Point/Counterpoint: Was The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two Any Good?

TV Features The Handmaid's Tale
Point/Counterpoint: Was The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two Any Good?

Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through the Season Two finale of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Matt Brennan (TV Editor, Paste): As I mentioned to you when I proposed this exercise, Season Two of The Handmaid’s Tale has given me fits. I’ve swung wildly from loathing (that embarrassingly on-the-nose Kate Bush cue during the faux execution at Fenway) to frustration (Offred’s predictably thwarted escape via the Globe offices) to fascination (anything involving Serena, thanks to season standout Yvonne Strahovski) to awe (the escape sequence in the finale, with the Marthas leading Offred through yards and parks like a Gilead Underground Railroad, might be the best thing the series has ever done). And then I edit your episodic reviews and I fear I’ve been too hard on it. So I thought it’d be useful to wage the argument: Is Season Two of The Handmaid’s Tale any good? Does it effectively expand the world established in Season One? And does the finale—oh, man, do I have thoughts about that finale!—set it up for success going into Season Three, or box it into a Boston Globe-like corner?

Amy Glynn (Staff Writer, Paste): Largely, the music choices have been striking, and especially so in the finale, I thought. All I can say is I am grateful they didn’t play the Kate Bush song while she was in labor. It’s a small mercy; they shouldn’t have touched that manipulative little bitch of a song in this narrative, but clearly someone with serious early 1990s issues is in that writers’ room, yeah? That’s actually why I loved the bizarre outburst of Annie Lennox in the last episode. It was, once I started connecting dots, thematically on point—not because of the anguish, but because of the glass imagery. And what made it kind of killer was, it’s such a freaking annoying song! I mean, let’s say you lost it and tried to kill someone and you were pretty sure you were being carted off for torture, execution or both. And the guy who’s taking you puts that on. You’d lose your mind! Plinky plink plink plink plink… with the windshield wipers going and Bradley Whitford doing the finger choreography and dancing in his seat? Actually, it surprised me, because I dated this guy briefly in the 1990s and he was a manipulative SOB. (Once, on Yom Kippur, he called me to tell me he forgave me. I was like… “Uh, Dan, I’m a Gentile and stuff, but I am almost 100% sure you have missed the point of this holy day.”) Anyway, the moment I realized I hated this guy was driving down Highway 580 in Oakland and that song came on and he turned it way up and started doing the exact same thing Whitford does in that scene. It gave me chills.

But yes, let’s start at the ending. Tell me your thoughts on the finale. I’m curious for your take within or without the context of mine: I posit Offred (Elisabeth Moss) decides to leave the baby with Emily (Alexis Bledel) and go back into Gilead because she has decided to save Serena (Yvonne Strahovski). I know there’s a ponderous emotional Hannah flashback shortly before that decision is made, but I just had a gut feeling Hannah wasn’t the driving force behind her choice—she has to know she has more of a chance of doing anything from Canada, with Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and Moira (Samir Wiley), right?

Brennan: We can agree on at least one point: The use of “Walking on Broken Glass” in the finale is so—well, fucked up is the first phrase that comes to mind—that I actually paused the episode and watched the scene over again right away, just to soak in its bruising strangeness.

Which is where The Handmaid’s Tale has always hit me hardest me, frankly. With how mordant it is within its terrifying, dystopian context, like that moment in “Smart Power,” which ultimately telegraphs the finale, where a Canadian official hands Serena what amounts to a rebus as an itinerary because of the laws against women’s literacy in Gilead. I suppose this is true of most horror stories, but it’s a series that’s always thrived on implication, complication, stillness, subterfuge. Which is why I found the execution of Eden (Sydney Sweeney) and her paramour so powerful—the way the community wants to give them a second chance, and they refuse it—or for that matter the madwoman-in-the-attic mystery of Commander Lawrence’s wife. It’s creeping dread, the slow wearing down of wills under an oppressive system, that’s scariest to me, more so than shooting Marthas in the street after a bombing or burning Handmaids’ hands after an attempted escape.

Which brings me to your question about the finale. Though I’m not sure I’d write off Hannah as a driving force, I agree that Serena is part of the mental calculus Offred performs before handing Nicole off to Emily—that she finally gives the child that name, and not “Holly,” is proof enough that she’s got Mrs. Waterford on her mind. But I’m also not sure I’d write off the possibility that the writers simply backed themselves into yet another thorny situation. Because, ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale ceases to function the moment Offred escapes Gilead. The series hasn’t invested enough energy to suddenly rest on the shoulders of, say, Janine (Madeline Brewer), or Emily, or Lydia (Ann Dowd), and Serena being at least half villain would make her a difficult (though exciting!) protagonist. Which means there was never any chance Offred wouldn’t turn back, just like there was never any chance she wouldn’t be captured earlier in the season. It’s these sort of missteps at the level of narrative structure—we’re talking full-on Amateur Hour here—that left me most annoyed this season. See also: Introducing the Colonies only to gin up an excuse to send Janine and Emily home shortly thereafter; or failing to give Moira and Luke basically anything to do except mope for the duration; or setting up the Commander Lawrence arc approximately three episodes too late. I want the series to stop giving me excuse to poke holes in it, because I want to focus on the imagery, which, as you’ve pointed out, is incredibly rich. (Almost every aspect of the series’ aesthetic is leaps and bounds ahead of most anything else on TV.) But I keep coming up against these roadblocks.

Am I completely missing the point by being this focused on the story beats? Or, if you prefer this sort of speculation, I’ll put it to you another way: Imagine the outlines of Season Three for me. Now that we know Offred is going back (again), what does the next beat in the story look like?

Glynn: No, and I agree with your poked holes almost unilaterally; in fact, thank you for articulating something that was bugging me that I couldn’t reach: That Commander Lawrence does indeed need to have shown up three episodes sooner. And for sure it was always inevitable that she wasn’t really getting out (either time). To the point where one could be forgiven for feeling a bit insulted that we’re being asked to consider it. It’s not a strength. But I accepted it, because theoretically, one would try.

As for how a third season would go… Do you want aspirational or divinatory? Based on the showrunners’ previous moves, I offer, in no particular order, the following potential plot points, some of which are admittedly cynical because I have a hard time imagining how they’re going to keep it going:

That baby is going to end up with Luke and Moira. How could she not? They won’t be able to resist delivering Nicole to those two. And clearly Emily’s in no fit state for parenting. She’s got an appointment with a padded room and sporks. If she’s anywhere but therapy next season I’m going to be frustrated. That was a totally broken person in the finale. If she gets her groove back and becomes Che Guevara it’s going to be time for B12 injections in the writers’ room. Ideally her wife and child should find her… and find her incoherent and erratic and violent.

I’m confused about Nick (Max Minghella). I believe Offred does love him, but we’re supposed to believe she longs to be reunited with Luke, too. The fact that she’s continued to act as if Luke were dead, as first presumed, has been one of the most baffling character choices of the show for me. Once Nick meets Luke and delivers those letters, you’d think that would change everything about their relationship—and it changes things for like four frames. But Nick has also last been seen pulling his gun on Ol’ Fred (Joseph Fiennes). Mmmm…

It seems clear that the implication is that Offred has realized she has a mission to bring Gilead down from the inside. Her incredibly obvious partners in crime here are Serena and Commander Lawrence, who I think would like a do-over on the whole awkwardness with the Colonies. And they’ve had a tendency to shoot for obvious quite often. Mrs. Lawrence will probably do Something Surprising. Fred will complete his transit to caricature-grade Evil Oppressor White Guy and go totally Roman Empire on everyone he can and will end up castrated, at least symbolically. Perhaps the untested new Supreme Commander will have him put away? He’s got quite the list of indiscretions against the Regime. Oh, and the American government official who chatted up Serena in Canada will probably reappear.

Lydia is not going to die. And we’re probably going to explore her backstory. I welcome this. She and Rita (Amanda Brugel) have a lot of unexplored depths.

I mean, the finale set the stage for civil war and not much else, didn’t it? Offred’s not reasonably going to last ten minutes walking back into town after that many people set fires and created distractions so she could spirit a Commander’s baby over the border. Hanged, drawn and quartered, beheaded, tortured, burned at the stake. But as you say, there’s no show without her, so somehow the chaos that went down in the finale is going to spin enough people hard enough that she will reinsert herself into Gilead without being deprived of either of her world-class shade-throwing eyeballs. She will have to be absorbed by a sleeper cell of some kind, won’t she?


Brennan: Counterproposals? None. As I was reading yours, I started nodding furiously at every suggestion, as though it were a premonition. I can picture Season Three now. A #Resistance season, with Luke, Moira, and Emily organizing from afar, Offred joining up with dissenters inside the lines, and Serena blossoming into an enraged leader of regretful Wives, Mrs. Lawrence included. Which makes me wonder about what the long-term game plan is, here. Even if Hulu and the creators decide to cap the series at five seasons—a big if, given it’s the network’s first original juggernaut—that leaves… 36 episodes of #Resistance? No thanks.

That said, I’m always going on about the need to treat TV as more than a Plot Delivery Device, so let’s talk Season Two pros. First, last, and everything in between is Strahovski’s Serena Joy, an impossibly ambivalent, enigmatic, dare I say tortured figured who nonetheless keeps the series spinning on its axis while we’re darting from Canada to the Colonies and from the present to the past. As you’ve written before, maybe the central achievement of the TV series is to animate Margaret Atwood’s understanding of the harm women do to other women in a patriarchal system, and It’s her and Offred’s pas-de-deux that’s kept me engaged for 23 episodes. And, speaking of the time toggling, I know this is not a universally held opinion but I love the way the series continues to fill in the last years before the fall: Cherry Jones as June’s radical feminist mother, Holly; Serena’s pre-Gilead political career, in which she seems to have outshone her husband; and, most excruciatingly, Emily’s separation from her wife and daughter, following the lynching of a gay colleague in the biology department. There’s a richness to the creeping horror of those scenes that sheer force can’t match.

