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Relevance Ruined The Handmaid’s Tale

In its pursuit of the zeitgeist, the Hulu show forgot about storytelling.

Elly Dassas / Hulu

“This isn’t a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale,” Kamala Harris wrote in recent a fundraising email, “This is happening in our country.” In his late night monologue, Stephen Colbert joked that a rash of new abortion laws felt like “some pretty intense viral marketing for the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale.” Protestors dressed in red cloaks with winged bonnets, the costume of enslaved handmaids in both the novel and the television show, surrounded the Alabama courthouse to protest the state’s severely restrictive abortion law. The Handmaid Coalition is a new nonprofit organization dedicated to sewing handmaids costumes for protest in the “fight to keep fiction from becoming a reality.”

Over the last few years, references to The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, now a Hulu series whose third season debuts on June 5have increasingly served as a quick and easy pop-cultural shorthand for the extremity of our moment. People type “under his eye” (the religious mantra of the restrictive, fundamentalist country of Gilead) when sharing links to articles, or “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (a Latin phrase used by the underground Gilead resistance movement Mayday, which means “don’t let the bastards get you down”). The idiom of the show, which Atwood invented in her book, has become a way to communicate that you know that things have gotten really bad—that this timeline feels like that terrifying thing you saw on streaming television.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these references: People have always turned to film and literature in order to make sense of the world, to process and provide context for complex, frightening times. But watching the first episodes of the new season, what strikes me is that the set of symbols that the show unleashed has far outpaced what the show actually provides. The striking metaphors The Handmaid’s Tale birthed all belong to the book and to the show’s first season, in which the horrifying vision of a patriarchal fascist state and all its paraphernalia becomes clear. The Hulu show has since become a long-running soap opera about women’s trauma, and like any good soap, it needs the drama to continue endlessly, and to raise the stakes continuously.

I found the first season of the show, which debuted in 2017, subtle and surprising. The show gradually unfurled its details in flashbacks, slowly revealing its horrors like peeling open a rotting fruit. The main characters are living in the aftermath of an environmental disaster that left only a few women fertile, and a coup, in which a Christian fundamentalist group seized power, imprisoning the fertile women and forcing them into surrogacy. June, known in Gilead as Offred (Elisabeth Moss), works for Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), which means she was also ritualistically raped by him—though in the first season they became close, with the Commander allowing June to enter his private library and read books, a privilege normally off limits to handmaids. She suffers under the iron rule of Commander Waterford’s ice queen wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who is a leader in Gilead’s fundamentalist women’s movement and believes that wives should be subservient to their husbands at all costs.

When the series begins, Serena Joy, who longs for Offred to bear her husband’s child so that she can raise it as her own, is one of two examples of toxic white feminism in Gilead, that of the wealthy priggish prude who promotes Victorian mores. The other kind, the “aunts” or women who are in charge of educating and disciplining handmaids (many of whom were abducted trying to leave Gilead after a political uprising that turned a world that looks a lot like ours into a dystopian hellscape) are traitors, women who long to whip other women and rap at their knuckles. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), the minder who oversees June’s placement, becomes the stand-in for all cruelty and hypocrisy (the term “Aunt Lydia” also popped up on the web a great deal to describe women governors who signed the abortion bans). No wonder then, that a fellow rebellious handmaid, Emily (Alexis Bledel) stabs Lydia and shoves her down a flight of stairs at the end of the second season.

The show went into production in fall of 2016, and while it powerfully depicted women silenced and pitted against one another by patriarchy, it didn’t hit you over the head with its relevance. The Handmaid’s Tale was never supposed to be a story about right now; when Atwood wrote her novel 40 years ago, she was thinking not just of the then-recent revolution in Iran, but also of a long history of violence against and oppression of women in societies all over the world. Because the first season was filming during the election, the showrunner Bruce Miller simply did not have the time or distance to make the show overly didactic or prescriptive about current events. There were cloying touches—the reliance on 1980s pop ballads, for example—but for the most part the first season presented a timeless tale about society’s darkest undercurrents and what happens when fascism prevails.

And then came the women’s marches, with their attendant handmaids costumes, and the Emmys and Golden Globes for the show and for Moss, and then the show seemed to want to bend to meet its adoring public; it felt that it had to say something meaningful about our world. And yet, it did not do this with nuance: It did so by piling on more assault, more gruesome corporal punishments, more unceasing tragedy. If you want to see several scenes of gratuitous violence against women, then this is the show for you. There are dozens of rapes, genital mutilations, gory murders, hangings, chopping off of limbs, scooping out of eyeballs. Gilead is not just dystopian, it is wickedly sadistic, a place where the rule of law is bloodthirsty and unyielding.

Look how bad everything is! was the theme of season two, in which several characters travel to a work camp where they clear toxic sludge until they perish. It almost felt like a challenge to the outside world: If you think everything is terrible out there right now, well, watch this.

When season three opens, June has made a Sophie’s choice. She has two children—a newborn baby, and an older daughter, Hannah, who was born to her and her husband before the revolution and was stolen by a Gilead family in the melee. She gives Emily her infant child (which Serena Joy, in a rare moment of compassion, helped her smuggle out of the house) and tells her to take the safe car north to freedom (roughly somewhere in Canada). Her other child, Hannah, from her marriage before the revolution, is still in Gilead, and she feels that she cannot leave without rescuing her. And so, having once escaped, she heads backwards, back to Gilead, back to the torture pit.

This feels less like a logical plot development than a twist for twist’s sake; June has a chance to get out, but she doesn’t take it. She dives back into abject degradation because that’s what this show does best. Its plot unfolds in complex swirls, but never really moves forward. June keeps being borne backwards into captivity, because her captivity tends to be the show’s narrative sweet spot. Moss is never better than when grimacing at the camera in an impossible situation, but there is only so much the viewer can take. This is not to say the show needs to offer happy or even clear resolutions, but it does begin to feel after a while like it is not sure what else it has to offer beyond scenes of women in dire peril.

Meanwhile, Serena Joy is grappling with having betrayed her husband in order to help June escape with “her” child, which leads to several maudlin conversations about fidelity. The dialogue is stilted and often boring (when Serena Joy confronts Offred about handing off her infant to Emily, all June can say is “I did what was best for her”); every character seems trapped in her own private, hellish loop. Even the violence has gotten dull; early on, we see Emily nearly die in a river as she attempts safe passage out of Gilead with June’s baby. My only thought the entire time was that it would be utterly predictable for this show to have this woman—whom we have seen beaten, assaulted, and castrated—drown right before she gets free.

The one promising aspect of the new season is that it will dive into the backstory of Aunt Lydia, attempting to explain how some women decide to turn on others, to become prison wardens rather than liberators. This feels like it gets closer than anything in the melodramatic second season to exploring systemic oppression, to acknowledging the larger political ramifications of personal decisions. If only we could see more arcs like these, and in a tighter, more directed narrative. The Handmaid’s Tale may be useful cultural shorthand, and its imagery will send a powerful message for as long as there are outrages to protest. But the show has only a few things to say, in a world where forms of gendered oppression are many and various.