Taking the dystopian tale beyond the confines of Margaret Atwood's novel was a bold move, but it has paid off handsomely, writes Karl Quinn.
The most fascinating thing about season two of The Handmaid's Tale (SBS, Thursdays at 8.30pm and On Demand) is the way it takes the story beyond the narrative confines of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel by mining the non-narrative elements of it.
There were many who thought a second season was a travesty, given how fully the series realised Atwood's terrifying dream of a totalitarian woman-hating state. What more was there to say, they not unreasonably wondered (though one obvious answer lies in the coda to the novel, set in a time after Gilead's collapse – who doesn't want to see that happen).
Those naysayers must be positively aghast, then, at the recent news that Hulu has ordered a third season, due to air next year. But at the halfway (or near enough) mark of season two, I'd say those fears are misplaced.
The storyline has been expanded by opening out – to take in the unmitigated horror of the Colonies, the muted hope of Canada – and by going backwards, to explore the pre-conditions that allowed Gilead to arise in the first place (including the collapse of academic and press freedom, and intolerance at either extreme of the political spectrum). And much of this "new" material in fact has its clear roots in Atwood's novel.
The book doesn't take us to the Colonies, for instance, but they do loom large in its consciousness, in much the same way as Room 101 hovered in the mind of Winston Smith in Orwell's1984 long before it became real for him. A place where the very worst thing you could imagine happens.
In season one the Colonies were a mere whisper, but this time around we are there, and they are as promised: a toxic, post-envirogeddon wasteland worked over by grey-smocked women whose every swing of a hoe brings them closer to the painful end. As one-eyed former handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer) says to Emily/Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), "we come here, we work, we die". Or as Ofglen herself says, "this place is Hell … we're cows, being worked to death". Gulag, labour camp, prison – call it what you will, the Colonies are where the State exercises its control with the heaviest of hands.
The mind is where it does its work with a little more subtlety, and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) – a frightful hybrid of Stalinist apparatchik and Catholic nun – is feverishly chipping away at Offred (Elisabeth Moss), whose failed escape has terrible consequences. She, of course, is untouchable because of the precious cargo she is carrying, a child the Waterfords will claim as their own, though it was in fact fathered by their driver Nick (Max Minghella). But those around her are less safe.
Aunt Lydia offers a way out of the all-consuming guilt that flows from this conundrum: renounce the recently reclaimed pre-Gilead identity of rebellious (ie, independent) June Osborn and reside instead in the bosom of the State as the dutiful Offred. It's a bargain with the devil she has little choice but to accept.
This season throws back, too, to an often-overlooked aspect of Atwood's novel: its interrogation of the unintended consequences of a hardline strand of feminism that demonises the sexualisation of women. It's not a huge leap from there, the book suggests, to the demonisation of women's sexuality.
"You wanted a women's culture," the book's Offred said in an imaginary conversation with her activist mother, another who'd been sent to the Colonies. "Well, now there is one. It isn't what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies."
No question, showrunner Bruce Miller and his team – which includes Atwood as consulting producer – took a risk in expanding things, but they've succeeded brilliantly. Season two is a triumph, and that's no small mercy.
Let us be thankful, and pray they keep it up.
Karl has been a journalist at Fairfax Media since 1999, in a variety of writing and editing roles. Karl writes about popular culture with a particular focus on film and television.
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