show’s characters – it took a fierce backlash for MGM, the producing studio, to realise Offred Pinot Noir was a bad idea and abandon it – and T-shirts at Hot Topic that bear the “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” motto. I saw dogs dressed up as handmaids for Halloween. This is not a feminist rallying cry or a cathartic airing of grievances, it is just a fandom.
It is also not the #resistance. It is the same repackaging and commercialisation of women’s ideas and women’s suffering as everything else, just another story we have heard before.
–The New York Times