This article contains spoilers through the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Watching the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale over the last three months hasn’t been an experience anyone would describe as cathartic, or gratifying, or even intermittently escapist. Starting in the first episode, when June (Elisabeth Moss) and her fellow handmaids were muzzled, slung into the back of a truck like cattle, and then led to their own execution (a visceral moment of horror that turned out to be an epic fake-out to punish the women for rebellion), the show was an assault on viewers—a bleak, black, hushed, relentless parade of miseries. The fact that its storylines often coincided with the news cycle made the prospect of escape from Gilead the only slant of light in the gloom.
For much of the season, though, such a release seemed impossible. After continually teasing June’s escape—via a truck at the end of Season 1, then from a hospital examination room, then via an airplane she almost boarded, then finally from a house where she was left alone with a vintage Mustang—The Handmaid’s Tale dangled the prospect of freedom in front of viewers, only to snatch it away. By the finale, I’d become so inured to the idea that June would be stuck in the Waterford house forever that when an underground network of Marthas unexpectedly snuck her to a meeting point with Emily (Alexis Bledel) and the inscrutable Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), it was exhilarating. Escape was within June’s grasp.
Which is what made what happened next so incomprehensible, so infuriating. June … passed her baby to Emily, instructed her to name the infant Nicole (Serena’s choice), and stayed in Gilead.
As a conclusion, it defied logic. Nothing June had done up till that point had suggested she might turn down a chance to leave. She had, in fact, made multiple attempts to escape of her own volition, even after she was reunited with Hannah. In the episodes leading up to the finale, June had learned that her husband and her best friend were alive and living in Canada, that the letters Nick was able to smuggle out had damaged Gilead’s diplomatic relations with other countries, and that the one woman she considered a co-conspirator, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), was willing only to hold June down during a vicious sexual assault. There was no plausible reason for June to stay. Not even Elisabeth Moss could sell June’s dizzying about-face, or justify the show’s insistence that her actions were badass, not baffling. (Cue: a slow raise of her red hood, a grimace directly to camera, and a Talking Heads song as the credits rolled.)
How does The Handmaid’s Tale think June will burn down the metaphorical house of Gilead, exactly? (Putting her hood up can’t miraculously turn her blood-red handmaid outfit into an invisibility cloak, and the chain of Marthas who risked their lives to escort her to the meeting point might be less than friendly, given that she’s spurned their selfless efforts.) The whole point of The Handmaid’s Tale is that June has no power of her own. In Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, June has accepted this and internalized it, which is what ironically makes her story all the more crucial. Through recounting what happened to her, and documenting the tiny details of her confined existence, June is able to retain a modicum of authority—more so in the novel’s flash-forward, when it’s revealed that June’s story has outlasted Gilead itself.
For most of Season 2, The Handmaid’s Tale seemed to comprehend this powerlessness. June’s various rebellions had no impact outside of the Waterford household. But her story might have done. In Episode 9, the show explored the consequences of letters from various Gilead handmaids being leaked to the foreign press. It’s impossible not to think that the testimony of a handmaid who managed to get out wouldn’t have had an even greater impact. In other words, June’s refusal to leave was selfish in more ways than one.
More than that, though, the final plot twist was transparently manufactured, so much so that you can sense how the writers’-room conversations must have gone. The biggest problem throughout the two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale has been that the show can’t quite find a way to unite its world-building ambitions with the constrained environment of Atwood’s book. In the novel, Offred sees only a sliver of Gilead on her daily walks to buy groceries; without television or news broadcasts or the internet, she has no conception of what might actually be happening in the world around her. Maybe the colonies are a myth. Maybe Gilead is just a tiny, well-armed republic within a freer continent.
The TV adaptation, being set during a time of smartphones and pussy hats and instant messaging, can’t quite get to grips with how a repressive state like Gilead might coexist with 21st-century America, which leads to logical fallacies like the one prompted by Oprah’s cameo in the 11th episode. The more the show offers scenes outside of June’s perspective, the more questions it raises. What’s happening in New York City? What about the West Coast? Are upwards of 300 million Americans really being governed by a theocracy of a dozen commanders in Boston? Where have all the celebrities gone?
Which is perhaps why the series so often returns to its comfort zone—as frustrating as it might be for viewers, and as narratively incoherent. The Waterford home is what made much of Season 1 so compelling, with its lush interiors and its Cold-War tension between June and Serena. Over the course of Season 2, June escaped the Waterford house and was returned to it so many times that it started to feel like Steve McQueen’s cooler in The Great Escape. (Even more exasperating was how continually June tried to bond with Serena, a woman who’d used June’s child’s safety as leverage, denied June the opportunity to see her daughter, and suggested to her husband that he rape June as a way to hasten June’s exit from their lives.)
It’s unclear whether Season 3 will return June to the Waterford house again. (It seems unlikely that she’ll be welcome, given that June facilitated the removal of the Waterfords’ baby from Gilead, but we’ve been burned before.) Which urges the question: Where will she go? Making rage eyes at the camera and stalking off into the night like a grim-faced Psycho-Pirate might gratify the yen the show has always had to present June as a superhero. But it can’t persuade viewers that it’s anything other than a cop-out to avoid the work of blasting through the series’s self-imposed limitations.
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