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Television Collision: The Handmaid’s Tale season 2

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

Just the other day I was exchanging TV recommendations with my best friend and her boyfriend. I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale which she told me she had been watching, but when her boyfriend asked “So, is it good?” we both stopped for a second and said: “It’s brilliant, but it’s not ‘good.’”

What we meant, of course, was the viewing experience of The Handmaid’s Tale was a grueling, exhausting, painful endeavor best undertaken one episode at a time, filling the in-between with copious amounts of snuggles from loved ones and tiny animals. I am usually all for binge-watching, but with a show as dark and emotionally abusive as The Handmaid’s Tale, I strongly advise against it. Last night the show wrapped up its second season in true Sophie’s Choice fashion.

Spoilers ahead for the entire season, of course.

Season 2 felt like a season of two halves. A lot of the early episodes were spent on building hope, striking upbeat notes at time when we see June training for her escape in the abandoned Boston Globe building and enjoying amorous activities with Nick. But by the middle of the season it became clear this glimpse of hope was only offered so the show could plunge us deeper into darkness, and boy, how dark it got.

Herein, partially, lies the problem with Season 2. It had to up the ante from what we saw in the first season, and in doing so the show took a few missteps as it struggled to find steady footing beyond what the source material provided. There are a number of complaints I have with this second season of Handmaid’s Tale, which tries its best to stretch beyond the source material but could not figure out how to deviate from the formula enough to make for great – not just good – television.

Characters oscillating between likeable and deplorable is not in and of itself a bad thing; it can make these characters quite intriguing, at least for the audience. If you are June, however, I am not so sure you really would be in any mind to continue to forgive Serena’s many trespasses against her. One could argue June does this out of cold calculation, having largely failed to manipulate Fred into any act of rebellion that has larger implications so she might think she now has to try her luck with Serena.

But this line of argument does not account for June’s final act of forgiveness, when she tells Emily to call her daughter “Nicole,” which is the name Serena chose for the baby when June and Nick – the biological parents – wanted to call her “Holly”.

Sure enough, June has success in trying to make Serena an ally in her fight for change. June’s words inspire Serena to petition for teaching the children of Gilead how to read, although how Serena, the architect of some of Gilead’s foundations, has not realized the future for her daughter won’t be roses and butterflies is a bit baffling. Realizing it doesn’t do Serena any good though either, in one last demonstration of who has the power in their relationship now, regardless of what was before, her husband lets “them” cut off Serena’s pinky finger as punishment for reading, albeit it from the Bible. (A punishment very clumsily explained in a scene last week between Emily and Commander Lawrence.)

As I said, the season was split into two halves and by the time we arrive at what is supposed to be a cathartic moment for Emily – being able to take out her rage on Aunt Lydia – the pain Emily has suffered in Season 1 and in early Season 2 in the colonies is but a faint memory in our minds, because the storyline was left by the wayside for quite a few episodes. Also, judging by the numerous “bait and switch” moves Season 2 included, you can bet Aunt Lydia is not dead.

This perfectly demonstrates my second complaint: in a society so draconian, the consequences are not draconian enough. June manages to almost escape not once, not twice, but three times by the end of the season, and yet she not only gets to remain in the Waterford household, she gets to move around in it freely, interacting with Nick, Martha, Eden, Serena and Fred at will, even nursing her child. Nick gets picked up by other Guardians in a house that is off-limits (and they are not too gentle about it), but then walks in the very next episode unscathed. And just how powerful do the Waterfords have to be to escape any sort of repercussions for the shady dealings and law-breaking they are constantly involved in? There are a myriad of transgressions that go unpunished in the show all of the time – unless you happen to have the misfortune of being a supporting character only introduced to remind the audience that Gilead is oppressive, cruel and violent; such as Eden.

Her fate, however, at least brought about something I had been waiting for all season: some genuine disturbance and anguish in Nick. Given all he has participated in, all he has seen, all he has had to endure and watch the woman he loves endure, I was left wanting to see how any of it affected him. Max Minghella plays Nick with such understatement that, especially standing next to the ever-expressive Elisabeth Moss, it sometimes became impossible to parse what Nick was feeling in any given moment. His scene with June at the table following Eden’s death and their shared moment together with their baby may have been my favorite two snapshots of the entire season, because I finally felt I was given a glimpse into a character who had been an enigma for so long. (I was also  glad to finally hear June tell him “I love you,” a sentiment he has expressed to her several times.)

My biggest complaint though is one I mentioned earlier: Season 2 felt just a touch formulaic. Many of the developments and choices in these 13 episodes (three more than the first season had) could be predicted and explained by the fact that The Handmaid’s Tale is the first true success for Hulu, one they likely want to keep around, and the show played it safe. June’s escape attempts had to be foiled, major or beloved characters had to be saved (also to keep some of the finest actors sticking around) and ways had to be found to keep June in the Waterford household. Even the role and behavior of Bradley Whitford’s character Commander Lawrence was predictable simply because Whitford is so often typecast.

The show continues to be grueling viewing that confronts viewers with moral questions of sacrifice, love, compromise, bravery and courage. I understand and make arguments for almost all the choices the female characters make. This is a huge point in the show’s favor: that it spends so much time on its female characters, fleshing them out in detail, giving them complex emotional lives, sometimes pitting them against one another, and uniting them against a common enemy.

The roster of actresses on the show, from Elisabeth Moss to Yvonne Strahovski, Alexis Bledel to Ann Dowd and Amanda Brugel, are nothing short of extraordinary and this sophomore season was a tour de force through their respective talents paired with the always impeccable cinematography. However, these ladies are also what kept some storylines from falling apart in the writers’ hands.
If we are to continue exploring the dystopia of Gilead and continue doing so through June’s eyes, the writers and showrunners have to find ways to let go of other – partially beloved – characters, so we can see different corners, different people, different facets of Gilead. Not every part of a story can be explored with the same set of characters (unless you are a soap opera or telenovela), and sadly this is a lesson many shows before did not learn, so I am hoping Handmaid’s Tale avoids repeating the same mistakes and create endings for some characters in order to facilitate beginnings for others.

By the end of Season 2 I was not left entirely dissatisfied. Given how the show set up the final moment, forcing June to decide between her two daughters, I understand the choice she made and also see how infuriating having to make it must be in the first place. But I now need the show to make good on this rage; I need to see June burn the place down, I need to see some drastic moves of epic proportions because I don’t think this show is well-served by playing “the long game.” If showrunners opt for the latter, I fear viewers will say “Enough!” to the torture far before June ever will.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to curl up in a ball and cry like I do every week after watching an episode of this show, and then I need to call my mother and thank her for the endless sacrifices – big and small – she made to raise me and the time she took to teach me to read.