One of the most dynamic elements of a dystopian movie or TV show is the revelation of its particular view of the future. It’s future shock.
As we first see each piece of the writer’s vision of what the world has become, as we initially witness the twisted technological developments and planetary shifts that have left us in apocalyptic jeopardy, a bleak spell is cast. We compare this brave new world to our own, drawing connecting lines from our current situation to the ugliness onscreen. We stare at the spectacle of where we might be heading, each evolutionary element — look what happened to democracy, look what happened to the family, look what happened to the economy — a new jolt.
The power of reveals gave the first season of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” a lot of ballast. As each aspect of Gilead appeared, from the enslaved women being forced to wear red dresses and white coifs to the grim wall where LGBT people, freedom seekers, and abortion workers are hanged, it was fascinating and upsetting. We saw exactly how “The Ceremony” worked, with Elisabeth Moss’s June, Joseph Fiennes’ Fred, and Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena together on the bed, a sanctioned rape featuring a chilling complicity between husband and wife. Even if you’d read Margaret Atwood’s novel, there was still the blow of seeing it all visually realized. These human behaviors, an integral part of the new world of Gilead and yet recognizable, provoked all kinds of intellectual commotion and dread.
But as “The Handmaid’s Tale” heads into the end of its third season, with the finale available on Aug. 14, all of those revelations have become old news. We’ve been in Gilead for a long time — and it feels especially long since each hour of the expertly drawn nightmare feels like two. We understand too well that this patriarchy, with its Old Testament rationales and militarized dictatorship, is toxic and cruel. We see with abundant clarity how environmental crises can lead to unexpectedly profound problems such as infertility and a dying population.
Now, alas, the story is about keeping June alive for yet another season (the show has already been renewed for a fourth round). It’s about dodging the fact that she would have been hung up on that wall a very long time ago for her many, many infractions; some around her, including the Martha named Frances who was executed recently for directing June to her daughter’s school, have died for less. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is now about maintaining momentum and conveniently ignoring some of the rules of the corrupted country that creator Bruce Miller and Atwood before him crafted so perfectly. The award-winning, popular show must go on, even if the storyline suggests otherwise.
I can’t say “The Handmaid’s Tale” has gone down the tubes, because it’s still compelling TV. The episodes are objects of dark beauty, as the cinematography speaks its own language of unsettling colors and provocative framings. In combination with the costumes and the décor, both of which harken back to early periods of sexist torment, the cinematography is among the finest I’ve ever seen on TV. If you asked me which show I would watch even with the sound off, it would be “The Handmaid’s Tale.” From the facial expressions — or, worse, when a handmaid’s expressions are blocked by a mouth guard — to the fearful symmetry of the camera shots, the show is a premier visual statement.
It is also an embarrassment of rich acting. I’ve gone on many times about Moss, who continues to make each moment in June’s life painfully real. And I find other cast members equally unsettling, including Strahovski and Ann Dowd, whose Aunt Lydia has become a symbol of religious malice. As the addled wife Eleanor Lawrence, Julie Dretzin has been remarkable this season. These acting turns maintain my attention, and often wow me, even when, as with the character of Serena, their motivations don’t always make sense.
But story is the prime mover on scripted TV, and on “The Handmaid’s Tale” it’s broken. Now June is taking on a new task, beyond saving herself and her older daughter. She wants to save many children, her version of the Kindertransport rescue efforts during the Holocaust. The writers appear to be moving her into a traditional kind of resistance heroism. But the thrill of the show is gone, and to me, it has all felt like narrative strain since the middle of the second season. I’ll still watch, and enjoy and admire the quality work as the seasons continue, but with an eyebrow firmly raised throughout.