July 11, 2018 4:48 pm
When “The Handmaid’s Tale” had its premiere on Hulu in 2017, it was a mere three months after the inauguration — 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 jeopardized.
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 wasn’t solely one of social despair — it was based in the realization that the series, which had been quickly renewed for another season, might be running out of story.
Season 2, which wrapped up on Wednesday, 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’s one of the haunting essentials of the book, where she’s only ever called Offred, which reminds us that you don’t 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’s determined now to stay in Gilead, because I guess Season 3 has to be about something. One read is that there’s 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 2 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’re 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 can’t be heightened on, so instead, Season 2 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 flash point 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 2, 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’re just in the land of “The Walking Dead,” where identical problems will plague characters for a decade, and we’re meant to see the protagonists’ obstinance as ethical rather than idiotic.
There are lots of shows where nothing really happens and 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’m not so sure. There’s a difference between exercising and simply sweating.
The show’s true calling card isn’t agitation, it’s aesthetics — and that aesthetic, with the red dresses and the grayed-out Marthas and the teals for Serena, and so forth, is powerful and important. It’s 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’re 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 realize 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 isn’t a feminist rallying cry or a cathartic airing of grievances, it’s just a fandom.
It’s also not the #resistance. It’s the same repackaging and commercialization of women’s ideas and women’s suffering as everything else, just another story we’ve heard before.
Categorised in: Entertainment
This post was written by All Charts News