If misery truly loved company season two of The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4) would have been the year’s most popular TV show. It was a flensing, gouging, sinew-snapping endurance test, one that piled the agonies so high that the original point of the endeavour became obscured.
The message, or at least one of the messages, of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel was that the policing of sexuality, women’s especially, is a form of fascism. But when the Hulu adaptation moved past Atwood’s dystopian fable at the end of its Emmy-bagging first year, it seemed unsure how to communicate this warning in a dramatically engaging fashion.
So it simply amped up the nastiness. Handmaid Offred – one of a tiny minority of women capable of bearing children in a post-apocalyptic near-future where the United States has been reborn as the God-fearing theocracy of “Gilead” – was sent down a nightmare chute of pain and degradation. Plummeting ratings and flat-lining reviews suggested there were limits to how much we needed to see her suffer for The Handmaid’s Tale to get its point across.
But with season three showrunner Bruce Miller – we should probably acknowledge the uncomfortable irony of Hulu giving the job to a man – steps back from the brink. Hi-jinks and knockabout larks are not quite in rich supply in the opening episode. But at least it isn’t a head-to-toe misery mural.
Just as importantly it makes a decent fist of justifying the incredible U-turn at the end of series two when Offred (Elisabeth Moss) refused to escape Gilead for the safety of Canada with her infant daughter.
Offred, whose real name is June, instead handed over the infant to fellow Handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel, unrecognisable from the saccharine Gilmore Girls) and resolved to stay in Gilead to search for her older child, Hannah. She had been taken from June to be raised by one of the elite families governing Gilead with a figurative Bible in one hand, an uncocked pistol in the other.
June tracks down Hannah with surprising ease, The Handmaid’s Tale being at that late-stage Game of Thrones phase where characters zip all over the map without consequence. But before she can rescue the child she is confronted by Hannah’s new “mother”. Mrs McKenzie warns that June’s attempt to reconnect with her daughter will inevitably lead to the Handmaid’s death.
She is dragged away, back to the home of her master, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes, playing a sad, dystopian stick-insect) and his wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski). This is awkward. June, forced to wear the white bonnet and red cape that signals her station as glorified reproduction vessel, had her baby so that Serena (like most of the population, infertile) could be a parent.
But Serena later helped June and the infant escape to ensure that the little girl would not grow up in Gilead. She is understandably furious that June has handed the child over to the PTSD-suffering Emily and essentially hoped for the best. Traumatised, Serena sets fire to the house. This is presented as a literal acting out of her need to burn away her anger and pain. It is also surely a signal The Handmaid’s Tale is ready to move on and torch the memory of its unsatisfactory second season.
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As ever, Moss is riveting. A howling void in place of a person, June signals her inner tumult by withholding rather than letting feelings play across her face. It’s a master-class in minimalism. The Handmaid’s Tale continues to be worth watching for her alone.
Still, it’s unclear whether the series knows where it wants to go. The episode concludes with June assigned a new master: the mysterious Commander Lawrence. (Bradley Whitford). He’s the secret resistance member who arranged for June’s dash to Canada in the first place. But he cuts a menacing figure as he greets her anew. Is he quite as sympathetic as we’ve been led believe?
It’s a relief to be away from the ghastly Waterfords and to have a sense that June’s story is finally moving forward again. Yet so thickly is the gloom laid on that even with the surprise reveal of Lawrence as June’s latest jailor, The Handmaid’s Tale remains a study in monochrome. It’s all very worthy – but how you wish we were back in season one when the narrative voice was Atwood’s and the show really had a bee in its bonnet.
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