Opening Argument: The Strange Case Of The Handmaid’s Tale
I’ve written in the past about The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. I’ve written about admiring it. I’ve written about finding it hugely frustrating. The adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel has just entered its fourth season, which was delayed by the pandemic, and my feelings about it keep changing.
(This is going to spoil the first three seasons, but I’m going to do the best I can not to spoil the eight episodes I’ve seen of what will be a ten-episode fourth season in any concrete ways.)
To my eye, the end of the second season was written in a way that made it ring false: why would June believe that staying in Gilead would give her a chance to help her still imprisoned older daughter? And why would that not have occurred to her during her many earlier escape attempts? All she’d been doing was trying to escape, and now, with the moment upon her, she decided not to. It had the uneasy feeling of a story that doesn’t feel true but keeps the show going.
The third season was uneven, I thought: some of the imagery of it was stunning, particularly during the visit to Washington that brought June and the Waterfords to the Lincoln Memorial and confronted June — and Aunt Lydia — with what might be in store for the handmaids in the future. But still, the question was beginning to be … what is the point of all this? If she’s already given up an opportunity to escape until she’s reunited with Hannah, and there’s no prospect on the horizon of her being reunited with Hannah, what are we watching?
Mostly, that season was significant because it led to two things: the Waterfords were arrested, and June managed to smuggle a plane full of Gilead kids out of the country and to Canada, where some could be reunited with family and some simply wouldn’t have to grow up in Gilead. When it ended, June was gravely injured, but her plan had worked; she was triumphant. Wounded, but triumphant. And so, two years later, the question is: What now?
Like I said, I’ve seen eight episodes of this season, and here’s what I would say about them: The first four or five have the problem that the show has had for a long time, which is that the violence and the brutality and the suffering can feel sadistic, and yet the story doesn’t seem to advance. June has been through the cycle of triumph and then returned to square one so many times that although it may be absolutely accurate to the experiences of a lot of traumatized people, it can feel not just uninteresting but exploitative.
However! Somewhere around the middle of this season, the story takes its first really big turn — its first step out of this cycle of hope and the dashing of hope — of the entire run so far. It’s the first time there’s been a genuinely new dynamic, and once that happened, I was entirely on board. This was what I think should have happened a lot sooner; I don’t think there was ever any reason to believe that the existing story engines were the only ones that could work.
And so, this brought me to a recommendation I made a couple times on Twitter that I’ve never made before. It was this: Over the next three weeks, the fourth, fifth and sixth episodes will be released, and recaps of them will be published. If you want, read those recaps. Catch up. You’ll miss a lot of stuff that I think can be pretty traumatizing to watch. But then, come back. Come back to watch the seventh and eighth (maybe the sixth, too) episodes. I don’t know about the ninth and tenth yet; I haven’t seen them. But I truly believe that in this case, it might be the best route for a lot of people to take. I think if you’ve ever liked this show, you do want to see where it’s going. It is worth it, and it is really something to watch. There’s no law that says you can’t skim in a book; there’s no law that says you can’t get summaries of a few episodes.
We are all our own programmers and curators these days. Take advantage of it.
If you didn’t get a chance to read about Prancer, the chihuahua who is also a Chucky doll and a haunted Victorian child (according to the viral description provided by the foster dog-parent who loved him), I encourage you to get over there right now and read all about him — and the new home where he finally is loved for the beautiful little monster he is.
It’s a little off my beat, but I hope you’ll indulge me: The D.C. region lost two incredibly important advocates for people experiencing homelessness this week, when they were struck by a truck while walking at 10:30 on a Saturday morning. Please take a moment not just to remind yourself of the profound need for people who can help others, but also to remind yourself, if you drive a car, how important it is to move slowly and be careful, because terrible things can happen very quickly.
I’ve recommended various «actual expert comments on movie and TV scenes» before, but I was reminded this week of one that I especially like, in which a ridiculously charming E.R. doctor talks about grisly movie and TV injuries.
If you want to dive in early to a couple things we’ll be covering next week, we’ll be talking about both Rutherford Falls and Shadow and Bone.