Which, ultimately, is why I can’t yet call the series “great,” and why I suspect it never will be. The issue isn’t that it’s “timely” or “relevant”—in fact, what’s so clever about Atwood’s conceit is that it’s never not timely and relevant for women to be afraid of men. It’s that the series is so heavily reliant on the ghastliness of it all to hold our attention (e.g., Fred’s rape of Offred, with Serena’s participation, in “The Last Ceremony”) that it sometimes loses sight of all the other ways of engaging the audience. My favorite sequence in the finale—and perhaps the finest sequence the series has constructed to date—is the Underground Railroad of Marthas spiriting Offred through yards and parks as part of her escape. It’s suspenseful and moving and full of arresting images, which isn’t only a refreshing respite from the series’ body horror, but also: good television!

Which brings me to my next question for you: You’ve already mentioned a good bit of the music and the use of symbolism as things you dug this season. Any other performances, moments, lines, etc. you want to highlight? Because I should reiterate: I don’t think this is a bad show. I think this is a show with a number of very good parts that still hasn’t figured out how to fit them together.

Glynn: Um, can I quickly get off my chest that I keep a flock of hens at home, and that I am pretty sure Elisabeth Moss studied chickens extensively in her crafting of Offred and that I am totally done with the chicken-like head movements as a semaphore for “I am traumatized”? Seriously. Watch a YouTube video of a chicken (there must be whole channels) and then watch Moss contend with an unfortunate decision (you know: and her place in the pecking order). I have started expecting her to yell “Bawk bawk!”

Well, I’ve said it before: Ann Dowd has blown me away more than once, and if we’re going to be dredging and sluicing backstories next season, I expect we’re going to get some of hers, which I hope they handle intelligently. Aunt Lydia is one of the most genuinely enigmatic characters to me, in no small part because the Aunts were totally 2-D in the novel. Dowd made me wonder a number of times: Who had she been before? How did she really feel about her role in this thing? Who’s eligible to be an Aunt? They aren’t former OB-GYNs. What happens if you are assigned “Auntdom” and you decline it? Do you go to the Colonies?

The other character who might not get talked about enough or thanked enough for injecting some oxygen into this thing is Janine. Madeline Brewer is an awesome counterpoint to most of the Handmaids, including that she can be seriously funny. (I loved it when she reprimanded Offred, pointing at her missing eye and saying haughtily, “Am I complaining all the time? No. I am not.” It’s a remarkable rebuke, actually, because we’ve become so acclimated to simply chafing against the totalitarian nightmare of Gilead that we’d be in danger of becoming numb to it without one of its victims pointing out that trying to look at the positive even in terrible situations is a choice that is actually available and sometimes more powerful). Janine’s been driven a little nuts by Gilead, and she might have been a little nuts before, too, but she’s a great counterpoint. There are situations where “going” crazy is kind of a blessing… a way out of Gilead, in some ways. If you think of crazy as a state you can visit, the way Hawaii is a state you can visit. A dream vacation! From yourself! I think Brewer is great at that, especially when her “old self” appears to be peeking through: “Tequila! I miss you the most.”

The proclamation of this show as “timely” or somehow prophetic drives me crazy. It’s a 30-year-old novel! Do people not remember that it was called “disturbingly timely” when it came out in the end-stage Cold War, greed-is-good mid-1980s? I mean, did people say that about The Crucible, too? These things have always been happening or in danger of happening, as you note. I will calmly add that the word “hysterical” means “uterine” and we can have a discussion about that if you want. More interesting to me than cartoonish echoes of everyone’s anxiety nightmares (which are generally based on a kernel of actual reality) are the strange flip-sides, where even though a situation is torqued beyond all reason (there is no sane world in which forbidding literacy to anyone serves any benefit), there are aspects of it that have their own weird kernel of truth. So we could talk about Aunt Lydia’s creepy-ass speech about “freedom to” versus “freedom from.” Or we could talk about the triploid birth sequence: June’s first childbirth experience, in flashback, and how it echoes against both the false-alarm birth ceremony and the way it does finally happen, because there’s no pure, scathingly obvious dichotomy there! All three sequences have beauties, and horrors. (My first child was born unconscious and blue after a 20-hour dysfunctional shit show and an emergency cesarean in which the epidural only worked one side and the “advanced medical interventions” included putting me in restraints. We both came a lot closer to being dead than I am OK with, so if you want to talk about why I’m reluctant to glorify modern obstetrics and even see beauty and dignity—and also creepy, creepy horror—in the way this funhouse mirror of a society handles it? I can do that.) But long story short, everything has a shadow. Everything. And I think they do an admirable job of pointing that out.

I am concerned that they should have left the party while everyone was still having fun. They’ll have a hell of a time creating a third season that isn’t a bunch of polemical fist-pounding and I can’t imagine Season Five. Yikes.

Brennan: You aren’t the only one to suggest that Aunt Lydia’s ripe for the flashback treatment—I remember thinking that, and seeing a number of folks online say the same, after her enthrallingly cryptic line to Offred about the death of her sister’s child: “It wasn’t my fault.” My prediction (hope?) is that we’ll get some version of this when she’s convalescing next season.

I actually think this is where The Handmaid’s Tale could save itself, with Lydia and Janine and Rita and even Nick—to start digging into the “strange flip-sides,” as you say, of any situation, truly dystopian or simply ordinarily fucked-up, to go not out but through. Because you’re right: The real meat on the bones here isn’t “We live in Gilead! Holy shit!” It’s “We’ve always lived in Gilead, in one form or another, and women (and queer folks) have made a go of it.” And so, if you’ll indulge me, I can envision a third season that isn’t simply “polemical fist-pounding,” although dealing with Offred’s choice, and the consequences for Lawrence, and Fred Waterford’s reaction and all the other stones the writers put in the series’ pocket in the finale is going to take some elbow grease.

My dream, influenced by The Leftovers—a TV series that scuttled every weakness the moment it identified it, and simply said, “This is the show now, take it or leave it”—is to see Serena Joy as the new season’s protagonist, working from within to dismantle an oppressive system she helped create. For Offred’s role to be, say, that of an ally in the fight, but no longer its center, perhaps working out of some sleeper cell or splinter group, as you suggest. For the sequences set in the past to embrace a larger array of characters: What was Janine’s life like before the war? What was the Red Center for Marthas, like Rita? How did Nick become a driver? And a larger span of time: If we go back far enough, as we sort of did with Holly’s political activism, can we see the emergence of Gilead (as understood in the novel and the TV series) in the reaction to second wave feminism? Can we actually understand Gilead, and so learn how to fight it? Ultimately, there’s no evidence to suggest that this writers’ room has the stomach for such radical amendments of structure, focus, form. But I’ll still be watching next season, even after what I thought a cheap, rushed, and deeply annoying finale. Because the whole point is that hope has to spring eternal, right?

Glynn: Yeah. And because every system can be worked. I am not “normalizing Gilead” (hopefully it’s not in any doubt that I have no patience with totalitarianism), but let’s remember our quantum physics, our Hildegard of Bingen, and the several instances in the first two seasons where someone is told or recalls being told this: Gilead is within you. Unpack that! Humans create human systems and we all participate, in one way or another—with or without conviction, with or without consent. But we’re all connected. Gilead is a human construct. Humans built it, and they can unbuild it.

Part of what has made Offred apparently bulletproof by the end of Season Two might be located in the juxtaposition of Emily and Janine as well as herself and Serena: You can bend, or you can break. She reaches out to hideous, torturing Aunt Lydia with her hand, not a knife, and this keeps her protected. (And, of course, Emily has killed two other people before her attack on Lydia.). Arguably, Offred’s armor is her ability to discern the humanity even in people who do inhuman things. This is why she loses it when they hang the delivery truck driver who tries to help her, and it’s why she doesn’t kick Serena in the teeth when she sees Miss Gilead missing a finger. That’s June’s superpower: She retains her own humanity and allows others the right to theirs whether they are oppressor or oppressed. It scares me, actually, in real life, that people seem to have lost sight of why that is power.

But I agree that the smartest thing would be to focus on Serena for the next season. I’m also hoping they address some of the cognitive dissonance around June’s relationships with Nick and Luke. (Loving more than one person is not hard to understand as a concept; the narrative leaves us a bit confused on what June actually wants at this point, though). I’d like to know more about the servant class too, especially who’s selected for gigs like Nick’s or Rita’s and why they couldn’t get out, or if there were people who chose to stay, and if so, why? The one Martha we get any backstory on is the neonatologist who tries to treat Janine’s baby—in the Islamist revolution of Iran and the Khmer Rouge disaster, and probably most if not all genocidal freakouts, the despots come for the intellectuals and the educated first. Are the Marthas all college professors and investigative journalists? Anyway…

Yes, there has always been Gilead. Because it is inside us. And yes, it always has to be brought down. Hopefully they can pull that off without commiting too many artistic atrocities, because esthetically it’s powerful. We might be straining the capacity of the story pretty badly at this point. I guess we’ll see.

The Handmaid’s Tale is now streaming on Hulu.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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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