“The Handmaid’s Tale” season two draws to a close just ahead of Thursday’s Emmy nominations announcement, in a finale that showcases both the show’s strengths as well as the inherent weaknesses baked into its premise. But notably, the show uses TV’s typical structure to hammer home a point about how authoritarian regimes lull the public into a sense of normality. While there is much to unpack in the season’s final episodes, this strategy is one of the more interesting uses of TV storytelling currently on the air.
Second seasons are notoriously difficult to pull off. This struggle to keep audiences engaged is a regular feature of dystopian shows, as the fascination with the idiosyncratic world fades and audiences focus more on episode-to-episode plot arcs. Even favorite prestige drama “Game of Thrones” floundered a bit in its second season. Indeed, once the Westeros world was established, the show has had to up the narrative ante every season.
The “Handmaid’s Tale” showrunners are using a very clever parallel technique here, and it’s not something most shows have the self-awareness to attempt.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” in contrast, spent nearly the entire second season leaning into its audience’s desensitization to the horrors of Gilead. This show is based on a novel about a society that forced women into sexual slavery through ritual rape. And yet, all season long, this reality was mostly glossed over, as were the other horrors of greater Gilead. Once Offred returns to the Waterford house, the audience is encouraged to get caught up in the episode-to-episode minutiae of daily life, all while accepting her life's context as the new normal. This is also how many authoritarian regimes quell rebellion and get their populations to accept the world as it has become. The “Handmaid’s Tale” showrunners are using a very clever parallel technique here, and it’s not something most shows have the self-awareness to attempt. It's also why, despite the show’s flaws, it’s still worth watching.
Ultimately, it took until the tenth installment of a 13-episode season for “the ritual” of the rape ceremony to turn up on camera this season. It was a welcome respite for many fans who found last season’s unrelenting and graphic depictions hard to stomach. There were moments when the terrible nature of Gilead would surface; the terrorist attack on the Red Center, for instance, or the release of the handmaid letters on the internet in Canada showcased moments of resistance. But the majority of the dramatic action concerned the emotional drama between Offred’s forced surrogate-mother status of the coming baby and those around her who consider her unborn child to be their rightful property.
All of this meant that the gut punch, when it did come, felt one hundred times worse. Not only was the scene itself terrible, but it created a sense of guilt in the viewer who for weeks had totally forgotten how terrible this world was to women. And with this sense of complacency also came a feeling of complicity.
Once the blinders were torn away, the brutality in the final episodes escalates quickly. Offred is raped by her owners in an attempt to force her to go into labor — as well as put her in her place. Eden, the unhappy teen bride of Nick, is forcibly drowned by the state with her sweetheart for the crime of falling in love. Emily attempts to murder Aunt Lydia and is forced to try to make a run for Canada. Serena Joy is arrested, tortured and mutilated for asking that girls be allowed to be taught to read.
Ready for season three yet?
Even as the series reminds us that none of this is normal, nor should it be accepted as such, our main characters find themselves unable to leave Gilead for another year. At the end of season one, Offred gets in a van, not knowing if it was taking her to freedom in Canada or to her death. Season two ends with a van once again offering her escape — but the show can’t let Offred leave yet, not really. So instead, Stockholm syndrome kicked in and Offred returns home, somehow confident that she can overthrow the system from the inside.
Maybe one day there really will be a glorious revolution and Gilead will be overthrown. But the real reason people become trapped by authoritarianism is that their day-to-day survival becomes the sole focus.
Speaking to showrunner Bruce Miller recently, I asked if his main characters will ever be allowed a happy ending, or if they will be forever trapped by a regime that undermines their freedom at every turn. “I feel like every episode where it ends and Offred/June is alive is a huge victory,” he said. It’s a reminder that in a world like this, the expectations have to be different.
Maybe one day there really will be a glorious revolution and Gilead will be overthrown. But the real reason people become trapped by authoritarianism is that their day-to-day survival becomes the sole focus. For Offred, just making it another day without being dragged away is itself a small act of rebellion.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is one of the few prestige shows that increased from ten episodes to 13 between seasons. (Miller suggested season three will be 13 episodes as well.) In many cases, especially on Netflix, 13 one-hour installments can seem like overkill, adhering to an outdated broadcast model for a streaming service. But in this case, allowing the show to drag on week after week works in the service of the message. In a media landscape where shows can run as long or as short as they need to, having one that finally shapes its narrative to meet the underlying moral is as timely as the cautionary tale it’s telling.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.