Emmys’ reigning best drama, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” wrapped up its second season July 11. Variety‘s TV critics got together to discuss what worked — and what didn’t — about this year’s iteration of what may be television’s most closely watched series.
Daniel D’Addario: My first thought at the end of this season was outright relief.
This show is wearying in a way few others are, and not merely because of the painful viscerality of its subject matter. I’ll be relieved, sure, not to have an hour of the very worst things humanity can do to one another in a discomfitingly not-so-very-far-away milieu to watch, but more than that, I’ll be relieved to have some months away from a show that’s so frustratingly hard to pin down. “Handmaid’s,” in my view, improved a great deal in its second season, but still has certain vexing core qualities, like its lack of a handle on basically any of its characters. It’s a show that’s very good, but one that, up through its season finale, I wanted to be so much better.
To wit: Over the course of the second season, June went from a hero for whom we root because she’s so recognizably human into a sort of Omega Woman, delivering her baby herself and, in the season’s final moments, walking away from certain salvation to attempt to—what? Rescue her first daughter? Obtain her revenge on Commander Waterford? None of this tracked as anything but a way to keep the show moving forward, even at the expense of what had made June most interesting earlier on. Her likely quarry, too, is a good example of the show’s looseness with character in service of plot, too; Waterford’s heel turn, culminating in the finale in an act of brutality towards his wife (whose finger he has amputated as punishment for reading), has felt more like an idea of what would shock us and keep us watching than an idea about the ways despotic power announces itself. He was scarier when he insinuatingly tried to play Scrabble with his slave; that dissonance felt like a more provocative statement about evil.
Caroline Framke: I mostly agree, though I’ll admit that when I wrote a few weeks ago about getting burned out on this show’s overall dependence on shock and horror that I was expecting it to get a whole lot more gruesome than it ultimately did. But do I still feel that relief you mention? Yes, a thousand times, yes.
To briefly go back to one of the moments I did think worked: Commander Waterford turning his wife over to the authorities for reading a Scripture passage felt more like the wakeup call Serena needed to finally, finally, understand that Gilead is not and never has been for her – nor for people of actual faith. As June tried to drive home at the beginning of this episode, Eden may have been the only actual believer in the house, and Gilead still found a way to punish her for it. Serena, terrified that her daughter could end up the same way, then tries to use the literal word of God to make her case, and it still doesn’t matter. Gilead isn’t for true believers. It’s for men like Eden’s father, who turned “the light of [his] life” in, and the Commander, who just wants “an obedient woman.” It’s for men who have faith in their own power and precious little else. And given Serena’s equally riveting and infuriating journey this season, it makes complete sense to me that she would only understand the true cost of Gilead once she herself felt its wrath.
I still found most of this season exhausting, both because of the show’s execution and, I’ll admit, the real world closing in around the edges of my screen. So I was surprised that I liked the finale as much as I did — until that punishingly dark final act. (Which I also mean literally; I could barely see what was going on!) As for June’s final choice, I assume she’s off to rescue Hannah…? But I agree that it — not to mention switching Holly’s name to Nichole at the last second because of Serena’s one moment of decency?! — was startlingly out of character. June has spent this entire series trying to get out because she’s learned that making change within Gilead is near impossible, and will just make her go through the same loops of torture. I don’t know what that final shot is about; I don’t need June Osborn, Handmaid Avenger. But it’ll be incredibly disappointing if she ends up right back at the Waterfords. How many times she (and we) can live through that same loop?
Pivoting off June and the Waterfords for a minute, what did you think of Emily’s final arc? I’ll admit I was surprised by Bradley Whitford’s Commander coming through to help her escape, though in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been.
D’Addario: I wasn’t surprised, if only because this show is so centered around reversals that I assumed a character who announced himself so loudly as bad would turn out to be benevolent. But I thought Whitford did a terrific job in his performance—one that seems like a single continuous person in retrospect, despite the hairpin turn the character makes—and I’m always interested in Emily, who gets to be flawed in a way June rarely does and who comes into her own with a startling, defiant act of violence that still felt like something she’d really do. Her heading to Canada, I presume, will hopefully drag the show’s center of gravity a bit north: I’d like to see more of what the resistance to Gilead actually looks like, how modern nations cope with a theocratic post-America and more of how refugees from it tell their stories.
To clarify, as while I think you liked the episode more than I did, my problems with it didn’t keep me from watching fairly rapt: June’s final choice definitely makes sense for her character. But spinning the ball forward, it’s hard to imagine how she makes much headway at all in a solo search-and-rescue mission without ending up, as you point out, precisely where she started. That sort of stasis on a show that is perpetually making huge swings and quickly resolving them has a corrosive effect; I don’t love that I’m starting to not care about a show whose premise is so urgent. The show’s themes of misogyny, as you point out, are sophisticated in a way I’m not sure the plot always serves.
