Note: This review contains spoilers.
About halfway through the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it became painfully obvious that the writers were playing a game of “Will she? Won’t she?” with us: Will June escape the Gilead? Or will she be captured in the process?
Strangely enough, the season finale’s answer to both of these questions is “no.” June (Elisabeth Moss) doesn’t escape the Gilead, even though she’s been given her third opportunity to. And it’s not because an unexpected twist of fate caught up to her—for example, conveniently going into labor right as you’ve discovered a cabinet of non-perishable food and a luxury getaway car. It’s because June chooses to stay, handing off her baby to Emily (Alexis Bledel) and letting her would-be escape van leave her behind. Turns out, third time’s not the charm when a show values their cash flow more than their storytelling. Just a week after its Season Two debut, “The Handmaid’s Tale” was renewed for a third run, which means its writers needed to come up with new content. Unfortunately for us, they’ve equated that to trapping June in Gilead, again. And again.
This constant repetition is suffocating the story—and Gilead is already a suffocating place. That’s its entire premise: deranged, misogynistic restrictions. That’s not to say that this can’t be productive—Gilead is supposed to be symbolic for what the United States could devolve into. But “The Handmaid’s Tale” can’t seem to move past indulging in cruelty that seems to be there just for the shock value. The handmaids are rounded up for a fake hanging. June is raped while heavily pregnant. Eden (Sydney Sweeney)—a 15 year-old girl—is drowned in a swimming pool in front of an audience.
And in the finale, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) gets her pinkie sliced off for reading the Bible. The show’s tragedies have become tedious because they only exist to prove that Gilead is miserable. But after two seasons of evidence, we get the message. These showcases of brutality no longer develop the story or the characters or add any nuance to the heavy themes with which the show battles.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is capable of moving beyond trauma porn—it just chooses not to. There have been glimmers of potential for political change: Canada withdrawing its diplomatic relations with Gilead, Serena Joy writing her husband’s documents, the wives uniting to make the case for women’s literacy. But everything is futile. At the end of the second season, we’re back to where we started as June walks away from her chance at safety, presumably because, as indicated by a glowy flashback, she wants to stay in Gilead to find her first daughter. It’s a frustrating scene, one that inspires a specific argument: Was this decision respectable or was it idiotic?
But don’t fall for this red herring debate. June’s choice was disappointing not because of its rationale, but because it brought the storyline nowhere. Not even Elisabeth Moss’s trademark scowl, which the camera dramatically lingers on in the last scene, can save this moment.
Thirteen episodes later, and we’ve barely moved an inch. The show’s back-and-forth game is proving to be nothing more than a marketing tactic—a way for the writers to find easy Season Three content that doesn’t require much more world-building. It’s quite contradictory to the branding of “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a political force, something that should inspire more action from its viewers than a line of tone-deaf wine. But how can “The Handmaid’s Tale” demand action from us when it stays stuck in its own rut with shallow motives? Its second season always showed us how bad things could get for America, but it never asked the important questions of how we got there, and how we can change things for the better.
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