The second season of Hulu’s most acclaimed original doubles down on the sex and absurdism in a sea of cringeworthy dialogue and bizarre coded imagery.
THIS DISPARAGING HOT TAKE DOES NOT CONTAIN SPOILERS.
The Handmaid’s Tale (2017- ), season one at least, follows June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) as she struggles to escape sexual enslavement at the hands of an authoritarian government. A not-too-distant version of America, Gilead rounds up select women to become “handmaids,” i.e. slaves to be raped and impregnated by privileged couples. If anything, those first episodes are gripping. Will June escape? Will she ever be reunited with her family? What is going to happen to these poor women?
The second season comes just in time to answer these burning questions, its fourth episode premiering next week. These questions are indeed being answered, just not with the same fire with which they were posed. Instead, the second installment gives fans a tepid, post-racist soundtrack to the social issues of today, coupled with a healthy dose of gratuity in every torturous scene.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of the series is its representation of race. Margaret Atwood’s world of Gilead, its racist histories, cultural failings, and societal hierarchies, are all explicitly based on those of the United States. In this nearby dystopian future, institutional and domestic values have crumbled to nothing but religious zealousness and bigotry, which audiences might imagine aren’t too far from 2018’s America, or, you know, 2018’s Iran or Burma. What is far from 2018, however, is Gilead’s universalized treatment of people of color. In this hell that enslaves queer people and institutionally rapes women, its black citizens are equal to its white. While histories of misogyny and homophobia have translated to this fictional place, race is abandoned, leaving behind a menagerie of white protagonists and their black supporting characters.
They just don’t discriminate, those psychopaths!
The series could have succeeded with a halfhearted explanation for why race isn’t a factor in this foreign land. However, the second season refuses to apologize for that ignorance, instead doubling down on its insensitive treatment of social politics. Instead of creating a space for enriched social commentary, The Handmaid’s Tale is telling a completely fictional story, one whose only relationship to the real world is a reinforcement of colorblind racism and privileged feminism.
Apart from its careless hegemony, the foremost problem with The Handmaid’s Tale is the way it treats its audience. The series began with rousing imagery of protest and rape, alongside thought provoking sentiments about female relationships. Through witty characters and realistic situations, the show quickly built a sound structure in which to talk about grave social issues. But by the end of the first season, that smartness started to deteriorate in a web of supporting characters. Soon, the material from Atwood’s singular novel was stretched too thin, and weak storylines made their way to the frontlines.
What to do, then, when you have to stretch that same novel, those same characters, those same one-liners, through another whole season to keep your young subscribers from abandoning you for HBO NOW?
Season two strives for committed colloquialism with every word. Instead, the fraught pop culture references and gratuitous sex and violence are patronizing. The first three episodes are so desperate for audiences to connect with the plot and characters, those plots and characters disappear behind a veil of butt cheeks and pop music. In the second episode, “Unwoman,” June is rummaging through an abandoned office, seemingly raided by the regime. Among the dead’s personal belongings, including shoes and children’s drawings, photos and unfinished work, she finds a dusty, old, well-loved Friends DVD. June’s reaction to this artifact is a soft smile: a sad acknowledgement of a world fallen.
These moments tether Gilead to the real world and real dynamics of America; a connection that’s especially problematic when paired with the aforementioned post-racism. In the same episode, we’re caught up with June’s friend Emily (Alexis Bledel), who has been punished to a work camp called “The Colonies” for her homosexuality and murderous rebellion. It’s unclear where in contemporary America this slave camp is meant to take place, maybe Kansas or Missouri. In an introductory set of shots, we see mobs of women being ushered onto fields under the beating sun, clouds of dust swirling around them.
The image this evokes, of course, is American slavery. Its creators seem to have taken some care in not paralleling this understanding too much, the captors’ radioactive masks adding a cool sci-fi touch. But the similarities in tone and imagery are undeniable, and they’re uncomfortable. Especially when you remember most of these depicted slaves are white.
The show’s refusal to acknowledge racial histories makes its patronizing appeal to youth audiences all the weaker. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of how contemporary social activists understand the world, feminism and colorblindness included. Hulu had an opportunity with season two to do some self-correction: to resurrect the world they built to comment on the world in which it was created. Instead, it’s chosen to reproduce that real world, in all its privilege and normativities.
The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t entirely trite and condescending, but it’s certainly on the way. Moss still saves the day by selling desperation to viewers who might be too attached to June to quit, even after all the ignorant racial coding. But as we march into the depths of its second season, I worry it can’t hide the white-washed commoditization of social unrest for much longer. As Hulu rolls Handmaid’s down the slope of prestigious television, more young people are bound to catch onto its ignorance.
Taking control of discourses around marginalization to victimize white women and gaslight women of color is so 2015.