Adapting a classic book to the screen can be one of the most challenging tasks for a filmmaker to undertake. Such was the aim of season one of The Handmaid’s Tale. I was more than a little worried when this was announced, having already suffered through Hulu’s tragic butchering of Stephen King’s wonderful time travel novel 11.22.63. However, as a tremendous fan of Margaret Atwood’s original novel, I was extremely pleased with the lovingly faithful adaptation which altered through world expansion rather than through replacing details. Then when Hulu decided to expand The Handmaid’s Tale from mini-series to full blown serial, I felt torn with both anticipation and dread for what a further expansion of a near perfect story would look like. The end result properly reflects this conflict. While season two of The Handmaid’s Tale does many great things and maintains the style that made season one so special, it also loses much of the patience and subtext of the original story.
Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale picks up precisely where June’s (Elisabeth Moss) story ended in the book, making the season entirely unexplored territory. Without going into more detail than is necessary about the particular twists and turns of the season, it follows June through a pregnancy, a series of attempts to escape from the oppressive Gilead, a heartfelt yet devastating visit with her long-since kidnapped daughter, and the most surprising display of violence on a TV show since The Red Wedding. The second season also branched out into The Colonies, the horrific labor camps where ‘disgraced’ women are sent to work themselves to death. There it picks up with Emily (Alexis Bledel), a rebellious lesbian and former handmaid, fresh off of a (highly justifiable) murder sentence. While The Colonies seem like an utterly hopeless place, Emily’s resilience and resourcefulness immediately imply that she will be a survivor, and her increased screen time implies a heftier role for the character.
One of the things that makes The Handmaid’s Tale a quality series is how cinematic it is. It captures its environment with broad and often patient shots which effectively convey tone and allow a more ponderous pace than most mainstream TV shows. Its highly stylized musical choices and framing of its characters, particularly June in her more rebellious moments, may come off as corny to some but it seems to pull these moments off time and time again.
The pacing of season two’s story is notably faster than the first season, leaning less on simply dwelling in the hopelessness of Gilead and choosing instead to focus on more momentous events. Those who found season one too slow will likely be pleased with the change. That said, I found the shift to be jarring and at times unwelcome. While the season contained many more exciting and unexpected twists, it also had world and character developments that felt unearned. One can’t help but reflect on the second season and wonder how we are meant to believe that it occupies the same world as the first. Gilead of season two is a shell of Atwood’s original vision, and the once rigid authoritarian society seems to give a little every time a character rebels in the smallest way.
I think the greatest failing of this season is its final moments. In an exciting finale that seemed to be displaying the courage to take the plot in an entirely different direction, the writers chickened out at the last second. The development of the Emily character was exposed as a thinly veiled vehicle to allow for a climactic end without removing June from the impending danger of her captors, the Waterfords (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski). While I try not to judge the motives of characters in media based on objective rationality when they are clearly reacting emotionally, June’s decision to let Emily carry her baby to safety so she could return to Gilead to rescue her other daughter, Hannah, felt lazy to say the least. It begs the question, do the writers have a plan or do they merely hope to stretch the show out for as many seasons as it can be profitable?
The season’s final seconds also sorely betray the show’s central message, as June puts on the most vulgar display of Stockholm’s syndrome in television history, choosing to give her baby the name chosen by her captor and rapist, Serena, rather than commit to naming her child after her mother who was murdered by the society that Serena helped to create. The script writers seem unable to decide whether Serena is a perpetrator of the human rights violations at the shows core or another victim of the subjugation of women, and in not being able to pick a lane it dismisses the real concerns of feminists that are voiced in The Handmaid’s Tale.
While season two of The Handmaid’s Tale is excellently produced television and has many thrilling moments, to reflect on it is to ultimately remember a disappointing experience. Though I was excited to turn on the show from week-to-week, I find myself wishing that it had the courage to simply end. Perhaps this opinion is phrased more negatively than intended, as I truly did enjoy watching all thirteen episodes, hence my overall positive rating. In an age when so many great TV shows outlast any substantive content they have to offer, I find myself on high alert when an otherwise great show begins to waver from its central themes. While I do adore, and highly recommend The Handmaid’s Tale, I can’t help but fear the possibility that it will devolve into another The Walking Dead: a show which is too popular to die and too afraid to change.