Every TV series has an ideal length, story-wise, just as most people have an ideal weight, that number at which they feel healthiest and most themselves, regardless of other people’s opinions.
One show whose length perfectly matches the potential of its story is “Fleabag”; the two-season tragicomedy tracks the titular character’s period of grief and guilt, then ends, despite its popularity and, undoubtedly, some big-money offers to return for a third round. Another show is “Breaking Bad,” which fully realized its arc of character transformation, then split.
And another show is NOT “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which returns to Hulu for its fourth season on Wednesday. As with “Dexter” and “Homeland,” the dystopian drama has exceeded the natural lifespan of its story, as it plows forward with nothing new to say, tinkling cymbals and sounding brass. In 2017, “The Handmaid’s Tale” instantly became one of TV’s best dramas, revelatory in its portrait of a country — now called Gilead — where misogyny had become a brutal way of life whose features include rape, hangings, forced pregnancy, and the weaponization of religious dogma. The cold beauty of the cinematography and production design added to the claustrophobic horror.
That was then, this is now: “June Osborne, Wonder Woman.” The first four episodes of the new season continue to undermine a critical element in the world of the show — that the abused women of all classes are in a life-or-death situation. If they don’t abide, they will be hung on The Wall, murdered for all to see; or maybe they’ll just lose an eye. And yet June, whose slave names have been Offred and Ofjoseph, seems to survive in one piece well beyond reason. A known rebel who has singlehandedly caused all kinds of upheaval and resistance, she nonetheless outlives every mortal threat, and there have been many. She’s not just Wonder Woman; at times she’s Wile E. Coyote, walking out from under an anvil or a metal safe once again.
Watching the new batch of episodes, I began to think of “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a genre series, and not in a good way. If it had ended after just a season or two, it could have been a concise and sharp tale; less would have been more, the points all clearer and more powerful for having been made only once or twice. Now, the show has become another one of TV’s never-ending stories, another “Homeland,” where seasons are crammed with action-adventure filler, as June runs from one safe house to another, always escaping from seemingly inescapable situations.
In one scene in the new season, she mutters “Make me proud” as she urges a young woman to take violent action — and it plays like a trailer catchphrase for the next superhero movie. Like a big-budget movie, the show now leaps from one tense set piece to another, with cliffhangers strewn along the way. It’s a roller-coaster of sorts, complete with cheap thrills and fake close calls. Rather than a nefariously ingenious nightmare world, one that frighteningly reflects off of the real world, the Gilead of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is now starting to seem more like Gotham City.
By the time I reached the third episode of the new season, I remembered all the criticisms of the show’s excessive violence, and I had to concede. The show seems to fetishize June’s punishments, as she is repeatedly beaten to within an inch of her life, actress Elisabeth Moss spewing her fury and her tears on demand. Early on, the torture of “The Handmaid’s Tale” felt as though it was in service of the vision of a country driven to objectify and hurt women. It was there for a purpose, to show it to us in all its ugliness and pain. Now the torture often seems gratuitous, deployed simply to keep viewers watching — and watching through their fingers. When June gets water-boarded by a jolly man who’s trying to extract information from her, it’s just too silly. And I didn’t ever entertain the possibility that this might be her last stand.
I can’t even pretend that season four is leading to a denouement, finally. The show has already been renewed for a fifth season, which only means so much more suspense-filled vamping is heading our way.
The same thing happened to “Dexter,” as the serial killer also became absurdly invincible and uncatchable after a few seasons. The same kind of plot repetition set in, and Dexter, too, morphed into a kind of one-dimensional superhero. One of the great benefits of TV storytelling is the ability to stretch out, to deepen characters over time. Alas, time is one of the great misfortunes of TV storytelling, too, when a series becomes a hamster wheel. Showtime’s 10-episode revival of “Dexter” is due this fall, by the way.