We’ve reached peak bleak. At least I hope we have. Just when we thought the 'torture porn' and general dystopian heaviness of The Handmaid’s Tale’s second series couldn’t get any more full-on, last night’s episode was about all my poor nerves could handle. Between sexual assaults, bloody eyes and point-blank shootings, it was the most narratively dense episode yet, to my mind.
It’s not easy watching, but it’s still a surprise that it’s received such vehemence that people are switching off. Judging by recent commentary, the main reason for the turn is because it’s too damn relentless. Every escape plan is foiled, every kindness from the Commander is a leverage, and those who smell freedom have their nose cut off. As series two moves beyond the relative safety of the Commander’s house and into the wider world, the season holds a broader set of weapons against June and the handmaids. And of course, it’s gone from a self-contained book adaptation with a beginning, middle and ending to a drawn-out endurance test, much like the 1980s animation of Dungeons & Dragons ("JUST GET THE POOR KIDS HOME!" I used to shout at the Dungeon Master / telly) or (for a more contemporary reference) The Walking Dead, where we know redemption isn’t just around the corner as long as the viewing figures are high. Considering a third series of The Handmaid’s Tale has already been confirmed, it's unlikely this series will hold the satisfying conclusion we hope for.
But what a show to step away from. Pausing our thoughts on the grisly subject matter, the specifics of the show make it a thing of beauty: so lean is the script that aspects like the cinematography, pace and soundtrack are dense with meaning, and the acting is a masterclass in how microexpressions can turn an entire interaction on its head. Bravo Elisabeth Moss, once again.
And any accusation of too much 'torture porn' is surely overstated, most likely as it’s a rhymey, pithy phrase (exactly why I used it in the opening paragraph). With a more level head, let's consider how else they could play out a show about ritual rape and intimidation of women without portraying, well, ritual rape and intimidation of women. It’s far from gratuitous, especially as the dystopia is depicted through state-sponsored male dominance as much as more subtle tortures: the drop of a knitting needle from a superior, the granny pants no one would choose, the removal of the right to decide if you’re hungry.
Even at its goriest, it's no worse than other high-stakes dramas. The scene in which we hear Ofrobert's terrifying screams as her hand is burned for the handmaids' insolence mirrors the Game of Thrones horror of Mance Rayder being burned at the stake – only the audience accepted Mance’s torture; Ofrobert’s was deemed too much.
Admittedly, her punishment hits a particular nerve when real life hot topics include the US withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council, one MP’s obstructive stance on upskirting, abortion rights that are nonexistent in Northern Ireland and regressing in the States, and children being torn away from their families and kept in prison-like camps. So yes, mulling over society’s worst case scenario isn’t the gentle end-of-the-weekend comedown we’re seeking.
That really hit home when Serena revealed a game-changing nugget in between her religious waffle: in pre-Gilead America, healthy births had dropped by 61% in 12 months.
"The future, and the future of mankind, depends on what we do today," she yells.
Of all the wince-worthy, stomach-knotting happenings this episode, this was the most alarming. It suggested that at the start, she had an irrefutable basis for the madness that followed. It doesn’t make it right, but that’s a startling statistic, and one which seems less unbelievable IRL than many other things that have happened over this past year.
(Then Serena’s shot right in the womb and, once again, we have a better understanding of her subsequent actions.)
It’s important to keep watching precisely because it hits so close to home. We are Mayday right now and we have, for the most part, the democratic freedom to protest and make noise and push against whatever small but significant repressions come our way. This patriarchal society isn’t too far gone that we can’t effect change if we stand up for ourselves – ask Ireland’s steely Repeal campaigners for starters. With the determination of real life heroines like them, and fictional ones like June, I hope that we are all fired up enough to keep shouting until we get the society we want. The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t depressing; it’s another call to arms we need. It’s time for tough love.