With only so many hours in the week to devote to television, certain shows just get the axe. The latest show in that category for me in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Sure, the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel started out great in season one. The roles were well cast, the script was top notch, and the world-building conveyed a sense of dystopian dread. What’s more, Season Two has those elements too. The problem isn’t in the execution, the problem is that the show just doesn’t reward continued viewing.
I want to be clear, I don’t mean “reward” as in happy endings. Here is what I mean:
1. The main character has no agency
With due respect to Elisabeth Moss, who does great work on the show, June is not a compelling protagonist. If conflict is the essence of good storytelling, there has to be potential resolution to the conflict. The person “versus” themselves, another person, society, or nature needs to engage the conflict. Win or lose, the conflict needs the potential to end.
June, on the other hand is trapped. Season two has doubled down on this, teasing the audience with potential resolution before snapping back. She’s a mouse stuck in a maze. It’s an elaborately constructed maze, but even so, after watching for a while, you just feel bad for the mouse.
2. The antagonists aren’t compelling
There’s a scene in season two where Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) literally twirls his mustache. That about sums up how deep the antagonists’ motivations run. We get it: they’re monsters. Maybe that’s good enough for a two hour horror movie or even one season, but that just isn’t good enough for a multi season story.
The antagonists are played by fine actors, and the characters can be interesting. Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia seems to revel in torture at times, but care about her charges at other times. Still, that’s about as deep as it goes. One character contradiction does not make the character an interesting villain.
3. The antagonists always win
The triumph of the antagonist is not a flaw by itself. It is, however, a flaw when the antagonists are bulletproof. Even a hurricane lets up eventually.
Now, I heard the antagonists were set back in a recent episode that I didn’t watch, but I’m not convinced that the show is capable of setting them so far back that it undoes their invulnerability up until this point. In fact, undoing Gilead too hastily would be almost as bad as making it nearly invincible.
4. It’s the human misery hour
What’s the worst outcome you can imagine? That’s what happened on The Handmaid’s Tale. That’s not an inherent flaw: The Wire was often bleak and so is Game of Thrones. The problem is that it’s the same story over and over.
Men are murdered. Women are enslaved or murdered. Sometimes there’s torture. Rinse and repeat. It’s too repetitive, and repetitive misery borders on misery for misery’s sake.
In conclusion, if I want to watch a dark series, I’d rather rewatch The Wire or Breaking Bad than continue with The Handmaid’s Tale. So I’m done with it. So long, Gilead, you horrible monstrosity.
(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe