This post contains spoilers for The Handmaids Tale Season 2, Episode 10.[hhmc]
One has to imagine that writing for The Handmaids Tale requires a high threshold for harrowing material. The Hulu drama depicts a world in which sexual servitude is the norm—a world that increasingly bears a surreal resemblance to our own, as the United States diplomatic ties with Canada disintegrate and our government begins routinely separating immigrant children from their parents. But even the most stalwart creatives have limits. According to writer-producer Yahlin Chang, after her colleagues watched this weeks episode—which she wrote—they turned to her and exclaimed, “Youre a monster!”
From the moment it premiered in 2017, The Handmaids Tale has had a deep resonance. The shows creators presumed that their adaptation of Margaret Atwoods dystopian 1985 novel would debut shortly after Hillary Clinton was elected to the presidency—and that their limited series would serve as a cautionary tale about what might have been. Donald Trumps election upended that notion, transforming the series into an upsetting vision of an all-too-possible future. Handmaid dresses became a rhetorical symbol, worn to marches and sit-ins at Congress. By the end of last year, the drama enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as “important” television, with an Emmy haul to match.
Its audience remains riveted; in May, the show was renewed for a third season after its second season premiere drew twice as many viewers as Season 1s. Still, some critics have wondered whether the series goes too far—whether its uncanny, occasionally prophetic mirror image of our own world provides enough meaning to justify sitting through all that misery and violence. Chang, for the record, has heard those criticisms—and has one response to those with doubts: “Its a marathon, not a sprint.”
“Yes, you'll have a dark episode, but were telling a story,” Chang said in an interview this week. “Its like a long novel with lots of chapters. You dont get those huge feelings of triumph and uplift if you dont have some sort of real honest, how-bad-the-world-gets-to-you moments.”
This week, the world got pretty bad for Offred, née June (Elisabeth Moss). After going into false labor and asking to be relocated to the district where her daughter, Hannah, lives, June found herself at the center of one of the series most viscerally disturbing scenes yet: a violent rape in which her Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) held her down, ravaging her body as they so routinely had in the past—but this time without any veneer of ceremony or duty. Later on, June finally got to see Hannah (Jordanna Blake), only to find that her daughter had become a scared, stolid shadow of the happy girl she once knew. Their reunion and their all-too-abrupt goodbye were, in many ways, even more difficult to watch than the rape. Then came the hours final blow: Nick (Max Minghella), who had taken June to meet her daughter in secret, was apprehended by Gilead authorities, leaving June stranded at the house and very pregnant as the snow continued to fall.
There is, according to Chang, a straightforward message to take away from this series and all its horrible events: “Its really wrong to rip children away from their mothers, and its really wrong to rape people,” she said. “With this particular episode, I think, those are two messages I would like to hammer home.” She later expanded on that notion with one more pillar, inspired by Junes remarkable resilience and continued devotion to Hannah: “That loves survives is an amazing thing. . . In a gooey way, its like love is the most powerful force in the universe and love survives. And thats an incredible message. Im going to add that as my third thing I want people to take away: Its wrong to rape, wrong to rip kids from their mothers, and that love survives.”
Though Chang said she doesnt watch much TV outside of this series, she understands concerns audiences may have about exploitative and gratuitous depictions of sexual violence. “But in this show, in Gilead, it is the whole thing,” she said. “Gilead is based on the oppression of women and on systematic rape. So in a way, to honor what real sexual assault victims go through, you kind of need to see, at some point, what is really happening. Lets do it from the handmaids point of view, and whats really happening for her.” And really, as horrific as this particular “ceremony” appears, Chang pointed out that its really no more violent than any of those that preceded it. “It was always that brutal for every handmaid during every ceremony,” she said. “It was always that terrible. It was what was going on internally. And so in some ways, this is the most honest ceremony scene, because Offreds not suppressing how she really feels. The guiding force was to just be really truthful about how she would react, and what would happen. . . The idea was to pull back the layer of bullshit on what this actually is.”
Junes reunion with Hannah was also a difficult scene to craft, though for obviously different reasons. Hannah is at first apprehensive of her mother, then desperate to stay with her when theyre forced apart after just a few minutes. The moment has a fierce, coincidental topicality that gives it additional gravity: its debuting at a time when thousands of immigrants and their children really are being separated at the United States Southern border. We are reminded, once again, that the world being depicted in The Handmaids Tale is not nearly as fantastical as it might seem on the surface. And this is only the most recent time this season has appeared to predict the future; last weeks installment, for example, saw the Commander and Serena Joy embark on a disastrous diplomatic mission to Canada just as the United Statess real alliance with Canada began to disintegrate ahead of Donald Trumps trip to North Korea.
“Its really scary and uncanny,” Chang said. “I mean, I think one writer just totally joked, like, Well, we have to be very careful about what we do in Season 3, because who knows whatll happen in the world?”
So is all of this close-hitting misery worth the toll The Handmaids Tale takes on viewers? Changs description of the series—that its like a marathon—feels apt. Like a marathon, the series can be daunting—and for some, perhaps it is too grueling to endure. For all its darkness, though, the series does still boast a loyal fanbase—which indicates that for all the gloom, many viewers still see the show as something greater than a relentless misery machine. In a way, it can be comforting to watch a character brave the direst of circumstances and survive—not just in body, but in spirit as well. At least, lets hope so. Chang warned that Season 2s three remaining episodes are just as intense as Episode 10—though she promises theyll also contain “great moments of triumph and uplift.” In Season 3, she assured, there will likely be more small triumphs and victories as well. That said, itll still be The Handmaids Tale, so dont expect unmitigated, uncomplicated joy any time soon.
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