Has The Handmaid’s Tale Lost Its Way?

The cracks are really starting to show.

TV Features The Handmaid's Tale
Has The Handmaid’s Tale Lost Its Way?

In the 98,662nd tight closeup on Elisabeth Moss, she is standing in her crimson dress in front of a life-size marble sculpture. It makes it appear angel wings are sprouting from her scapulae, and that is when I realize we might have had too many iterations of this shot.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been an emotional rollercoaster. I hated it. I loved it. I really really loved it. I was afraid it couldn’t possibly keep going. It did and I was psyched. Then, it did and I thought, “rut roh.” The holy-crap-problematic Season Two finale created a well-above-average amount of rhubarb here at Paste. Had that without-a-net second season been successful, narratively, artistically or otherwise? We were divided, and I was divided. Could they do it? Could the showrunners rein in their burgeoning tendency to disregard plot and ride through a third season on the strength of great performances, a few fascinating characters and sterling visual storytelling? That was the true cliffhanger, for me.

I wish I were more surprised that the answer, as of the new season’s first six episodes, seems to be “Not for long.” I will happily acknowledge the production design and cinematography remain stellar; shot to shot it’s a thing of beauty, and even if the imagery isn’t quite as consistently full of poetry as the grimmer second season, it’s still extremely visually striking. So artful, so carefully designed. That is, notwithstanding the occasional descent into ham-fisted-ness; anyone can get careless and accidentally give Elisabeth Moss marble angel wings to go with her signature thousand-yard-stare, or feel the need to place a scene at D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial (which in Gilead-world has been smashed to pieces). It’s OK. Anyway, I have often found the music baffling, sometimes in a good way, sometimes not, but I’ve never doubted the consideration that went into the decisions: artistically, esthetically, it’s top tier. And it still is, in Season Three. But. But.

Moss has thankfully dialed down the chicken-channeling head movements, but still, the second June walks back into Gilead, it’s pretty much “Houston, we have a problem.” Don’t get me wrong, the actors are still great. But the show has written itself into a hell of a trap. It stops existing unless June is in Gilead and under basically constant threat. They apparently can’t or won’t shift the narrative completely away from June (I posit you could meet your 10-season commitment relatively neatly if you Game of Thrones’d this thing and got ruthless about shifting audience loyalties to new characters. I could absolutely do a whole season centered on Serena Waterford, Aunt Lydia or Nick). Thus, what’s left is to keep saving Offred no matter the cost to the narrative’s coherence, and to keep recycling conflicts.

Even in the first minutes of the first Season Three episode, logic is just gone. How do the authorities know Offred is in the Mackenzie’s house, and where did Commander Lawrence go? Also, is it realistic that she lets her second child Nicole go so easily, but keeps risking death for her first daughter Hannah? How is it Offred can break into a Commander’s house—ostensibly to kidnap a child—and all that happens is she gets her feet whipped after a bonding moment with her kid’s usurper-mom, when Mrs. Waterford loses a finger for reminding the Gilead brass that she can read? And what the hell is going on at the Lawrence house and how did all the Gilead decision makers see fit to let Offred end up there?

Then there’s Bradley Whitford, who is delightfully creepy in the role. He and the babbling Cumaean Sybil he calls The Missus are genuinely mysterious in lots of great ways. Like what has happened to that woman? And him, how much of his cruelty, his misogyny, and for that matter his iconoclasm or subversiveness is genuine, and how much is performative? It’s all weird as hell. The scene in Episode 3 where he makes June retrieve The Descent of Man for him, while all the Commanders look on, is hugely freighted. But it is hard to tell whether his goal is to subjugate and humiliate her (mission accomplished) or to telegraph something more complicated (he has directed her to a bookshelf laden with books he has written. She stares inscrutably at the spines, which flash past too quickly for titles to sink in unless you’re hitting pause and squinting; what do they say and what does it mean?) In general the interactions between June and Commander Lawrence are one of the genuine strengths of the season (we needed him sooner in Season Two), both for Bradley Whitford’s epically freaky-deaky performance and for the cultivation of a truly unsettling character who defies categorization at every turn, and who therefore serves as a great foil for June as she tests the limits of her power and influence. At times I really don’t believe some of those tests; he is not Fred Waterford, as he quickly points out, and he’s both sharp as a tack and explosively volatile, the kind of man who radiates danger even when the stakes aren’t totalitarian-wackadoodle-life-or-death.

The dynamic between Offred and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) has nearly always been the most interesting part of the show and for a while in Season Three it still is. But increasingly, I think the story has foundered from its need to hold these women in place (ironies abound, right?) We don’t need blunt-force reiterations of the power struggle between the two women, and Serena’s oscillations from ally to enemy make less and less sense as time goes on, but predictably, they dig in all the harder for that. So… her issue with Offred isn’t that she let baby Nicole go to Canada, it’s that she gave the baby to Emily (the amazing Alexis Bledel) to transport her, and this is a problem because Emily is “a murderer?” As in, a different fugitive Handmaid might have been OK? And it just gets more threadbare from there. Of course she does a take-back on wanting a better life for that baby. Of course she does. Who cares that she already made a staggering maternal sacrifice because she understood completely and viscerally that the baby’s life would be small and endangered in the regime she helped build? Let’s undo that so we can have 10 more scenes where she and June clash over who is really Nicole’s mother. It’s almost as if the writers, in the absence of the source text’s guidance, don’t know how to develop the characters anymore, so they just keep mirroring scenarios that worked two seasons ago. Other key relationships are starting to strain credulity too—June’s relatively radical compassion toward Aunt Lydia is, for me, an exception: I believe that 100%. But by the time we get to Episode 6, we’re really going to have to talk about Nick (Holy Out-Of-Nowhere Backstory Bomb!) And for that matter, Luke.

As the tone of The Handmaid’s Tale becomes more and more oriented toward fomenting revolution against the draconic machinery of Gilead, which one would theoretically have wanted, there’s an odd sense of regression instead of forward momentum. There are many, many moments that are visually beautiful and a fair few that are tonally, or narratively, beautiful (watch for a brutal and deeply felt pas de deux between June and Aunt Lydia in Episode 6 for example; OMFG Ann Dowd’s face is a national treasure). But what was once tonally adroit is becoming affected and mannered (watch for what occasions the beautiful pass between June and Aunt Lydia: Folks, you are not going to believe what the Handmaid’s go-to fashion accessories are in Washington! Holy moly).

While some of the twists and reversals of the new season make total sense others make none, as in they feel wildly inconsistent with the characters and with the Gilead Playbook. What was subtle is rapidly becoming obvious (hey, Schindler’s List red umbrella shot in Episode 6). What was “timely” then becomes curiously detached from the Zeitgeist that propelled it in the beginning. And in those moments, one could be forgiven for feeling tempted to think perhaps the show has officially begun to crack beneath the weight of its own powerfully timely mythic-ness.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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