The Handmaid’s Tale had to do something fundamental in its second season: justify its existence as an ongoing television series.
After a first season that hewed fairly closely to the Margaret Atwood novel that inspired it, season two laid out a new chapter in the story of June (Elisabeth Moss) and the oppressive version of America known as Gilead. This season was intense, meticulously directed, disturbingly reflective of current events, and acted with staunch commitment. (Moss continued to be great, but the real breakout this season was Yvonne Strahovski, whose performance made Serena Joy empathetic even when her behavior was ruthless.) But certain elements of the season and the finale, including the ending, gave me pause about how long The Handmaid’s Tale will continue to hold an audience’s interest. Even during the second season, which I thought was well done, I didn’t always feel an urgent need to proceed to the next episode, especially during the latter half. Perhaps the parallels between the snatching away of June’s daughters and our real-life immigrant separation crisis made watching The Handmaid’s Tale a bit too chilling to bear. But other issues, too, reared their heads in the finale and left me with mixed feelings about the season as a whole.
While one big moment in “The Word” genuinely shocked me — more on the stabbing of Aunt Lydia momentarily — other twists didn’t surprise nearly as much as intended. When Emily (Alexis Bledel) is taken away in the backseat of a sedan at the behest of Bradley Whitford’s Commander Lawrence, despite her terror, I didn’t believe at all that she was going to die. Although Lawrence is established under a shroud of mystery, the show tossed in enough hints to suggest he’s not a bad guy. His disinterest in participating in the ceremonial rape of his Handmaid — and the fact that he even chose Emily, who’s known for raging against the machine, to serve in his household — implies right upfront that he’s not a Gilead goose-stepper.
To the show’s credit, the tension during the scene in which Emily sobs, panic-stricken, in the back seat while Lawrence blasts “Walking on Broken Glass” works beautifully whether you believe he is guiding her toward her death or not. If you believe that, it’s terrifying. If you realize that Emily’s response may be misguided, it’s still disturbing to watch, but at the same time, it’s kind of funny to see her so freaked out by Annie Lennox. (No one who enjoys Annie Lennox that much can possibly be all bad.)
What works less well is the reveal that Lawrence has brought Emily to the same pick-up location where June is waiting, a move that enables the two to theoretically escape Gilead together. Maybe others were caught off guard, but once I saw the fugitive June start walking toward a street, it seemed obvious that the Lawrence’s car would pull up any second. Something that should have been a twist winds up being a bit too predictable, although what happens next — June ultimately opting to leave her baby with Emily and stay behind in Gilead — is less so.
The knifing of Aunt Lydia, on the other hand, which takes place earlier in the episode and prompts Lawrence to help Emily get out of Dodge, is a true shock. For a second, Emily’s attack seems so out of nowhere that you forget she has a legit motive: Aunt Lydia basically stole her clitoris back in season one. All season long, Emily also has been looking for an opportunity to take out her anger on a deserving villain. When Lawrence doesn’t provide that opportunity, she takes it with a woman against whom she holds a very understandable grudge.
Much as I gasped as all this went down, something about the incident also struck me as a gimmicky, as if the writers were trying a little too hard to inject startling violence into the finale because it was lacking in that department. (I’m also not convinced Aunt Lydia is dead. Or maybe I’m just hoping that, since the last thing The Handmaid’s Tale needs is to become suddenly Ann Dowd-less.) As we know by now, Gilead is an unforgiving place and The Handmaid’s Tale does not shy away from showing its brutality. Violence is endemic to this world and this show. But the depiction of that violence needs to feel believable and necessary. I have mixed feelings about whether the graphic stabbing of Aunt Lydia fits into that category.
Part of the problem may lie with Emily, or rather the way the show handled that character in season two. Although this season provides us with more information about her backstory and fleshes out her character, she’s still a bit of an enigma. The way the narrative is structured doesn’t help matters: In the latter half of the season, when the focus rests more on June, June’s relationship with Serena, and the birth of the baby, Emily is largely sidelined until she shows up at Commander Lawrence’s house. We know she’s been itching to lash out against the system, and that helps explain why she doesn’t hesitate to attack Aunt Lydia, but because we haven’t spent much time in her presence in the later episodes, we feel disconnected from her emotional state. Logically, it makes sense that she would want to kill Aunt Lydia. But on a gut level, there’s a disconnect.
