I Can’t Watch 'The Handmaid’s Tale' Now: It’s So Brilliant and Relevant that I Can’t Stand It
Hulu released the latest episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Wednesday, as it does every Wednesday, and this one, titled “Holly,” may be the best of the second season. Elisabeth Moss’ performance absolutely blazes across the screen, and Kira Snyder’s script brings out the best of her emotive capabilities with what it shows us as opposed to it relatively reduced amount of, at least in the scenes taking place in the fearsome alternate present of Gilead.
“Holly” is a piece where the power is sourced in visual symbolism as opposed to verbal. The entirety of “Handmaid’s” can be described that way, but here, in a spare and cruel winter landscape where Moss’ Offred/June finds herself unexpectedly abandoned, her predicament and that of all women in Gilead is laid out in scenes where she struggles to open doors that are locked to her.
Or where a car understood to symbolize classic American muscle cannot break free of the blank strongbox in which it is imprisoned. But before all this, to demonstrate how dire the moment is at which she’s arrived, she comes face to face with a hungry wild animal.
“Holly” may be one of the finest hours you’ll encounter in serialized entertainment this week and honestly, unless you’re already subjecting yourself to the second (and still quite excellent) season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” I cannot recommend that you watch it.
That goes against the purpose and the very essence of my job. Episodes of the caliber of "Holly" are the reason television criticism exists, especially episodes as fecund with symbolism and considerate staging as this particular one. In ordinary times, I would positively go off on this episode.
But did you catch the news yesterday, and the day before that? On all the days in recent memory? Shameful as it is for a TV critic to admit that she simply can’t bring herself to watch any outstanding drama, or to wholeheartedly recommend this one to people wondering what TV is worth following these days, I am a human being barely treading water in a news cycle chronicling The Darkest Timeline.
And current events — actual real world happenings — are inching toward meeting up with early days of the dystopian nightmare that is Gilead much more than a woman like me is comfortable with. To anyone battling Trump fatigue, the offer of being further sickened and drained by our entertainment just feels unnecessarily cruel.
This is not the fault of its producers or Margaret Atwood, who wrote the novel upon which it’s based decades ago. On the contrary, the fact that binging the second half of the season on Tuesday led me to crawl into bed and sleep for 10 hours straight indicates how potent and artistically brilliant Atwood's vision, and how this series realized it, happens to be. Two thumbs up, seriously . . . although if this were Gilead I might not have thumbs, since the punishment for being a woman caught reading is the loss of a finger.
Hitting the bull’s eye of relevance in evil times is a tough business for a scripted series like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” especially given the fact that there is no other series like it on TV.
Only weeks ago a New York Times columnist was making a case for redistributing sex – as in, compelling women to sleep with men who aren’t getting any — as a preventative measure against acts of mass violence. It is tough to read that, to absorb the fact that it ran in one of the nation’s top newspapers, and then turn to a scripted drama about a society that not only officially sanctions rape but sanctifies it in an act known as The Ceremony.
Lest the viewer forget what The Ceremony actually is a recent episode, “The Last Ceremony,” includes a violent version intended to punish the victim and reaffirm the aggressor’s power.
The same episode also included a subplot depicting the psychological toll suffered by children ripped away from their parents which, like every other storyline this season, was written months before President Trump’s excessively punitive immigration policy came into being. That gives “The Last Ceremony” a vitality and a grimly coincidental relevance.
On the other hand, that bone-chilling audio of toddlers in detention centers crying out for their parents, and photos of children of tender age sleeping in pens under what looks like foil are also circulating. A day or two after they were released to the public, they were all but inescapable.
They are real. They are the news. Want to watch a fictional version of that again during your downtime, only this time starring the actress formerly known as Peggy from “Mad Men”?
Now we have Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision backing the right of unlicensed “crisis pregnancy centers” in California to refuse to dispense accurate information about how to obtain and abortion to their patrons.
The state legislature contends that 200 centers in the state employ “intentionally deceptive advertising and counseling practices that often confuse, misinform and even intimidate women from making fully informed, time-sensitive decisions about critical health care.”
Which they do. Many news outlets have reported on the harmful lies “crisis pregnancy centers” dispense to women regarding the safety of abortion and contraception. Monitoring the outrage about it on Twitter is akin to submersing one’s head in a bucket of screaming for hours and hours.
But even if you don’t do that — wise decision on your part, I commend you — which would you rather wind down with at the end of the day: a Handmaid screaming her head off in the frigid darkness, with nobody around to comfort her or, I don’t know, a comedy?
With regard to option B, the viewer has a number of options enabling her to remain informed that won’t necessary require asking her doctor to up the potency of her depression meds.
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” each devoted in-depth, well-researched segments to shedding light on the deceitful practices of “crisis pregnancy” centers in past episodes. The details shared in those episodes are miserably depressing, but Oliver and Bee, like other late night hosts, deliver these terrifying facts with the considerate anesthesia of comedy.
Whereas every time I watch an episode of “Handmaid’s” I find myself instinctively crossing my forearms to shield my ovaries from seeing a possible glimpse at what could await us in 2019, should America come Under His Eye even more that it is now.
And in truth, although late night comedy and satirical news programs have felt like comforting allies and necessary anchors to sanity over the last 523 days, a few have crashed against the limits of Trump Fatigue.
Case in point: Thursday marks the final episode of “The Opposition with Jordan Klepper,” which occupied the timeslot following “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” for less than a year. Klepper’s series was meant to be the fake conspiracy news counterpart to Noah’s news-centered comedy. The only problem with that is that out-buffooning conspiracy clowns requires a sharpness and a Stephen Colbert-level of inflated parody that Klepper simply couldn’t match. To put it another way, the Alex Joneses of the world would seem funnier than Klepper if they weren’t actually dangerous, if powerful people weren’t still legitimizing their poison.
Comedy Central president Kent Alterman pointed to another equally important factor in the decision to end “The Opposition”: the reasons for it to exist, primarily Jones and Steve Bannon, are not as much in the spotlight or in headlines as they were when the show premiered in September 2017. “It’s really Trump front and center,” Alterman told Deadline, which broke the news. “It was a combination of looking at how the landscape has changed a little bit differently from what we anticipated,” and, he continued, capitalizing on Klepper’s strengths.
So for the time being, “The Opposition” will have no current events-based equivalent in its post-”Daily Show” timeslot. Eventually Klepper will return with a weekly show that capitalizes on his skill as a field-based correspondent perhaps, fates willing, in better times.
If we make it to that place that is. If we do — when we do, let's remain positive! — maybe then more people will be in a frame of mind to appreciate "The Handmaid's Tale" for the artistic tour de force that it is. A third season is on the way, which is good news for the iron-willed who are addicted to it and those of us who will ourselves through the drama. Hulu doesn't release ratings, but the series won the top Emmy for its first season and there's no reason to believe it won't rack up plenty of nominations for season 2.
And the creators of "The Handmaid's Tale" are quite aware of the agonizing nature of the piece of art they're sharing with viewers. “I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story,” Offred/June says to her unborn child at one point, but recalling all she's shown us, and everything she's endured, that may as well have been directed as the exhausted viewer bearing witness.
Apology accepted, by the way. The show is simply too amazing to withhold forgiveness for the additional distress watching it may cause. In turn, perhaps you'll forgive those of us who delay taking it on for a little while.