Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2. Catch up with our weekly reviews of previous episodes here. Not seen Season 1? Click here to see where you can watch it online.
At what point does unflinching TV simply become unpleasant? When is depiction of cruelty just a form of sadism in itself? That’s the unspoken problem The Handmaid’s Tale faces with its second season. After straying, necessarily, from Margaret Atwood’s book to continue the tale of June’s resistance against Gilead, the initial concern about Hulu’s drama returning was that it would lose the eerily prescient edge of something written decades ago, in favour of something more explicitly pointed at, and born out of, the current state of society. But more problematic is the degree to which the series could easily slide into routine torture. As Aunt Lydia warned in Season 1, this world’s brutality would soon become normal – but what does that make us for watching this normality week in, week out? And what does that say about the writers trying to embellish, expand and draw out this normality for maximum dramatic effect over 10 episodes?
It’s a niggling question brought to the forefront after the conclusion of last episode, which teased us with the hope of June escaping by plane, only for her craft to be grounded, severely, and have her kidnapped and whisked back to Gilead. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here, the series once again seemed to be telling us – but we’ve already heard that before.
Ann Dowd remains impeccably imperious as Aunt Lydia, who triumphantly details the fate awaiting June upon her return to Gilead. She has a choice, she explains: either go back to be a Handmaid for the Waterfords, or be chained to a bed and then killed after the birth of her child. June, naturally, chooses the latter – and with it comes the removal of her name once more, replaced by the moniker Offred.
The result is grim re-immersion into a world we thought we had finally left behind – and a familiar beat of abuse and exploitation starts to drum in the background. It’s even worse this second time, as Offred has to willingly choose to enter into this slavery, opting not to fight, just in order to keep herself alive and be able to fight in the future. Even the narrative of her leaving, fleeing the regime, is replaced by a more palatable story: Offred, the Commander, tells the world, was kidnapped by rebels, but their Handmaid has been safely, miraculously returned. Blessed be the fruit. And Gilead’s armed forces.
Behind closed doors, though, there’s no pretence: Serena is viciously vengeful, almost strangling Offred as she threatens her never to leave or resist her authority again. And yet Offred is able to remind her that she should not be harmed, as it might harm the child – and that if Hannah (June’s daughter) is harmed, Offred can’t guarantee the same won’t happen to their baby.
What makes this episode work is that shifting power dynamic – and Yvonne Strahovski and Elisabeth Moss elevate each other’s performances to magnetic heights. Moss glowers quietly at her owner, while Strahovski manages to be weak, empowered and desperate all at once – a combination that gives way to scary displays of anger and resentment. Watching the two negotiate control over the situation is agonisingly tense; Serena insists on Offred being excluded from a baby shower, but forced to watch, as they all celebrate the eventual theft of the child forced into her, while Offred delights in announcing to them all that she has felt the baby kick, reminding them that she is the one with the intimate knowledge and experience of the pregnancy. “Do you need to take a break?” offers Aunt Lydia, as the baby shower descends into seriously awkward territory. “I’m having a great time!” comes Offred’s snarky reply.
Offred, though, is facing control of her body being wrested away at every hour of the day – no sooner has she woken up than she’s ordered to drink a vile green liquid for digestive reasons, leading to an uncomfortable vomiting scene. Lydia, though, just mixes a new drink. Later, she instructs Offred to wash all of her body in precise, private detail. At the same time, Offred’s support network is wiped out, as the other handmaids distance themselves from her – and have no choice but to do so, to save their own skins. Ofglen blanks her, her tongue cut out for speaking out against Ofwarren’s stoning, Mayday has gone silent, and Rita returns Offred’s letters and refuses to help.
Lydia takes this opportunity to drive her final weapon home, taking Offred to see Omar’s corpse, now hanging along with Gilead’s other punished outlaws and rebels. Omar’s wife, it turns out, is now a Handmaid. Their child? Given away. The family’s fate, Lydia insists, is her fault, as is the fate of Ofrobert, of Ofglen, of Mayday. But, crucially, it’s not the fault of Offred: June is the one to blame. It’s a bleak, harrowing piece of psychological abuse, as Lydia reinforces the identity of Offred upon her prisoner, using guilt to drive out the last remnants of June. Why be June, weighed down by that blame, when she can be Offred, blessed by God and free of guilt? It’s a choice, again, that doesn’t leave Offred with any options, and we leave her as she hides in the closet in the Waterfords’ house, reciting the words “my fault” to herself over and over.
When she comes out of that closet, June is no more. It’s a bleak, grim, powerful piece of television. But after 14 hours of bleak, grim powerful television, The Handmaid’s Tale finds itself starting to lose its impact – or, more accurately, finds its nastiness become mundanely familiar. It’s perhaps intentional, as the show immerses us in the endless normality of Offred’s existence, leaving us to resign to her fate as much as she does. But that only leaves a new question facing this second season, especially with a third run already commissioned: where, exactly, can the show go from here?
Episode 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale is available on All 4 until 3rd July 2018. New episodes are broadcast on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9pm.