Is it insensitive to say I’m excited to return to a world of torture and rape? Well, anyway, here we are, at the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale! My overwhelming question going into this season was how the show will be able to sustain itself after running out of source material, particularly for the five to six seasons for which it’s slated to continue. My boyfriend reminded me that The Leftovers did it to great success, even considering Tom Perrotta is no Margaret Atwood. Then again, Damon Lindeloff proved himself to be an excellent showrunner, turning season one’s pretty standard existential doubt into two more seasons of narrative art that ripped out your heart and soul.
The initial success of The Handmaid’s Tale is undeniably linked to the election of a certain someone and an uprising of the far-right misogyny that that person reveled in. Even though the norms and practices of Gilead were horrific to watch, the show acted as a salve in the first few months of a presidency that felt like a never-ending shitstorm of hate. There was something about seeing the logical extreme of the current moment play out for an hour every Wednesday that had the power to both soothe and bolster. Those menstrual-red women marching in the middle of the street was like a silent battlecry for the Spring of 2017. It was the opposite of escapism. We were watching hell to keep ourselves strong.
But the last year has tired me out. The fear of normalizing a monster has given way to a need for inner peace. Some days I have to listen to a classical music rather than NPR. I haven’t listened to the monster’s voice for longer than a few seconds, or however long it takes me to mute the TV or radio. My Facebook profile, once riddled daily with the shock and hatred of every malfeasance, has mostly gone silent. In the year since The Handmaid’s Tale‘s first season, confronting reality has ground me down.
So it wasn’t Offred pushing back Aunt Lydia’s soup that brought me back into this world. It was June standing in the middle of her hallway, overwhelmed between the need to know about the world collapsing around her and the peaceful ignorance of her daughter’s bedroom. My concern for the show’s longevity became less about how to fill five or so more seasons, and more about how it can maintain its relevance. For a moment there, I wasn’t sure.
The opening set piece of the season was a bit overwrought to be very moving. We were dropped right back into a world in which we’d languished for 10 hours, sure, but that was a full year ago. To command that kind of emotional depth from an audience within minutes is asking a lot, and was also overshadowed by the flagrant apocalypse porn (Gilead has no use for baseball, apparently).
Most of the rest of the episode – the visual allusions to treating the Handmaids like animals, even more prolonged torture, drawing out every terrified look over a dissonant soundtrack for way longer than necessary – felt old hat in the most unproductive way. No more source material opens the show up to the opportunity for world building, and for as much as I love to listen to Ann Dowd growl at Elizabeth Moss, a season of Offred following Aunt Lydia around was going to be more of the same world we’ve seen.
So the nurse calling June by her name was a jolt of excitement that the first episode desperately needed. June’s sprint into an unknown end, wings flapping in her hand, and her subsequent haircut showed that The Handmaid’s Tale knew was it was doing. It took its sweet ass time, but eventually it got around to something that felt like a fresh start. Even still, I was skeptical. June was free, okay, but where was the relevance?
Ahh, but then came the second episode, and with it, the mansplaining. A flashback of Emily, teaching a biology class in a university, listening to a female student ask a question, when a male student interrupted her with a wrong answer. (That’s some real microaggression.) And then there were ICE agents and ACLU representatives at the airport. (Check.) And then there was the foresaken Boston Globe. (Basically.) That’s when the show felt real again. If the small revolutionary acts of the first season felt like success, the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s second season proved them inconsequential, and the second episode buried them under crackling, steaming Colony dirt. Success is relative under tyranny.
The mirroring to our world was effective, not obvious, because they contribute to the Gilead world building and don’t exist as stand-alone symbols for their own sake. Kind of like the “bitches” at the end of June’s Latin line last season, or even her eulogy wall at the end of this episode. These symbols are nice, but can come off a touch like empty declarations of promise. They’re the push notifications that tell us who’s suing him this week, or an update on the Muller investigation. We, like The Handmaid’s Tale, need action to propel us forward. We’re in it now.