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How The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two Fell Apart

I was a big fan of season one of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. While I had a few reservations about the level of anguish and violence throughout the story, I was taken in by the incredible performances (I’m still amazed that Alexis Bledel is such a spectacular actress) and the interesting flourishes added to Margaret Atwood’s seminal 1985 novel. I even put the series near on my 2017 Best Of list. After watching all of season one, I did have a lingering worry: Would the series be able to sustain itself without the source material to structure its narrative? Watching the initial six episodes for my pre-season two review, my worry turned into a legitimate concern. By the end of season two, I’m convinced showrunner Bruce Miller and his team have lost the plot. I’m unsure if it’s a desire to not get to the show’s obvious endgame too soon (and thereby draw the series out for several excruciating years in the process), or if it’s a matter of Miller not really knowing how to juggle the various characters while pushing the show forward, but what we’re left with at the end of season two isn’t a show poised to dive into a new, interesting, complicated reality. Rather, we have a show where, once again, our heroine is alone and without a clear path to achieve her goal: get out of Gilead. [caption id="attachment_103567" align="aligncenter" width="620"] The Handmaid's Tale --"After" - Episode 207 --  (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)[/caption] Yes, June didn’t want to leave Hannah behind. Or she has a different compelling reason for staying in Gilead that we aren’t privy to at this time (which is absolutely moronic if true, as nothing I’ve seen so far suggests another reason for staying, and springing such a revelation on the audience is textbook poor writing – something the series has shown a penchant for this season). So, rather than give June a chance to move beyond the confines of Gilead (which, despite the introduction of Econowives and the Colonies this season – both of which were ripped from the narrative pretty quickly and without any real care, remains an incredibly insular setting for the series – but that's the topic of an entirely different thinkpiece), June remains where she is without a viable hope of escape in the near future. What is her plan? To head back to the Waterford home? To follow Bradley Whitford’s Commander Lawrence home and try to work with him to shut things down (honestly, Whitford’s character was one of the best parts of the latter half of this season, and I would watch the series if it switched to this focus)? But how would she find him without being caught and convince him to let her help? She has absolutely no idea who he is, where he lives, and if he really can be trusted. And, come to think of it, how is she going to find Hannah? June has no idea where she is either. For all the hope Elisabeth Moss’s determined face might instill, that final moment of season two made me so incredibly disappointed in what this show has become that I don’t know if I want to keep watching. But it wasn’t that cheap, fake-out ending that made me feel that way. No, that was only the final nail in the coffin. The real groundwork for my utter disappointment with season two began with the infamous “The Last Ceremony,” an episode more concerned with driving home the horrific psycho-sexual politics of Gilead (something we didn’t need yet another reminder of, thank you very much) through the ham-fisted comparison of The Ceremony (which is State sanctioned rape) and Serena Joy’s plan to “help the baby come faster” by having Fred rape June. With the moral of the story being that the blurring of lines surrounding The Ceremony and rape “led” Serena Joy to accept that this instance of rape is no different than The Ceremony, which, fine, I can see how the writers thought that might be a compelling moment (if potentially triggering in the worst way). [caption id="attachment_103566" align="aligncenter" width="620"] The Handmaid's Tale -- "Smart Power" - Episode 209 - (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)[/caption] But the series spent weeks teasing out more of Serena Joy’s character, only to take that development and throw it aside in moments (and, my issues with the writing aside, Yvonne Strahovski gave an incredible performance throughout the season, and I would gladly see her take home an Emmy for her work). The Serena Joy who thinks nothing of raping a Handmaid because that’s just how things are done isn’t the same Serena Joy who sat in the study and worked alongside June to create propaganda in Fred’s absence. I wasn’t expecting her to become a good person by any means, but the person they created (especially following the Canada trip) isn’t someone who is so driven by her desire for a child that she abandons every ounce of character development at the creative drop of a hat. We know Serena Joy had begun to doubt this world (and no, having her advocate for rape isn't a stand-in for her struggling to hold true to the tenets of Gilead), and, perhaps more importantly, had begun to recognize June as a person and not a tool for her own happiness. Making Serena Joy's intriguing characterization this season pay for the inability of the writing staff to come up with a viable way to show us that Serena’s growth doesn’t mean she’s Team Handmaid (which, frankly, I suspect most audience members already knew) is a rookie mistake. The same can be said for a number of characters throughout the show who had interesting character beats walked back or stunted. Moira (Samira Wiley) had an episode of PTSD, touching on a very real aspect of surviving instances of sexual violence, yet it wasn’t explored in future episodes. Instead, the writers opted to shoe-horn in a backstory of being a surrogate for a British couple and an engagement that ended in tragedy – story points that don’t make sense given the previous flashbacks we’ve seen with Moira (I can understand never mentioning the surrogacy, but June never once commenting on Moira’s fiancée, or said fiancée showing up and hanging out with the group at any point? Come on.). It’s just sloppy writing. And what about Aunt Lydia? We were offered a bit more insight into who she was in the years before Gilead, and she certainly seems to have something resembling a heart under the layers of indoctrination, but her malice manifests itself in fits and starts these days. Something that might spark a hint of compassion one week results in a girl getting beaten the next. Perhaps it’s meant to show how the Aunts keep the Handmaids under their thumbs through the act of being unpredictable. But it comes across as scattered and lacking focus. And then there’s Nick, perhaps the show’s most one-dimensional character, who has yet to prove what’s so darn attractive about him. Max Minghella’s dull performance isn’t helped by writing that refuses to take a stance on the character, despite the audience being well in the know that he’s on the side of the good guys. What makes Nick tick? Why is he so dismissive to Eden, when all he has to do is treat her with kindness (seriously, she would have been content just to have Nick care about her in some manner)? He loves June, or at least cares deeply enough for her that he’s willing to risk his life to meet her husband and share news of her, but we don’t know anything about him beyond that. And, after two seasons, it’s getting hard to care about a character simply because the protagonist and the writers say we should. We need to connect with more than his brooding stare. [caption id="attachment_95275" align="aligncenter" width="800"] THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- "Offred" - Episode 101 (Photo by: Take Five/Hulu)[/caption] But aside from failing its characters, season two of The Handmaid's Tale failed to tell a coherent story. The extra three episodes this go-round certainly didn't help things (one of the biggest problems in this era of streaming television is shows that can't sustain over 13-episode seasons). While I suspect another ten episode season might have also dragged in places, it would have forced the writers to craft a tighter arc than the one offered. Going from June escaping, getting caught, reaching a detente with Serena Joy, being raped, escaping again only to decide not to leave essentially brought the story right back to where it was at the start of the season, just with more pain and suffering along the way. Is there a way for the series to right the ship? Sure. But in order to do so, Miller and his team need to commit to an end date and begin working toward it. This isn't a show than can run for seven seasons. This story has two more years left in it, tops. It's not a sin to have a plan and stick to it. The quality of the performances can only sustain sub-par storytelling for so long before it's game over. Without a clear season by season plan in place moving forward, The Handmaid's Tale will go the way of many streaming shows before it (I'm looking at you, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black). There was a lot to love about season one. There was a lot to be worried about in season two. I can only hope season three finds the plot again and ditches the torture porn in favor of meaningful arcs and character development. Because this show was too good to get bad.


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TV critic based in Chicago. When not watching and writing about awesome television shows, I can be found lamenting over the latest disappointing performance by any of the various Chicago sports teams or my beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Follow me @JeanHenegan on Twitter.

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