By Peg Aloi
Following a very compelling second season, the series seems to be losing its edge, slightly, though only intermittently.
The Handmaid’s Tale is surely a triumph of the ‘writers’ room’ model: multiple writers and directors adhere to an established production design put in place by the series creator and primary show runner (Bruce Miller here), turning out consistently artful and compelling seasons, in this case for two years running. Viewers and critics alike wondered how the story might play out after the first season, given that it ended precisely where Margaret Atwood’s novel did. The second season kicked off with a stunning opening scene: a horrifying yet gorgeously moving montage set to Kate Bush’s song “This Woman’s Work.” Fleshing out character back stories via flashbacks, the second season went on to skillfully craft a story built on the theme of resistance: a beacon for our own terrifying zeitgeist.
Themes of resistance feel culturally relevant but also necessary in this dystopian narrative. The Handmaids and Marthas, forced into compulsory childbearing and domestic servitude after having their own children taken away (they are placed with families of the powerful), fight back against the cruel and sadistic system they are trapped in. These efforts are inspiring and nail-bitingly suspenseful; the women are fighting against heavily-armed Guardians and misogynist Commanders. Rape, assault, torture, mutilation, and violent execution are common occurrences in Gilead, the right-wing Christian kingdom that has usurped the United States via a violent coup. Sounds eerily (and imminently?) plausible, does it not? It’s only speculative fiction if you’re living under a rock. Oddly, I find watching the series to be somewhat comforting. I mean, we’re not hanging people in the public square. Yet.
Following a very compelling second season, the series seems to be losing its edge, slightly, though only intermittently. Despite the inclusion of cliffhanger episodes and shocking revelations, the writing feels less sharp, more forced. It is a testament to the skilled actors in the cast that their performances transcend the occasional weak spots in the script. One character whose arc has come off as somewhat confusing this season is Robert Lawrence, played by Bradley Whitford. A Commander who helped shape the vision of Gilead, he later withdrew from the political crucible to “collect” stolen artworks and bury himself in his library in order to look after his wife Eleanor, who suffers from an unspecified mental illness and is not allowed, via the draconian laws of Gilead, to take medication for it.
Eleanor is played by Julie Dretzin, an actress I knew in graduate school (we were even in a play together!), who embodies the role as deftly as she has other small but memorable TV roles (like the sister of Lisa Fisher in Six Feet Under). At times, Eleanor is made to look like a petite madwoman in the attic; her hair askew, she looks as if she hasn’t slept in weeks. June (Elisabeth Moss, continuing to provide an astonishing emotional range in her performance) keeps Eleanor grounded, taking her outside and on errands, earning Lawrence’s grudging respect. But his frustration with June’s frequent requests for aiding her resistance efforts escalates as he finds himself threatened with exposure, accused of treason. Whitford weathers his character’s shifting moods and motivations skillfully, despite some occasionally poorly-rendered dialogue that seems designed to push him to the next emotional pivot point.
So, despite some wobbly writing, this season is gripping. The season finale hinges on a plot hatched by June, who is increasingly desperate to help Gilead’s most vulnerable residents: the children. She is briefly sequestered for acting out violently, which raises an uncomfortable question: why does she continually escape the torture, mutilation, or execution visited on other Handmaids for less severe infractions? When will June’s risky actions be punished? Still, it’s fascinating to watch her as she acts without fear; she seems quite literally to be willing to die for the cause. She is become a sort of legendary figure among Handmaids and Marthas; stories of her fearless actions travel among others undertaking their own underground efforts. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” she asks Commander Lawrence, “if you turned out to be a hero?” She’s being ironic, and may as well be talking about herself.
The show’s design and direction continue to be first rate, its aesthetic now familiar, a world of cold, bleak weather, and regimented colors. Kate Bush’s music is used yet again during a montage this season, this time ending an episode rather than beginning it. “Cloudbusting” is a fascinating song she wrote about rogue psychoanalyst and inventor Wilhelm Reich, from the point of view of his son, Peter. Reich’s liberal views about sexuality were controversial in the postwar period, though they gained some fame in the ’60s; he eventually died in prison. A number of volumes of his writings were destroyed or removed from library shelves. That songs from Bush’s albums from the ’80s and ’90s are used in The Handmaid’s Tale to such stunning effect — without feeling in the least dated or anachronistic — reinforces what her fervent followers already know and what new fans are discovering: her music’s powerful magic makes for a strangely suitable soundtrack to Atwood’s nightmare world, where women’s creativity is the sole driving force behind their survival.
And, fittingly, Bush’s lyrics invoke a spirit of hope and determination that will inspire viewers witnessing our current government’s acts of terror. For those who avoid The Handmaid’s Tale, finding the series too disturbingly real, it’s moments like these (where a refrain from “Cloudbusting” becomes a mantra for revolution) that underscore the ways that art can foment cultural change in the midst of upheaval. I just know that something good is going to happen. I don’t know when, but just saying it could even make it happen.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.