In entertainment, when does empathy become exploitation?
The most chilling scene in the early new episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale comes when a 15-year-old Econowife, Eden (Sydney Sweeney), shyly tells June (Elisabeth Moss) that her new husband refuses to lie with her. June gently explains that she should be patient, that the strangeness of the arranged marriage is hard for her husband, too. “I can’t wait,” Eden replies. “It’s our duty to God.” Then her face hardens. “What if I don’t? What if he can’t?” She wonders if her husband is a “gender traitor,” a crime that carries a death sentence in the theocratic Republic of Gilead.
During the scene, the camera lingers—as it tends to do in The Handmaid’s Tale—on Moss’s face. The shock for the viewer comes as June processes what Eden has said, and what it implies. June’s affect beforehand is sisterly, treating the teenager with a gentle kind of authority. But over the space of a few seconds she realizes how dangerous Eden is—that her devotion to Gilead’s regime could spur a man’s execution in a heartbeat. The moment is quietly terrifying; its menace comes from what isn’t shown or said, but what’s left to viewers to imagine.
It’s also a kind of subtlety that’s rare in Season 2 of Hulu’s Emmy-winning drama, at least in the first six episodes made available for review. If the new installments of the show have a theme, it’s a question: How much can a woman suffer before she breaks? Season 1, like the Margaret Atwood novel the show is based on, meted out its horror in glimpses, or via intangible ideas. There were a handful of references to the events that led to Gilead’s repressive dictatorship—a sudden plague of infertility in the U.S., the emergence of a Christian reconstructionist movement that staged a military coup. Before June became Offred, the fertile handmaid assigned to bear children for a Gilead commander and his wife, she was warned that refusing meant being “classified as an Unwoman, sent to the colonies.” No additional detail was provided regarding what the colonies were. Given that June chose reproductive slavery instead, none was needed.
The second season, though, goes there. The colonies are nuclear wastelands in which women perform backbreaking work digging through irradiated ooze for hours each day, while being shocked with cattle prods if they slow down. At night they cough endlessly; everything, including their drinking water, is contaminated; their fingernails fall off and their teeth fall out. Their skin gradually becomes covered with sores. They work and they work and they work until they die. There’s none of the visual relief of the Gilead scenes, with their patterned emerald wallpaper, floral arrangements, and Vermeer-like portraiture. The colonies are an ugly, dusty shade of mustard.
Watching Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale is a much more grueling experience than watching Season 1, which is an odd thing to say given the freshman series featured ceremonial rape, torture, and state-mandated female genital mutilation. Despite all this, the first 10 episodes of the show made for captivating television. They had a kind of strange, otherworldly beauty, much of which came from the series’s attachment to June’s perspective. Her interiority was the key to the show, felt in those endless close-ups of Moss’s face, and in her narration. The director Reed Morano, who helmed the first three episodes, largely defined the visual palette for The Handmaid’s Tale, which played with light and color in Season 1 to create a distinctive, eerie world.
Season 2 is jarringly different. For one thing, it plays out mostly in darkness. Characters run through pitch-black corridors with torches; they feel their way through cavernous warehouses in the middle of the night; they hide in the backs of trucks with only slats to peek through. If light defined the prison of Gilead, darkness presents opportunity. At the end of the first season, a pregnant June was bundled in a van by armed guards and taken to an unknown destination. In the first scene from the second-season premiere, she’s sitting in that van when a window opens between her and the driver, flooding the back with light. June looks at it, hopeful. Then it slams shut, leaving her in the gloom.
The darkness isn’t just literal. Without spoiling any of the major developments, which feature a number of early twists, June and her fellow handmaids suffer. They endure psychological violence, physical violence, and emotional violence, in addition to the routine sexual violence upon which Gilead is founded. They’re tortured and maimed. They scream, and they bleed. And they suffer in flashback, too, as Bruce Miller, The Handmaid’s Tale’s showrunner, builds out the story beyond the novel to examine how Gilead came to pass.
There came a point during the first episode where, for me, it became too much. And that was before the show even visited the colonies, an all-female genocidal labor camp. The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t glamorizing atrocities against women, exactly, or sanitizing them in the way that Game of Thrones or other prestige dramas might sanitize rape. The brutality is the point—the show wants us to experience the logical extension of institutionalized misogyny and theocratic governance. “This is painful for me as well,” Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) tells a handmaid in one moment. “But only in suffering will we find grace.” The Handmaid’s Tale probes this statement like a decaying tooth, exposing how rotten it is. This suffering is vicious and visceral. There’s no grace to be found.
The question is, is it necessary? The mission of the first few episodes in the new season seems to be to communicate how hopeless life is for the handmaids, and for everyone in Gilead who doesn’t support the regime. Any kind of resistance is swiftly and mercilessly eradicated. And as Eden demonstrates, the younger generations have been completely indoctrinated into the system. The first five hours of Season 2 offer little more than relentless misery, and they lean more into horror as a genre than the first season did, layering gory imagery on top of trauma on top of despair. “This place is hell,” Emily (Alexis Bledel) says in one scene, and it’s hard to argue with her.
There’s a unique kind of tension when a show whose message is so explicitly feminist (even if no one involved wants to actually use that word) depicts so much violence and brutality against women. For one thing, the series is doing it to prove a point: This is what happens, it says, when women are deprived of reproductive freedom, autonomy, votes, choices. There are people all over the world who are sold into sexual slavery, or forced into child marriages. The shock of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it makes you see all this happening not in theoretical countries far away but at home, on your own doorstep, to women with jobs and daily lives just like your own.
But as the first season showed, it’s possible to do all of this without such explicit, repetitive violence. Viewers don’t need to see Janine (Madeline Brewer) having her eye cut out; the sight of her omnipresent wound is shocking enough. The most compelling scenes in the new season are the ones that explore how exactly Gilead took over America, and that draw on contemporary events and figures with eerie relevance. Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), the wife of June’s assigned commander, for instance, is shown in flashback to have been a divisive campus speaker in the manner of a less trollish Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter. But these moments are few compared to the continual, nightmarish depictions of abuse.
Part of this comes down to timing. When The Handmaid’s Tale debuted a year ago, the shock of the recent presidential election and the momentum surrounding the women’s marches only made the series seem more electric. But the endless revelations that have emerged since October about abusive men in the entertainment industry and beyond have felt wearying in their range and detail. The task for a show like this one is to offer not just more of the same, but some sense that women have the capacity to enact change. It’s highly possible The Handmaid’s Tale will do just that in the second half of the new season, but there’s an awful lot to endure before we get there.