***Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale through Season 2, Episode 2 follow. Spoilers***
I watch a fair amount of dark television, in fact, most of what I choose is dystopian, bleak, and/or filled with death and destruction. Westworld, Rellik, Killing Eve, Altered Carbon, The Walking Dead — until that episode (and no, not because of head-bashing). What I’m saying is, downer shows tend to be my thing, and the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale was — if not enjoyable, per se — an excellent, important adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. The cast, led by the fantastic Elisabeth Moss, is phenomenal; the writing excellent, and the series’ visuals are striking, gorgeous.
Still, going into the show was no easy task. Many viewers, including me, had to watch in small doses, even when multiple episodes were available to watch. If Atwood’s written words were grim, watching them play out onscreen — children ripped from mothers, women’s basic rights instantly stripped away, humanity removed from a modern society — was at times nothing short of gutting. Of course, this is actually high praise for what Bruce Miller and his cast and crew created; but perhaps against the backdrop of the current climate, it was hard to rush to watch the next episode.
Still, with even more great talent joining the series, the idea of continuing past the novel’s history and digging into Gilead’s early days, the rise of its “government”, and seeing how life in the Colonies is depicted, last night I thought I was ready for the first Season 2 episodes, “June” and “Unwomen”. I came away wondering if I can watch any longer. The utter horror of the goings-on and the sheer terror and emotional manipulation of “June’s” opening sequence, was nearly enough to stop, then and there. Rounding up a large group of would-be escaping Handmaids, armed soldiers corralled and herded the women as if they were (forcibly) muzzled animals headed to the slaughterhouse; their fear was palpable, their tears contagious. Without words, with not more than a minute or two to realize their fate, to accept it, the Handmaids were shuffled, thrown and dragged, prodded up to the scaffolding where lines of nooses awaited their fragile necks — there was barely time for them to grasp their reality. For a brief moment alongside these characters, I thought all the women but June (Offred) would die; that as the show’s main star (Moss), and as a pregnant Handmaid, she would be the only one to survive, with some last-second save.
In fact, the manipulation of that moment — as akin for the audience to what Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) does as possible, here — reminded me of why I stopped watching The Walking Dead. On the one hand, the skill of Miller’s (and director, Mike Barker) vision, what they accomplish with the sequence is admirable; Moss and Dowd are perfection, and the crowd of Handmaids sobbing and shrinking into themselves is incredibly affecting. On the other, it could be devastating enough to push away the audience.
Things don’t get better. When Lydia does discover that June is with child, she immediately sets about ensuring her charge doesn’t think she’s got the temporary advantage, of keeping June in her place. Defiant, and feeling the power of her pregnant position, June attempts to assert — if not with any grand gesture — at least power over her own body, but Lydia is full of ever-hidden depths of depravity that June (and we) inexplicably haven’t anticipated. There are pregnant women to chain up for the entirety of their terms, and horrific prices to pay for refusing to help murder one of their own (“Your friends will suffer the consequences”).
There may be empowerment in some of June’s actions, but others of these Handmaid’s Tale scenes verge on torture porn. Sure, she eventually gets to burn her garments, and fuck her man against a wall; she also takes a pair of scissors to her ear, cutting out the tag that marks her status. Meanwhile, Emily (Alexis Bledel) suffers the Colonies’ desolate landscape — certain death — with a few devastating flashbacks to when she lost her job, her marriage was declared invalid, and she was forced to separate from her wife and child. And, turns out Marisa Tomei’s guest role was a single episode arc, just long enough for her to be poisoned to death (on the pretext of receiving antibiotics), the price of having willful sex.
Valuable societal warnings aside, after this gruesome pair of Season 2 openers, it’s difficult to find the desire to keep watching The Handmaid’s Tale. How much doubling down on Lydia’s soul-crushing hatred for her fellow humans do we want to endure? As the current administration systematically works its way through trying to roll back our own country, do we really want to spend time watching fictional characters stripped of their basic rights; to watch their children and spouses ripped from their lives, to be mutilated or to do it to themselves? And, how many more women do we need to see repeatedly raped, forced to bear children and give them away, or tortured for not wholeheartedly condemning their friends to death? For me, I think the answer might be: none.