Season Two of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is Little More Than Grief Porn

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Just a week ago, it was announced that MGM, the production company behind Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, was pairing with online wine retailer Lot18 to release a collection of wines inspired by the popular series. Per People, you could get one of three varietals, each branded with a character from the series. There was an Offred Pinot Noir, an Ofglen Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Serena Joy Bordeaux Blanc, each cheekily described with adjectives like “powerful,” “daring,” and “austere,” respectively. It was a kitschy move, one that invited viewers to enjoy the fall of democracy and enslavement of women with wine, but be sure to enjoy it with their wine.

It was also a thoughtless move that was not lost on many a viewer. Less than 24 hours later, the Handmaid’s wine collection was pulled after an uproar over the tone-deafness of the campaign. Put most succinctly by one Twitter user:

Lot18 is a company that happened to already have several collections of TV- and movie-inspired wine, but neither Outlander nor Master Chef have enjoyed success due in part to the degradation of the American sociopolitical landscape and legitimate fear for what rights may be stripped away because of it. That MGM thought a lighthearted wink of a cross-marketing campaign would work for a TV show that includes repeated government-sanctioned rape proves that the Handmaid’s Tale brand is unaware of its own narrative, culturally or otherwise.

We don’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale for fun. We don’t feel good about the world after we’re done an episode. We’re incensed, deflated, despondent. So why do more and more of us subject ourselves to this world of infinite despair? Because we need it.

Even when we try to march, donate, and vote, often it never feels like enough. We can’t be human beings in the current American climate without feeling guilty. How do we get up and do work, or go food shopping, or get pedicures, or wash our cars, or mow our lawns, knowing that human rights atrocities are happening in our midst at the exact time we’re living our lives? It’s a deep helplessness that seeps into our days, because not far there’s always a smartphone to remind us of what’s happening.

Even when we try to avoid the news, we know we’re avoiding the news. We’re actively pushing away the truths of our times in order to go to work, get food, and mow the lawn, because we have the privilege to do so. We of the cisgendered, heterosexual, white, middle class demo have the privilege to feel guilty, and not worse.

So we watch The Handmaid’s Tale. We watch our protagonists get beaten, raped, degraded, mutilated, humiliated for nearly thirteen hours a season, all for the sake of self-flagellation. Because we need something fake to point at and say, “Hey! See? It can happen!” as we sit in the real world that we can do so little about.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to use art to indulge in despair. The relief it provides is as cathartic as a good cry. But despair is rarely rewatchable, so in order to be most effective it has to be done extraordinarily well. I’ll never forget the image of Nora being trampled on by a mob in The Leftovers, or the other ghost in A Ghost Story, because of how deeply those stories burrowed into the despair center of my brain. But I may never watch them again, even though they’re both excellent pieces of film. Because when would I willingly put myself through that again? A Tuesday evening? A Saturday afternoon?

The Handmaid’s Tale implored you to indulge in despair every Wednesday for twelve weeks, because you needed it to feel like a sentient liberal. You needed it to feel like a feminist, or an activist, or a revolutionary, when everything else felt like it was keeping you down. And it knew you would watch.

It’s cynical, sure, but this is the Handmaid’s Tale that Hulu created on the heels of a tyrant coming into power: a show that wishes to commiserate in our grief, then offers us a sliver of hope, only to push us into deeper grief, and back around again. It fed off our desire for programming to reflect our time, then created a second season to keep our despair centers pulsing.

But with its second season, the show began sacrificing narrative logic for the sake of greater despair:

June spends months reading and editing Serena’s confidential government documents. She didn’t internalize a single fact about Gilead that she could use to her advantage, but Serena was beaten for her transgression.

Serena unites the wives of Gilead so that girls may read. We don’t learn about these characters through this radical shift in ideology, but Serena loses a finger for breaking the law.

Emily is placed in a home with an unusual commander who gives her beer and spares her the “ceremony.” Emily stabs Aunt Lydia, kicks her, and pushes her down the stairs.

This season was short-sighted, doubling back on itself every couple of episodes when progress had the opportunity to grow, because progress is hope and hope is impractical in a show that ran out of its source material after one season. And so Handmaid’s is caught in a hellish cycle of its own making: grief, hope, more grief, repeat.

Perhaps that’s why the unequivocal best part of the season was watching a villain gain empathy. Serena broke the cycle because there was redemption in her struggle. She was always the unintended consequence of her own making, but this season she came to terms with her choices, and used what little power she had to try and create change. Even when she failed, her tragic irony propelled an otherwise skulking season of television.

Just like misunderstanding our desire for dystopian wine, those responsible for The Handmaid’s Tale misunderstand our reasons for watching. They think that all we want to see in this world is pain, when what we’re really searching for in that pain is insight into how to process these atrocities, and how to push through.

Because so little of consequence happened in this season, it’s hard to believe that The Handmaid’s Tale knows what it’s going to be in its third season. Maybe it can rise above a sophomore slump. Maybe it’ll keep spinning its wheels. But, like those midterm elections looming ahead, we may be able to count on some change.

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