How THE HANDMAID’S TALE Failed

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The Handmaid’s Tale television series was a brilliant adaptation of the Margaret Atwood dystopian classic and it quickly became a hit for Hulu. When it used up all its source material in the first season, I was skeptical that it could maintain its quality, but season 2 became equally as potent after managing to get over a major hurdle that I still feel was almost unforgivable, but you often overlook flaws for things you enjoy so I did forgive it. Season 2 ends with another shocking cliffhanger of OMG I can’t believe this is happening, how will this resolve itself! And then comes season 3, hot off the presses, where it quickly reveals that the writers of this show are so far removed from their source material that they are literally panicking and pulling ideas out of hats, saying damn it all to in-world rationality or continuity, they’re just trying to stay alive, much like their main character.

As such, I am here to give you the unfortunate news, The Handmaid’s Tale has become a parody of itself, so terrible in its execution it is almost unbearably bad and I find myself wanting to turn it off out of sheer disgust with how far removed it is from the quality of the first season. I just don’t see how Hulu can spend so much money on something and not realize it is a flaming turd pie. So, we have to ask, what the hell happened? What went wrong? And I am about to tell you.

The Handmaid’s Tale believes its sole audience draw to be Elisabeth Moss, and thusly the character she plays in Offred. They have put zero comparative substance behind the importance of the actual story in doing so. I am not sure why this is the case, if it was some sort of contractual obligation they made in error, or if its just pure writerly incompetence, but placing the burden of carrying material on one character is almost always bound to fail because it undermines the core principle of any successful fiction: the element of dramatic tension. It’s not impossible to do it of course, it can be done, but the plausibility of it remains dependent upon the world in which the action is taking place. Gilead is a dystopian nightmare of a setting. The writers did an excellent job building this world, showing us how it came to be, and shocking us with its brutality and horror for the women who live there. It’s sad how much this world became a metaphor for the current struggles of women in the real world, but it is a testament to the power of fiction that this message is conveyed so powerfully. So, to break down this horror as succinctly as possible, this is a world where women are routinely raped, forced to be completely submissive to men, forced to have children for the aristocracy, and then shuffled off to other houses to get more rape and forced birth. Any women who are seen to disobey the system are brutally beaten, scarred, maimed, and even killed. We have seen dissenters stoned to death, hanged and left to rot in public, tied to cinder blocks and dropped into swimming pools to drown, and of course, shot to death. The punishments for defiance are so strictly adhered to that we have even seen a Commander have his own wife lose a finger for simply displaying she knows how to read. With all this monstrous level of inherent danger from the establishment, survival is always in question, which is a perfect source of dramatic tension. But if you push it too far, the tension begins to break down. They have pushed it too far.

The unforgivable sin that I allowed myself to forgive from season 2 was basically a reset of the show’s premise back to square one. When Offred defied her captors and escaped only to be reunited with them after giving birth to their contractual child, the show ignored all the previously set-up systems of brutal consequence for defiance, and allowed Offred to survive where we had seen many others be executed for much less versions of insolence. And this was after another bait-and-switch from the beginning of the season, where June (Offred) was made to believe she was about to be executed, only for it to be a scare tactic. So the writers are proving that they are themselves afraid to kill their main character, and each time they retreat from doing it, the audience gets less emotionally attached to the consequences of her actions. She begins to shine with that wonderful plot armor of invincibility. And it also becomes apparent that the writers are clueless about how to handle these characters beyond the premise they were originally given.

With the beginning of season 3, the writers take this notion of plot armor and push it beyond any reasonable realm of plausibility for the world they have created. Offred becomes so untouchable her very existence in the show is a metaphysical shark jump, done ad infinitum. Her character escaped the Waterford house AGAIN. This time she STOLE THEIR CHILD. She gave their child to another handmaid who actually took it to CANADA successfully. She then, through a series of awful edits, gets inside the house where her older daughter is living, has an awful conversation with the woman of the house about her child, and allows herself to be captured AGAIN. This moment is the turning point. The show could have went so many directions. But what do they do? Inscrutably, they allow Offred to survive AGAIN. To be placed with another house AGAIN, where now she can somehow help RUN THE RESISTANCE. This show is bullshit.

The character of Offred should’ve died, many times over by now. Without her death, any further action from that character is completely absent of emotional worth. Her character has been so traumatized, nothing she goes through at this point has any weight. We’ve seen her raped. We’ve seen her lose multiple children and friends. We’ve seen her unmercilessly beaten, physically and emotionally. And yet, somehow, after she is placed into her new house, the worst thing that happens to her in one episode is she gets humiliated by a man. Give me a break. Her character is now laughable in its seriousness. And the show itself takes on an aura of self-parody, with every scene more grim and dark than the last. But without the weight of emotional distress in the audience built from and balanced upon the fulcrum of dramatic tension, it starts becoming unintentionally funny. I just throw my hands up and laugh. This season has already almost killed four main characters, only to walk it back every time. Even an old woman, stabbed in the back and thrown down a flight of stairs, shows up only needing a cane to walk. Sigh.

If they would have executed Offred, her role as martyr to the resistance could have carried so much more value and substance. The story could have shifted to the people who escaped in Canada working to dismantle the system in her honor, and to one of the other handmaid’s that Offred knew and inspired, taking up her cause in her memory. It could have given the show’s tag line so much more credibility for this season: BURN IT ALL DOWN. Yes, but burn it down for Offred, someone who fought and died to show you all how it could be done, and the price you have to be willing to pay in order to do it. Without that death, actions in the show are proven to have no real consequence, and characters are shown to be in no real danger. It becomes the fictional equivalent of a hamster in a wheel, and one has to wonder how long an audience will sit and watch it spin.

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