'Handmaid's Tale' Season 2 struggles with depicting trauma

'Handmaid's Tale' Season 2 struggles with depicting trauma
Elisabeth Moss still stuns

Image: hulu

This post contains spoilers for the opening scenes of Handmaid’s Tale Season 2

The good news is that Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 eventually does start to recapture some of the  poignancy that made Season 1 an unprecedented phenomenon. 

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The bad news is that it takes about half of the season to start getting there.

To be fair, the near-flawless Emmy and Golden Globe-award winning Season 1 casts a very long shadow. The problem with creating a series that fundamentally changes what we think is possible for a popular TV show (streaming or otherwise) is that you then have to follow it up with a Season 2. And now, audience expectation is at an impossibly high bar.

That being said, the issue with Handmaid‘s Season 2 is much more fundamental than a sophomore slump. And it leaves us feeling uncertain about the series’ future (the first six episodes of the second season were made available to critics). 

Season 1 centered around the dissociative shock of being a woman one day, and then reclassified as the commodity known as a “handmaid” the next day. But Season 2’s journey is arguably even darker. It’s less about having personhood stripped away, and more about normalizing enslavement to the point where one cannot imagine facing life outside the cage.

To that end, Season 2 expands our view of Gilead. We see what life in the colonies is like, which was only ever hinted at before. We spend time in “Little America” in Toronto, where Gilead refugees live.

It’s less zoomed in on Offred’s stifled life, increasing its scope to the larger world that oppresses her. What this makes very clear is that the Hulu Original is now no longer an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel. Atwood’s book ended in almost exactly the same way Season 1 did — and it was ambiguous for a reason. 

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The question of whether the story Atwood told is strengthened rather than diminished by an expansion hangs over Season 2’s head. And so far, it doesn’t make a very compelling case for it. 

The book makes the reader’s field of view very narrow on purpose, so we fully inhabit Offred’s first-person perspective. She is both literally and figuratively blinded by the wings that are part of her handmaid uniform, never allowed to see outside its periphery — and it’s a potent metaphor for how we oppress women by limiting their access to information.

But Season 2’s break from that limitation results in a story that is bigger, but more diluted and unfocused. This is no longer a handmaid’s tale, and that’s a loss. Because as Atwood’s book argues, everything you need to know about Gilead is already embedded in a single, random, unremarkable handmaid’s constricted experience of their world.

The word that kept coming to mind while watching Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 was: gratuitous. Heavy subject matter, gruesomely vivid depictions of sexual abuse, gendered violence. None of that is new to the series. The show’s deft handling of that sensitive and often misused material was actually a huge part of what made it so revolutionary.

So when you first start watching Season 2, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the depictions of violence against women feel so… different this time. Or rather not different. It feels typical — exploitative, like every other show using women’s trauma for gruesome window dressing, surface level shock value or drama, and false stakes (yes, we’re looking at you, Game of Thrones).

In Season 1 of Handmaid’s Tale, every instance of violence was consequential and deliberate. Each served a purpose, whether in establishing the world, immersing you in female experiences, or speaking to real-world systemic misogyny.

Season 2, however, often falls into those trappings that Season 1 so delicately avoided. 

Take the very first opening scenes. Picking up where we left off, June/Offred is in a van driving to an unknown future. When the doors open, it’s to a scene of utter depravity and chaos: Military men armed with assault rifles are screaming at frightened handmaids while vicious attack dogs bark at them. In case all that didn’t get the message across, the handmaids are muzzled. Some are beaten for no discernible reason. 

As they’re violently herded onto a field, Offred realizes it’s a famous Boston landmark: Fenway Park. There are rows of nooses lined up for mass execution. The handmaids are shoved into the hanging ropes. One of them is so afraid she urinates, to the tune of Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work.”

The colonies in Season 2 of Handmaid's Tale

The colonies in Season 2 of Handmaid’s Tale

Image: Hulu

It’s all very heavy handed, but you’re not even sure what that heavy hand is trying to point out.

Done differently, the scene might’ve avoided being brutality for brutality’s sake. But spoiler alert, nothing happens to the handmaids beyond getting kicked around. Nothing new is established. And if you’ve been paying attention, the scene carries zero tension from the start because you already know the handmaids can’t be hurt. If the trailers didn’t tip you off to the fact that they live past the first scene of Season 2, then the plot in Season 1 establishing how the handmaids are Gilead’s most valuable commodity surely should have.

So what was the point of showing all this female pain, trauma, and suffering? To have a dramatic opening? So people familiar with Boston can go, “Oh wow, that’s definitely not what Fenway Park is used for now.” Or is it to remind us (in case we forgot) that Gilead doesn’t treat women very well? 

Well uh… message received.

Aunt Lydia informs the girls that it was all a demonstration of the consequences for their bad behavior. Then, unprompted, June delivers one of the most unnecessary voice over lines in the entire series: “Our father who art in heaven. Seriously? What the actual fuck.”

I don’t know, June. I find myself asking the same question, but not in the way the show probably wants me to.

At best, the violence in Season 2 reinforces what the violence in Season 1 already so effectively communicated. Only it does so with twice as much fanfare, and half as much impact. At worst, it reads like torture porn.

It takes on this visual and narrative tone of dreaded glee, as if to keep asking the viewer, “Can you believe this?!” In contrast, Season 1 carried out its scenes of violence with a solemn resign, as if to say to the viewer, “I know you believe this.” Because we do. We know these acts of violence happen right now in the real world. We know women get beaten into submission and told it’s for their own good. We know women get their clitorisis cut off in the name of goodness and religion.

I don’t know if women have ever gotten punked by a fake execution before. But I know I don’t believe it.

And now we return to the central issue with Handmaid’s Tale Season 2: it cannot rely on Margaret Atwood anymore. And they haven’t just lost one of the most skilled writers of our time. They lost the mind that thoroughly researched the oppression of women across all histories, cultures, and religions, then managed to distill those patterns into an extremely effective, self-contained novel.

Atwood wasn’t the only woman Handmaid’s Tale lost between Season 1 and 2, either. Last year, eight out of ten episodes were directed by women. This year, four out of the six episodes so far have been directed by a man.

I don’t bring that up to question the talent of said male director. But that, coupled with Atwood only contributing as a consultant, does start to help me understand why Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 feels so much less entrenched in female subjectivity.

To some (namely men), this might be a welcome shift. People might argue it’s a more “humanist” approach. But those who turned to the show to finally see honest representations of their trauma are out of luck.

Offred is dressed in a different kind of red in Season 2

Offred is dressed in a different kind of red in Season 2

Image: Hulu

Season 2’s expansion isn’t all bad. The other predominant theme is motherhood, and that’s where it rings most true to the source material and women’s actual lives. Coincidentally, many of the most poignant scenes about motherhood are left over from the book.

To the show’s credit, Offred’s experiences of pregnancy ring with the same demented, exaggerated reality of Season 1. At the same time that pregnancy shackles her even more to a cage, it’s also the only modicum of power women can have. Fulfilling your “biological duty” renders you a goddess — but even goddesses are servants to mortal men in a patriarchal society.

For all its uneven footing, though, Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 still punches above and beyond its weight class. The performances are still unparalleled, especially from Elisabeth Moss (June/Offred) and ‎Yvonne Strahovski (Mrs. Waterford). 

You will be rewarded for sticking through its slow, inconsistent start.

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