The Handmaid’s Tale‘s ceaseless brutality overshadows everything else in the show.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to say this: I’m not a big fan of The Handmaid’s Tale. There’s something about a show that is so unrelentingly grim—without even the occasional glimmers of light—that just makes me feel like I’ve been ground down into a salty meat paste. This is why I checked out of Game of Thrones before I even knew the words “Red Wedding,” because I couldn’t bear to watch Sansa Stark beaten, humiliated, and tortured anymore. So while I can say that Handmaid’s has strong writing and still boasts some of the most gorgeous photography of any show out there, I still don’t enjoy it. Can anyone say they actually enjoy it? And when did the incessant castigation of women become primetime entertainment?
This is something I’ve thought about a long, long time, ever since hearing J*ss W*don explain that “Buffy in pain = show better.” Don’t get me wrong, victims of abuse absolutely deserve the chance to tell their stories, but at what point to we become desensitized to seeing sexual violence played out on screen? And how triggering must it be for victims of abuse to even contemplate watching this show? In Angelica Jade Bastién’s scathing review of Amazon’s Them, she says:
…it doesn’t wholly consider just how damaging such language and imagery is not only for the psyche of the characters involved, but for the Black people in the audience who understand it on a visceral, intimate level.
Now, clearly, these are two very different shows, but at what point does this kind of inundation of sickness and evil become endorsement? The answer seems to be “Season Four of The Handmaid’s Tale“. I’m about to drop some spoilers, so if you don’t wish to know what shenanigans the red cloaks get into this season, skip to the end.
June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) seems to be stuck in a hellish Groundhog Day, a repeating loop in which she is forced to escape Gilead again and again, only to be brought back to heel by her oppressors. This season we finally, finally get a reprieve from this Sisyphean cycle of trying to escape Gilead, but there is little comfort, little relief when there isn’t much left of the person you were before.
And believe me, what is left of June Osborne isn’t pretty. She’s become an insurgent—and yes, justifiably so—but for some mysterious reason the forces that be at Hulu decided to ask “what if June becomes the thing she hates most?” A Serena Joy, (Yvonne Strahovski) screaming in the face of a frightened woman. A Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), taking what isn’t hers to take. An Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), promising comfort and support in exchange for acquiescence.
But it’s not just the other side that suffers for June’s actions. June is a firebrand, and no one gets burned as hard as those standing closest to her. After her successful rescue of the children of Gilead, Moira (Samira Wiley) and Emily (Alexis Bledel) are left to rehome all of those children – now traumatized and confused by being ripped away from not one but two families in their short lives. Even Rita (Amanda Brugel) is there to clean up June’s mess, the strain of her new circumstances at odds with her old life.
And no one suffers more than June herself, except for maybe her fellow handmaids. In episode 3, “The Crossing” (directed by Moss) after June is literally waterboarded and tortured, she and the rest of the gang manage a daring, thrilling escape, only to be whittled down to two. It’s heartbreaking and more than unfair.
Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford)—without whom the plan to ‘rescue’ the children would not have worked—finds himself facing punishment, only to fully embrace his role as a Commander. June didn’t just become a monster, she created a monster. “The Gospel of June Osborne,” an embittered Lawrence tells Nick (Max Minghella). “Hallelujah.” Can I get an amen up in here? No? Okie dokie.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of emotional satisfaction to be had in season 4. We still don’t get to see what Serena Joy’s long game is here, but I will admit that seeing her prostrate, begging forgiveness of the woman she so viciously wronged (who is herself an avatar for all of the people Gilead has wronged) was satisfying, and seeing some tender flashbacks of Janine (the superb Madeline Brewer) as a single mom pre-Gilead added an emotional resonance that’s been missing from the show since season 1. Seeing how Rita has come through hell with her faith intact was a lovely grace note, but it’s Luke (O-T Fagbenle) who serves as the emotional heart of The Handmaid’s Tale.
This season we finally, finally get a reprieve from this Sisyphean cycle of trying to escape Gilead, but there is little comfort, little relief when there isn’t much left of the person you were before.
I suppose that there’s a certain irony to the most sympathetic character on a show about women being used as chattel is a man. But Luke has always been the lighthouse keeper, hoping that June will see his light. He’s worked tirelessly for her return, put himself in the spotlight, and occasionally in danger to make sure the world knows it. It’s Luke who has become a father to baby Holly/Nichole, only to be horribly, dreadfully wronged by his own wife. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say showrunner Bruce Miller didn’t learn anything from all of the Bridgerton discourse. As wearying as it is to sit through this show as a woman, I can’t imagine the constant visual assault that Black men and women endure every time they turn on the television.
If you’ve made it through three seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale, I can’t imagine anything I say here will dissuade you from seeing how it all plays out. But as for me I’ll take my social commentary with a little less violence and a lot more hope.
The Handmaid’s Tale‘s fourth season begins streaming on Wednesday, April 28th.