Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale, “Postpartum”
At the conclusion of “Smart Power”, I shared with Jasmin my thoughts on what to expect in the episodes to come: One theory was that Eden and the security detail-person, Isaac, were going to become an item and the other was that Nick, Offred, and the baby were somehow going to escape Gilead. Eden and Isaac became an item and ran off together; I was able to tick off one box. This just left the Nick, Offred, and the baby escape. After the horrid murder of Eden and Isaac, I revised my runaway theory to Nick and the baby or Offred and the baby, never all three and I did not have a true idea of what another escape attempt by Offred would look. The season finale gave me those answers.
Everyone has regrets about their treatment and dismissal of Eden after her untimely death. When Rita feels she should have been nicer to her, Offred offers consolation: at least she didn’t sleep with her husband. It’s crass and a little funny, and sometimes humor is all you have to get through the pain.
Offred’s discovery of Eden’s bible sparks an idea. She confronts Serena, pushing her to do more than just hope the Lord will protect Nichole even Serena knows the women of Gilead will never know a world that is kind and just. Offred’s pep talk is enough to encourage Serena to rally the other wives of Commanders and present the idea that the daughters of Gilead should, at the very least, know how to read the bible which they are bound to serve. Met with muted response, Serena feels encouraged enough to read a passage from Eden’s bible as an act of defiance, and she is quickly abandoned by many of the wives who chose to stand with her.
In the end Serena, receives the ultimate punishment: a beating and removal of a digit.
Emily is spiraling out of control. Has the poison from the Colonies affected her in unknown ways or is this life of captivity and servitude brought her to this place? Early in the season, Emily murdered the wife of a commander, and then bounced around from house to house finally landing with Joseph, the self-proclaimed architect of Gilead. Her first bedding ceremony in the house that Joseph built is on the horizon and she cannot fathom the idea of going through it once again. In a brutal and warranted attack, she attempts to kill Aunt Lydia. Even at this point, we’re still unsure whether Joseph is on the side of right or a sadist.
These seemingly unrelated events culminate in what can only be described as a Gilead prison break for none other than, Offred and Nichole. Do I get a prize for correctly guessing this plot turn? I shouldn’t really: they spent a season focusing on freedom, defiance, and escape. Through a series of events kicked off by a house fire as a distraction, Offred and Nichole are whisked away by a faction of Marthas who aid in her escape. Nick even puffs up his chest enough to keep Commander Waterford at bay. Offred and Nicole make it to the final location only to be met by Emily and Joseph. He has worked to set her free along with Offred and Nichole. And somewhere between freedom and complete nonsense we find Offred. She gives Nicohle to Emily and makes her promise to keep her safe. Staring defiantly into the camera, June returns (we presume) to the Waterfords. And I throw my laptop across the room.
I was completely flabbergasted by the end of this season and not in a good way, and definitely not in a way in which I feel I can trust the creators to do the right thing in season three. If the plan is for June to dismantle Gilead from the inside, how exactly is she doing it if she gets all of her allies killed in the process? Every single person involved in her escape is guilty of treason. Is the goal to make Fred seem so inept he loses his station as Commander? At some point the hounds are going to be on the scent of the Waterford household and it will be dismantled, but this does not bring down Gilead. How is the movement served with June on the inside? The season finale came in at full steam, chock full of questionable choices and unsatisfactory conclusions to convoluted story lines.
At the start of the season, Jasmin and I insisted Bruce Miller and his team be held accountable for promises made in addressing the biggest elephant in the room in this modern retelling of The Handmaid’s Tale: race. In three separate reviews spanning four episodes, we asked how the show was going to meet the expectations set by Miller? How were he and his team full of non-POC writers going to adequately address a topic that has been a thorn in the side of reviewers since its premiere in 2017? After episode four, we both must have gotten tired of screaming into the ether because we stopped writing about it in our reviews; although, we did discuss it after almost every episode.
So how did Handmaid’s handle issues of race this season? It did so by completely ignoring it yet again. What we did get to see was a slight uptick of black-presenting characters with speaking roles: Omar the delivery truck driver; Kit, an Unwoman in the Colonies; Annie, Luke’s ex-wife, a Martha, the best pediatric physician in Gilead; the Martha who accompanied Hannah; and a Martha who helped Offred and Nichole escape Gilead. And while it was a welcomed change to see this addition of black actors, they were all one-off characters who, for various reasons, will never be seen again. If this was their attempt at addressing the race issue they failed miserably.
There were so many small ways they could have addressed race in a way that feels authentic to the material. For example, Eden could have been a POC. They could have included a scene with Fred and Eden’s father and a line referring to “your people.” During a conversation while shopping, the Handmaids could have questioned why they never saw any POC in Gilead, and one of the Handmaids could mention what she heard happens to POC. I will concede that Boston is white and very segregated as it currently stands, and maybe in Gilead, the black section of Boston has black commanders and black handmaids. This show is continuing to force this near future narrative with the erasure of race. Race has been (and continues to be) an issue in the United States for hundreds of years. It definitely doesn’t disappear when a group of white men and women come together and decide to overthrow the government. It would be foolish to think racism vanishes when a group of white men and women haphazardly use the bible as the cornerstone for their new nation.
As a creator, it can be difficult to follow up a critically acclaimed project with something as good, or better than, the first season. People have a higher expectation than they did the first season; the bar may even be set unattainably high; do you dare to exceed it or just reach it with the tips of your fingers?
The biggest challenge season two of The Handmaids Tale faced was that it was already beyond the source material,. There was a similar struggle and concern with Game of Thrones. But the difference with GoT is the level of trust the audience had in the Double Ds. They were fans first, and well-versed in and respected the material. I do not know if that is the case here.
The Handmaids Tale was renewed for a third season shortly after the season two premiere aired, so we know the story continues. Maybe a year from now I will be less cranky and more open to what the new season will bring. Margaret Atwood remains a consultant, but in the end, it is the judgement call of the Bruce Miller et al as to the direction this story. Currently the show is way off track with limited signs on how to right it.