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The Diary of a Begrudging Handmaid's Tale Viewer

Hulu's dystopian drama lost grip on its characters long ago. So why am I still watching?
  • Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid's Tale (Photo: Hulu)
    Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid's Tale (Photo: Hulu)

    Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

    The mock Latin phrase has become synonymous with The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s Emmy-winning adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. After finding it scratched into the wall of her closet, the phrase becomes a rallying cry for June (Elisabeth Moss), then known as Offred; she later writes it on her own bedroom wall, and in the Season 4 finale, it appears beside the hanged body of Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes).

    But as The Handmaid’s Tale enters its fifth season, I must face a grim truth: I have been ground down by the bastards at Hulu. After four seasons of rape, slave labor, and Christo-fascist abuse, I have no fight left in me. If I did, surely I would stop watching a series that long ago lost its grip on its characters and burns through plot faster than you can say “Under his eye.”

    It's easy to pinpoint the moment The Handmaid’s Tale jumped the shark. In the Season 2 finale, June — just moments after scrawling nolite te bastardes carborundorum on her bedroom wall — has the opportunity to escape Gilead with her baby, but instead chooses to give the child to Emily (Alexis Bledel) and stay. June’s monumental decision stems from a desire to save her eldest daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake), but cynics can also chalk it up to Hulu’s desire to keep the drama going. If June leaves Gilead, it stands to reason, The Handmaid’s Tale loses its main source of narrative tension, and the series will have to work harder to horrify viewers.

    Still, after June’s ill-advised return to Gilead, the series struggled to chart a new path for its protagonist, who forges tenuous alliances with the Waterfords and Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) while also becoming more involved in Mayday resistance efforts in Season 3. Her spirit breaks, her resolve strengthens. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    Save for June’s successful mission to liberate dozens of children from Gilead, it’s not until halfway through Season 4 that something shakes The Handmaid’s Tale out of this frustrating cycle. Finally (blessed be the fruit!) June makes it to Canada, where she reunites with Moira (Samira Wiley) and her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle). But like a rash that just won’t go away, June can’t leave Gilead behind: she becomes obsessed with seeking justice — or what she deems “justice” — against her abusers. What should be a catharsis for both June and the audience instead feels like yet another retread as the series finds new ways to tether its main character to a past she’d be better off leaving behind.

    Though Moss continues to give impressive performances through it all, The Handmaid’s Tale’s recycled plotting affords her character little opportunity to develop. Since choosing to remain in Gilead at the end of Season 2, June has become a woman defined by her determination to save her child, even if it requires adopting a “the end justifies the means” mentality. This identity has subsumed all else, rendering her a hero devoid of any specific character traits or idiosyncrasies — and one largely unfamiliar to viewers, at that.

    June isn’t the only character who seems to have collapsed under the weight of The Handmaid’s Tale’s five-season run. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) began the series as a sinister foil for June, but more recently she’s become trapped in a painful pattern of her own: she’s injured in a June-organized rebellion, only to miraculously survive and dole out punishment to June and the other handmaids involved. Around we go, with Lydia becoming more cartoonishly villainous each time.

    The same can be said for Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), whose motivations have become increasingly murky with every passing season. She clearly still believes in Gilead’s religious values and social mores — which she helped develop — despite being reminded again and again of her inferior status. As with the rest of the series, Serena’s journey has been two steps forward, and one step back: she realizes the harm Gilead is doing and even acts out against it, only to revert back into wife mode when rebellion is no longer convenient. This song-and-dance is only tolerable for so long, and at a certain point (perhaps when she lost a finger?) it strains credulity to believe that a woman so confident in her own abilities would continue to uphold a system designed to subjugate her.

    Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 offers more of the same. Repetitive storylines and questionable character arcs run rampant across the first few episodes of the new season, which follow June as she deals with the fallout of murdering Fred. Meanwhile, the widowed Serena Joy attempts to raise her profile by working on behalf of Gilead in Canada, as Aunt Lydia’s relationship with Janine (Madeline Brewer), once again a handmaid after failing to escape with June, becomes more complicated.

    None of this is new, so why am I still watching? Five seasons in, watching The Handmaid’s Tale has become an act akin to doomscrolling, the modern experience of compulsively searching for and absorbing negative news.

    As the world crumbles around us — as a vocal minority of Evangelical Christians strip away our reproductive rights; as Republicans ban books about racism and LGBTQ+ issues; as states like Texas investigate the loving parents of trans children — it’s hard not to feel that the United States is slowly becoming a real-world Gilead. In a twisted way, this hyperbolic sentiment strikes at the heart of The Handmaid’s Tale’s enduring appeal. Sure, our current political and social situation might be a nightmare, but it could be even worse, I say to myself, as I press play on another episode.

    Is this sick comfort enough to justify watching 10 more episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, plus a recently-announced sixth and final season? Probably not. But after the last few years we’ve had, I’ll take what I can get.

    The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 premieres Wednesday, September 14 on Hulu, with new episodes dropping weekly.

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    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Madeline Brewer, O-T Fagbenle, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski