Did ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 2 go too far?

Did <em>The Handmaid’s Tale</em> Season 2 go too far? (Channel 4)
Did The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 go too far? (Channel 4)

The opening scene of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 was, in many ways, a statement of intent.

It’s an extended sequence with very little dialogue; the camera spends most of its time in close focus, lingering on the distress and anguish of the assembled Handmaids. They’re lead to the gallows, about to be hanged; Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work starts to swell up, a dissonant pop song that cuts against yet emphasises the suffering of the moment. Shortly it becomes apparent that the Handmaid’s are not, in fact, being hanged – it’s merely a show, a display of strength on behalf of the Gilead regime.

However, it’s as much a display for the audience as it is for the Handmaids – a statement of intent, a setting of the status quo as The Handmaid’s Tale went into its second season. Immediately, the series feels different to how it did the year before; there’s something about this opening scene, something that continues across the rest of the season, that’s much more visceral, more overt, more emphatically brazen in its worldview. There’s a palpable tonal shift in comparison to season one, with The Handmaid’s Tale now marking itself as a much spikier piece; it feels somewhat inaccurate to term it as “darker”, exactly, given the show has always dealt with subject matter that’s not aptly encapsulated with a word as simple as “dark” – certainly, though, there’s a sense that series 2 has escalated in comparison to the first.

Why is this? There are various possible answers – the most plausible, perhaps, is that where the first season went out at the dawn of the Trump administration, feeling relevant almost by accident, this one in contrast was written and filmed during his presidency, likely influencing the production, prompting a more concerted effort to respond to the real world. Equally, it might perhaps be because fewer women worked on the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale; where eight of the ten episodes of season 1 were directed by women, and five of them written by women, only six of season 2’s thirteen episodes were directed by women, and six of them written by women (with a further two co-written by women). The aforementioned opening scene comes from an episode written by Bruce Miller and directed by Mike Barker; a critic disinclined to be kind to the show might argue that the scene feels almost hollow, a somewhat soulless recreation of aspects of the first season that places emphasis on a visceral shock value rather than anything else, and might perhaps attribute it to the way the production of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 was dominated by men.

The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 (Channel 4)
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 (Channel 4)

More significant than noticing this trend, though, is the question it prompts: did The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 go too far? Certainly, the tonal shift leaves the second season feeling very different – but is that a bad thing exactly?

Part of that question, though, is the acknowledgement that it works from something of a flawed premise: what does it even mean for The Handmaid’s Tale to “go too far”? As Margaret Atwood once noted of the now nearly thirty year old novel, there’s “nothing in the book that didn’t happen somewhere”, and it’s not like that isn’t still essentially true of the television adaptation; not long after a flashback saw Alexis Bledel’s Emily lose her job as a teacher because she was gay, something similar took place in Texas – more obviously, though, there’s the extended consideration of familial separation, and children taken away from their parents. If the point of The Handmaid’s Tale is that every patriarchy is its own Gilead in its own way, that people do already live there in some sense or another, to turn around and argue that the show is “going too far” is misguided at best and deeply condescending at worst, tantamount to telling someone to just shut up and stop complaining.

Yet there’s another aspect to the question, a point to elaborate on further: does The Handmaid’s Tale go too far to still be entertainment? There’s something increasingly uncomfortable about the act of watching The Handmaid’s Tale, and the way it invites audiences to watch a programme that is increasingly reliant upon the shock value of patriarchal violence. It’s difficult to unpack this, because it’s not exactly the only thing The Handmaid’s Tale does – there are fantastic performances, the standout this year being Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy, and some excellent direction and cinematography (to highlight a particular detail, The Handmaid’s Tale films light in a really interesting way). At the same time, considering what these performances and this direction goes towards creating, there’s something a little off about actually watching The Handmaid’s Tale – it’s not exactly that audiences become complicit, but there’s something discomforting about how the show presents its drama as something that is, on some level, meant to be entertaining.

Whether the show went too far, then, is a question that’s difficult to answer – it’s perhaps not even necessarily a question worth asking, or at least not one that should be framed in those terms. Perhaps a better question, though – and it’ll be one that showrunner Bruce Miller will need to answer, particularly if he hopes ­the series will continue for ten years – is just what The Handmaid’s Tale is trying to be; it’s time for the show to make another statement of intent, one that goes beyond the brazenly provocative that opened season 2.


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