I suppose we’re getting signs that Gilead is fraying at the seams, between the growing boldness of the men in power and what we’d previously been told, by Oprah, is an increasingly hostile international community; chaos might help Offred maneuver. That’d make for a nice change of pace. And there’s reason to believe the show is growing more confident in making big shifts. I’m fairly sure, for instance, Aunt Lydia won’t recover from her wounds—right?
Framke: Eh, I’ve stopped assuming a TV character is dead unless we see their death certificate. It would be pretty shocking to me if they killed off Aunt Lydia, if only because they wouldn’t want to lose Ann Dowd, but if I’m proved wrong, I’d honestly be thrilled.
Because there have been so many moments when it would make sense to say goodbye to a character only to have them come back and stretch out their story. I’m not even saying that more regular characters should be dead (though logically they would be). But at this point, do I need to see more of the Waterfords, for instance? Nah. I’d be sad to lose Yvonne Strahovski, who really did shine this season, but her enacting a true act of mercy by saying goodbye to Nichole through tears and prayers seems like the perfect ending to her story.
Conversely, I actually wish we got more time with Joseph, and not just because Whitford turned in such a fascinating performance. But as the apparent architect of Gilead, he has more to offer the story, and I’m not entirely sure I bought his turn from interrogating Emily with probing, horrible questions in last week’s episode to busting her out after stabbing an Aunt in the back this week.
D’Addario: Just as you wouldn’t be surprised if we got more of Aunt Lydia (and, yes, I know she’s likely to return, but those injuries seemed almost gratuitously gruesome), I suspect we’re not done with Joseph. As a sympathetic potential ally to June—and as a figure who seems likelier to reward psychological probing than good old Commander Waterford—I think he has more to give in season 3.
But does June? I mean this sincerely and with absolutely no shots to Elisabeth Moss, whom I’ll begrudgingly admit has easily earned another Emmy over personal favorites Keri Russell and Claire Foy. But over two years, we have seen June bear the utmost extreme of psychological burden, and end up, after much suffering, in a place of reckless willingness to risk it all. I’m not sure where the performance can go if she’s unsuccessful in her mission, or even faces a setback; how much more suffering can a person endure before we grow deaf to their cries?
Which is the “Handmaid’s” issue in a nutshell, for me. I’m dubious about how aesthetically sound it is to marinate in this world for an open-ended run. (I agree with those who think it has come to seem less than politically useful, as the show’s vision of female suffering can be less cathartic than often gratuitous.) The second season cleared up some of the first’s most jarring tonal issues—there were no truly offbeat music cues or attempts at weird humor this time around. But, if anything, it seemed almost too smoothly professional for a show whose story is so painful. Having left the novel’s plot behind, the show was free to work as it liked—and up until this finale, it seemed far more like a genre-TV offering with nutty twists than, well, a Margaret Atwood adaptation about theocracy. Am I just a crank for feeling some gravity has been lost?
Framke: You’re not. That was essentially the thesis of my reaction to “The Last Ceremony,” and my opinion hasn’t changed much; this show depends on ramping up a steady drumbeat of horror, and there’s only so far it can go before it all becomes white noise. (Showrunner Bruce Miller has said the show could run for ten seasons, to which I say, NO show should run for ten seasons, let alone “The Handmaid’s Tale.”)
Part of the problem I had with this season is that it made a more concerted effort to have its traumatic past match up with our traumatic present, and only made itself messier as a result. The first season was greenlit and produced before Trump got elected, but adapted Atwood’s 1985 novel in a way that highlighted a very modern strain of growing dread. The second season is more obviously tied to a post-2016 world, with its flashbacks peppered with “#RESIST” iconography. I understand the impulse; it’s hard not to respond directly to the times we’re living through. But one of my favorite things about the first season was how deftly it deconstructed specific American power structures, and I think season 2’s attempts to react to everything all at once has diluted that particular impact.
Two moments stick out to me in which the show contracted a serious case of false equivalence as it tried to be more timely: Serena’s flashback to getting shot by liberal protesters at a college talk (more a right-wing fantasy than anything resembling reality) and the Handmaid suicide bomber (which Miller has said was meant to make the audience consider what it meant to sympathize with a radical terrorist — a blunt and clumsy parallel, given that she was an oppressed woman fighting back against sex slavery).
Every time it’s tried to step too far outside the Waterford’s mansion in Gilead’s horrific present, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has faltered. It would be great to see the show broaden its scope and solidify its own mythology going forward, especially regarding the role of Canada and American refugees. If this show is going to go on until further notice, it might as well build a world that makes sense.