‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Has Finally Realized How Unpleasant It Is

·8-min read
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Hulu

Well, someone is feeling cheeky. Whether it was the producers, the writers’ room, or a precocious, self-congratulatory intern, beginning the first episode of the The Handmaid’s Tale’s new season with “All I Have to Do Is Dream” by The Everly Brothers is a choice. As the saccharine tune rings out, June (Elisabeth Moss) is still covered in blood and that glow that can only come from killing your rapist with your bare hands.

You thought the show was grim in its outlook on life? Pish-posh! Dreams can and do come true for our characters, and the first three episodes of Season 5 indicate that the show intends to explore the consequences of their fulfillment—and its very dark trappings. While the guiding motto of prior seasons might have been “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” this time around, it’s the less-tattoo worthy “Be careful what you wish for.”

The Last Thing the World Needs Is More ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

And yet, despite the schoolmarm charm of that phrase, this change in priority allows The Handmaid’s Tale to run toward the light, instead of spiraling once more into its usual cycle of despair. After years of relentless violence and an eye-for-an-eye ethos, the show is offering paths of salvation to its most hated characters, courtesy of that little form of adult magic that TikTok teens and CrossFit bros lack: self-awareness.

By the way, I am including June in the list of “most-loathed characters,” which should be no surprise to anyone who has seen more than one episode of the whole series. Because if you peaced out of Gilead somewhere between June grimacing at the camera in Season 2 and June grimacing at the camera in Season 3, who could blame you? By the time Season 2 began, in 2018, the once-cathartic act of showing up to Trump protests in red cloaks had become a hackneyed image as maligned as a pink pussy hat. To top it off, the show had fallen into a tedious cycle of dragging June back to Gilead despite her multiple chances to escape, only to offer a feast of repetitive torture, rape, and the occasional public hanging.

Season 4 provided a jolt of energy to June’s story by dropping her in Toronto as a refugee thirsty for revenge. Following her there, like a high school boyfriend dead set on ruining her college experience, were captors Fred and Serena Waterford (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski, respectively), in political-prisoner chic. Considering that June spends that season leaning in hard to her need for revenge against the couple that abused her, and Serena deals with an ICC court-case from the comfort of her envy-inducing, pristine prison cell, it might be a stretch to say that our dynamic duo was getting their first taste of post-Gilead freedom.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Sophie Giraud/Hulu</div>
Sophie Giraud/Hulu

But I’m gonna say it anyway: Canada represents more than an opportunity to wonder about the versatility of poutine or learn the delightful religious tinges of Quebecoise insults. For both Serena and June, Toronto was a place where dreams can come true. Take that, America!

By the end of the season, June rounds up a ragtag team of equally traumatized women to help her rip Fred to literal shreds in No Man’s Land, which is what I currently call my Hinge inbox. As for Serena, she has a miracle to call all her own—she is finally pregnant. Her dead’s husband severed finger is a painful but very real key to new political potential for her. There is nothing religious fundamentalists love more than a pregnant woman who cannot get laid. As an expectant widow, Serena realizes she can harness and outlandish amount of domestic and international sympathy that could very well reinstate her proximity to Gilead leadership.

Now that we’re in Season 5, though, it’s clear that those victories were as short-lived as one of Biden’s grand proclamations that the pandemic is over. The start to the season has catapulted several of the main players into situations where their old methods of survival are no longer useful or effective. They’re instead forced to not only adapt but to also examine who they have become if they can no longer call themselves Wife, Handmaid, victim, official, prisoner, or safe-keeper.

Chief among these players is, of course, June. Whatever exhilaration she might have felt after Fred’s death, it has done very little to get her closer to her purported real goal: saving her daughter, Hannah. Not to mention that her feelings of liberation were temporary; denied jail time by the Canadian government and only out of $88 for sending mail that’s a bit-too-gross for the postal system, June will now live the rest of her life looking over shoulder. I mean, I think that’s why she wanted to turn herself in, right? Or it could also be to get access to those sweet, sweet prisoner digs. Toronto rents are expensive as hell.

But the worst consequence of June’s actions is turning a collective fight into a violent mommy war. June has functioned under the mantra that “the personal is political” for so long, her spite is now only personal and singularly focused. She is a disappointment to the other Gilead survivors, who wanted to sink their teeth into their own commanders, only to have June shrug off their requests for help in enacting their own revenge killings. There is a reason there’s a “Shut the fuck up, June!” moment in every episode of the season thus far—everyone’s sympathy for her is running low. Including ours.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Sophie Giraud/Hulu</div>
Sophie Giraud/Hulu

Meanwhile, Serena is milking Fred’s death for every ounce of political advantage she can muster. It’s telling that the memories that flash through her mind at news of his death are not small, intimate private moments, but a very public dance at an official reception. Those tears are mourning the loss of power and these episodes demonstrate Serena yearns for that with the same passion that she yearned for a baby. When Serena pulls off a funeral procession so obnoxious and pompous that I wondered where the damn corgis were, she is convinced that her position of privilege in Gilead will be restored.

But Serena, honey, you must have known that not even a pregnant widow would attain equality there. After all, you helped build the place and, as Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) so accurately pointed out, “we don’t have the proper infrastructure for unusual women to live within our borders.” Denied a home in Gilead, rebuffed by Lawrence to enter a marriage of convenience, and viewed as the wife of a traitor, Serena is banished again to Canada to serve as propaganda.

Elsewhere, other characters must face the own delusions they have created to justify their actions. Former teen wife Esther (Mckenna Grace) poisons herself and fellow handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer) after a particularly heinous interaction (read: more creepy rape) with her soon-to-be master, Commander Putnam (Stephen Kunken). This leaves Ann Dowd’s horrifying Aunt Lydia to start to question her own ironclad faith in a divine justice. While Esther might be a terrifying teen, whose spiteful talents range from destroying your self-esteem with one “cringe” mumbled under her breath to gutting a grown man, she’s also a monster that only Gilead could create. And by that, I mean, the entirety of Gilead—the men in power, the women who are complicit, and the rest of the population that has decided to play nice instead of fighting back.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is Way Too Real — and Watching It Has Become Masochistic

There is no denying it: We’ve entered the “oops, my bad era” of The Handmaid’s Tale. With it might come new narrative possibilities based less on righteous revenge and power grabs, than on moral reckonings and conciliatory moments. Frankly, as Bible-thumpy as that may sound, it might be the kind of vibe shift the series needs. Not because salvation or healing is necessarily a more satisfactory “message” or end to a story, but because we have yet to see any of it in this show.

Giving the characters the room to struggle with the ramifications of their actions makes conclusions and judgements about who they are a little less neat. If June cannot see beyond her own personal vendetta, does she deserve to be hailed as a hero? Is there a situation in which Serena or Aunt Lydia can be forgiven? What does redemption look like for any of these characters? Honestly, what does redemption look like for this harrowing, punishing TV show?

Only time will tell, and by time, I mean the next seven episodes and one last, final, cannot-come-too-soon season. Look, I’m not expecting a full-180 after all the missteps The Handmaid’s Tale has made in the past—including but not limited to its irritating allegiance to white feminism, its questionable mirroring of current events, and its overuse of the close-up as shorthand for emotional development. But what I am saying is that by making their characters own up their mistakes, the show might be amending some of their own as well.

If this is all leading to a massive showdown between Serena and June–and at this point, that truly is the relationship driving the plot–we need to be reminded of the women’s humanity to be invested in the outcome. Petty creatures we viewers are, having them take a bite of humble pie usually does the trick. As the show stands, we can sense wafts of it cooking up in these initial episodes, slowly whetting our appetites for what’s more to come.

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