Trigger warning for pretty much anything bad that could ever happen to a person. Also spoilers for anyone who hasn’t completed Season 2 of the TV series. In fact, this review won’t make much sense at all if you haven’t seen the series.
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood shortly before the first season of the Hulu television series aired on Netflix. As soon as I’d finished the book, I binge-watched the tv series. I probably should have thought that through a bit better, because watching and reading material that focuses so heavily on fertility, pregnancy, and women’s bodies may not be such a great idea when you are in the middle of an endo-flareup and people keep discussing infertility and pregnancy in relation to you.
For those who haven’t heard (somehow), The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about America after a civil war. People stop having healthy babies and the far religious right sees this as a punishment for the moral failure, so they take over and institute a harsh regime with clear social classes, calling their new country Gilead. Men can be Commanders (the elite, boss men), Guardians (the soldiers of the new regime), or Economen, the peasant class who do the manual labour. Women (who aren’t allowed to read, write or drive) can be Wives (married to the Commanders), Aunts (older women who care for and enforce the rules on Handmaids), Marthas (the servant class who work for Commanders and Wives), or Econowives (the wives of the Economen). Or, you can be a Handmaid.
Handmaids are based off the Old Testament story of Rachel and Leah, sisters who were both married to a man called Jacob. It’s a particularly sad story to me, but I won’t go into that here. Anyway, the two sisters get all hung up on having lots of babies for their husband so they can be the favourite wife, and both offer up their handmaids to sleep with him. Jacob and the relevant wife can then consider any child of that union as their own. In Gilead, infertile Wives and Commanders get their own Handmaid. The Commanders have sex with the Handmaid while she lies in the Wife’s lap. It’s bizarre, awful, and ritualised rape. In Gilead, it’s considered totally fine, because it has Biblical precedent and babies are the most important thing ever.
The story follows a Handmaid called Offred (Handmaids are named after their Commanders – thus, Of[Commander’s Name]. Offred’s Commander is Fred, so she is called Of-fred.) She is assigned to Commander Fred Waterford and his Wife, Serena Joy.
I love the book. It’s poetically written and really captures the despairing awfulness of Gilead without losing this tiny glimmer of hope and rebellion. It ends on a real cliffhanger, too, but it’s not done in a frustrating way. The first season of the TV show followed pretty closely to the book, although it expanded the backstory of the characters and we meet Offred’s husband. His story gets followed a bit too, although personally I find it much less compelling than Offred’s story. We get much more involved with other characters, such as Emily and Janine, two other Handmaids, both with extremely tragic story arcs. The series overall captures the tone of the book extremely well and makes the whole thing really come alive.
The second season is a bit wack.
Don’t get me wrong, I still like it. I love the agonised hope you feel rooting for the Handmaids, who have such overwhelming forces arrayed against them. I enjoy the character development of Serena Joy, however frustrating it may be, and seeing what I assume will be the inevitable rebellion growing tiny roots. I think that the development of Emily into a stony, angry killer who is still a bit confused and terrified is realistic and heartbreaking.
Unfortunately, the season also gets weirdly repetitive, and a lot of the decisions don’t make sense. Offred escapes, then is recaptured, then escapes, then hands herself in, then escapes, but chooses not to leave Gilead. Serena Joy flips between hating Offred with a passion, and getting along in a frenemy sort of way. Most astoundingly, Janine and Emily, who begin the series labouring in the radioactive colonies, are returned to Gilead on the very flimsy excuse of a “Handmaid shortage.” Desperate as Gilead may be for fertile women, I do not for a moment believe that they would bring back woman who, the previous season, murdered a Guardian, or the one who nearly committed a murder-suicide with Gilead’s most precious resource, babies. I mean, I love the characters, and I adore this hard-core Emily that excuses and minimises nothing and has nothing to lose, but it makes no sense that they’d bring them back.
Some of the storylines are extremely frustrating, rather than unrealistic. You can just tell that things with Nick’s child-bride, Eden, are not going to end well, and I spent the whole time just thinking, “Nick, show her just one ounce of love, please,” because I could plainly see that tragedy was looming otherwise. And guess what? Tragedy loomed very large.
Finally, the last episode is just far too convenient. Emily literally gets away with murder, because she just happens to be landed with this Commander who is all sympathetic about that. He’s a member of the group of men that manufactured and maintains the existing system. How is he going to be ok with a Handmaid who kills another of its supports, let alone take on the risk of smuggling her out of the country and concealing the crime? I don’t agree with the argument that he is just a good person. A good person would not be in a position now to be a Commander, because he’d have spoken out against the regime when it first started, and that would have got him demoted AT BEST. And this secret network of Marthas rising out of nowhere to replace Mayday? I love it, but I don’t buy it.
I’m not even going to talk about Offred’s ludicrous cliff-hanger-making decision in the last minute. What the actual heck.
I still love the overall feel of the series. I’m still rooting for the Handmaids, I still want more of Moira, and I still want to see more of Serena Joy’s transformation (although I don’t think it is a redemptive transformation given that she only saw the shortcomings of the system when they personally effected her and hers). However, I think I was largely carried through this season on a wave of nostalgia from Season 1, and hope for Season 3 (in which we had better see some Hunger Games-style rebellion with Canadian backing). I didn’t not enjoy it, but I think it made some strange choices that just didn’t work.
What did you think of it? Where do you think Season 3 is going? Let me know in the comments!