The Emily issue is indicative of a bigger challenge in season two: Despite an effort to broaden the narrative, The Handmaid’s Tale remains at its best when it stays true to its title and tells its story through the prism of June. The attempts to add more color and detail to what’s happening with Luke, Moira, and Emily ultimately register as brief pauses from the main event rather than necessary, interconnected sidebars. If The Handmaid’s Tale wants to widen its scope, it’s got to figure out how to balance that with the intimacy it’s created between the viewer and June. Which is very tricky.
The show is more successful on that front in its exploration of Serena Joy, because her and June’s stories are linked by their shared maternal experience. This season, Handmaid’s Tale does something with Serena it doesn’t so much with other characters, aside from June: invest real time in her evolution. By the time we reach the finale, we’ve learned that Serena was once a more powerful figure than her husband. We also know how much she cherishes baby Nicole, and wants the best for her. Her decision to give up Nicole because she knows the girl has no chance of reaching her full potential in Gilead is a little rushed — Serena barely has time to think about letting the infant go — but it’s ultimately believable because the show and Strahovski have demonstrated what a complicated, independent thinker dwells beneath her Commander’s Wife facade. (The death of Nick’s wife, Eden, certainly has a persuasive effect on Serena, too.)
Is it absurd that Serena has only now realized that her daughter may not have the smoothest road ahead in a patriarchal society that devalues women’s bodies and minds? Yes, it is. But I buy it because Serena has always struck me as exactly the kind of conservative white woman who would arrogantly believe she’ll be just fine in a world like Gilead until the harsh truth slaps her in the face. In a lot of ways, it’s harder to believe she’d suddenly wise up to the realities of her situation, admit she’s wrong, and place such faith in June. In the real world, a woman like Serena would not course correct quite so easily.
Because of Serena’s willingness to give her blessing to June’s escape with Nicole, season two ends pretty much where it began: with June coming so, so close to leaving Gilead, but having her plans thwarted at the last minute. The first time this happens early in the season, it’s due to circumstances outside of her control. This time, June makes the decision herself. Though the finale doesn’t outright explain this choice, the implication is clear enough: June doesn’t want to leave Gilead without her daughter Hannah, especially since Hannah would be the only member of her family left behind. Presumably, this sets up the show for a third season that will trace June’s attempt to reclaim custody of Hannah and, yet again, try to cross the border.
That worries me because I don’t want The Handmaid’s Tale to fall victim to the same problems that plague The Walking Dead, which, after a couple of seasons, became an exercise in repeating the same plotlines in only slightly different contexts. On The Walking Dead, there is no chance for the world to get back to the way it was. It’s playing a really, really, reallly long dystopian game. Bruce Miller, The Handmaid’s Tale showrunner, has indicated he may have something similar in mind: He has said he can envision the series running for ten seasons, a notion that sends a cautionary chill up my spine. I’m not sure any drama this grim needs to last that long.
Instead, The Handmaid’s Tale needs to do everything it can to avoid Walking Dead–style redundancy and, without sacrificing the disturbing realities of the world it’s carefully created, find more ways to let streams of hope shine their way into the series. The zombie virus on The Walking Dead is hard to overcome, but a corrupt, abusive system of power should not be insurmountable if enough people with principles are willing to fight against it.
One of the few happy moments in The Handmaid’s Tale second season occurs when June attempts to leave the safe house where she’s hiding. She gets into a car, turns on the radio, and suddenly hears the voice of Oprah Winfrey, followed by the sound of Bruce Springsteen singing about Baltimore, Jack. It’s a reminder that America, the way it used to be, still exists somewhere out there. For a brief moment, you get the sense that there might might still be a place for June and people like her. I hope June finds her way to that place, because as well-executed as season two was, Gilead is getting a little old.