The Handmaid’s Tale just concluded its second season in incredibly frustrating fashion. Thoughts on the finale, and the season as a whole — with full spoilers throughout — coming up just as soon as I listen to Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Springsteen on my car stereo…
Some stories are meant to be told, and enjoyed, for a very long time. Others are meant to be finite. Unfortunately, the people who tell stories for television don’t always know the difference.
Handmaid’s Season One adapted most of the plot of Margaret Atwood’s novel, leaving open the question of what showrunner Bruce Miller and company would be able to do in later seasons. Going beyond the source material isn’t inherently a bad thing – The Leftovers only improved once it finished dramatizing the book – but this particular show seemed to be caught between a narrative rock and an emotional hard place. Continue dramatizing the enslavement and serial rape of the Handmaids of Gilead with the rawness and artistry of the first season, and the experience risks becoming unbearable in a hurry. But to suggest the possibility of hope – of escape and/or revolution for June and Emily and the others – would risk undercutting the very power, and unfortunate timeliness, of this particular tale.
Season Two seemed unsure of which path to follow, and at times tried both. June manages to escape her captors three different times over the course of the season – first hiding out in the abandoned Boston Globe newsroom; then left alone in a well-provisioned country home after Nick had a run-in with some overzealous Guardians; then given a chance to flee to Canada with her baby and Emily with the help of the Marthas and Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford, playing to both recent and old type at the same time) – yet inevitably winds up not making it over the border. (We’ll get back to this, because… well, I need time to speak more calmly about other things that happened first.) Between those brief fugitive stints and an episode set in Canada where Moira and Luke help to foil Commander Waterford’s treaty negotiations, there was some sense of unexpected optimism to be found – only for it to be bluntly snatched away each time. Offred’s plane to Canada gets stopped on the runway. She can’t get the country house’s garage doors to open in an attempt to drive to freedom before giving birth. Moira and Luke’s victory is followed by Waterford’s most violent rape of June yet, outside the bounds of Gilead’s depraved fertility ceremony, there just to teach June and Serena a lesson about what happens when women try to assert their independence in a misogynist theocracy like this.
Because there were occasional glimpses of something better for June and others, and because we were now into year two of this story, the shifts back into cruel oppression only hit harder, and felt more difficult to sit through, than in Season One. Many was the time this year – particularly on an unfortunate day when, due to a deadline, I had to watch five episodes in a row (I strongly recommend against this) – when I found myself asking why I was even still watching this nightmare, no matter how beautiful the show’s compositions, no matter how great so many of its performances. And then Alexis Bledel or Yvonne Strahovski or, especially, Elisabeth Moss would do something so otherworldly (see: the look of pure animal rage on June’s face when she can’t get past that garage door, or the way Emily’s exhilaration at stabbing Aunt Lydia in the finale quickly gives way to sheer terror over what her masters can take from her next as punishment) that my question was momentarily answered. Sometimes, both artist and audience have to suffer for great art, and Handmaid’s was great enough, often enough, to justify the agony that came with it.
But Season Two’s concluding note is punishing, aggravating and, for me, series-ruining, for reasons that seem to have less to do with art than with commerce.
The season ends not with June taking her baby across the border to reunite with her husband and perhaps make plans to liberate older daughter Hannah, but with June handing the infant to an understandably dismayed Emily and declining to get in the van herself. The van drives off, June pulls on her hood, glares at the camera and walks out into the rain as Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” plays.
It is meant, I think, to be a triumphant moment: June trying to live out the song’s title by destroying Gilead (or, at least, rescuing Hannah) from the inside. But it plays as perhaps the dumbest reset button in the history of TV reset buttons, capping off a season that has already pressed said button far too often.
Again: June has a chance to escape THREE different times and never makes it. She suffers no real consequences the first two times. Nick is returned from his misadventure with the Guardians like nothing happened, even though Gilead otherwise doesn’t seem to allow for the “No harm, no foul” rule. Even the return of Emily and Janine from the Colonies – to replace the Handmaids killed in a terrorist bombing – felt like the show trying to revert to its most familiar status quo by any means necessary. Miller is apparently committed at all costs to the idea of June living in that house with the Waterfords, even though Fred has never been a particularly interesting character and Serena is a bundle of seemingly irreconcilable belief systems from which Strahovski’s performance creates the illusion of consistency. (Serena wrote most of the laws on which Gilead is based, and it takes June to remind her that “her” daughter won’t even be allowed to read? And June’s decision to let the baby be called by the name Serena gave her was absurd, as if both June and the show are forgiving Serena her myriad, devastating sins because she has a change of heart after finally suffering herself from this fascist hellscape she helped create. Feh.)
If the plan is to get June back under their power again – ignoring whatever surely sizable penalties Gilead would impose on anyone who stole from the nation’s most precious resource – it’s not remotely worth it, considering how badly it sells out both June and the world the show has created. She’s been a slave long enough to know how rigged the system is against her; no matter how intense her gaze is in those closing moments, it is utterly ridiculous that she would ever choose to stay in this place. And that is doubly so since the only chances she’s had to see Hannah have come via the Waterfords, one of whom has had what little power she ever possessed chopped off along with her finger, the other of whom ought to be filled with righteous indignation over the theft of “his” child.
It may be that Miller has some fiendishly clever workaround to this problem, but it sure feels like the only reason Offred doesn’t get into that van is because the show would be over if that happened – or, at least, this version of the show would be. There are ways to tell stories of June’s life in Canada, and/or to choose a different Handmaid to be the new Offred, and our eyes and ears in this nightmare. But the former loses much of the current premise’s tension, and the latter marginalizes the genius of Moss or says goodbye to it altogether. It’s totally nonsensical for June to turn around and go back to Gilead, but it’s also the only way forward for the drama that finally put Hulu’s original productions on the map, including the kind of Emmy haul last year that Netflix and Amazon are still dreaming about.
Business-wise, Handmaid’s is too important to Hulu’s identity to just end, or even to irrevocably transform itself. Creatively, though, the show seems to have run out of road. After a season of questioning why I continued to punish myself by visiting this world, June’s refusal to just get in the van and go will now likely be my answer when I wonder if I should ever watch again in the future.
Bye-bye, show. It’s been… well, not “fun,” but it was great for a while. But enough is enough.