Season two ends this week with more woe for our captive heroine Offred (the extraordinary Elizabeth Moss), and although I watched the finale in an office on a computer screen, it still left me wrung out like a dishcloth. Good luck if you’re watching at home in a darkened room.
But come on, if a show’s chief writer is planning ten seasons’ worth of plot, what does that say to those of us following a drama week-to-week? I think, broadly, it says “sod you”.
If a great big plot arc is sketched out for 100-plus episodes, the writers’ priority is to eke it out. This has become, for me, a bit of a snag in the age of long-form television (see also Homeland, Lost).
In any given episode, progress on the overall story has to be carefully rationed. So, generally, not much happens for a while, then there’s a nasty shock – in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, that tends to mean a female character is beaten or maimed – and then things subside again.
Shocks, often coming near the end of otherwise quiet episodes, take the place of plot, because plot is a currency the writers can’t afford to spend. The trouble is, that also means we can sense when they’re bluffing us.
There was a key episode earlier in this run where a pregnant, vulnerable Offred found herself alone at a remote, snowy mansion, with no guards around. She found a car in a garage: she could make a break for the Canadian border and freedom!
Except, we sort of knew she wouldn’t. Because that would short-circuit the bigger story, which requires that Offred be kept in captivity in the doom-filled household of Fred and Serena Waterford. Or at least, it has done until now…
There are a rush of developments in Sunday’s finale that suggest the treading water we’ve seen through much of this season might be over. I hope so: the second series of a show that has been a huge hit can often be rocky (see Homeland again).
And at its best The Handmaid’s Tale is a bit special. It stirs up a particular mix of emotions, a sort of dread/loathing/deep sadness at whatever the latest abomination is that Gilead’s misogynist masters have dreamt up.
In one horrifying scene last week, Eden, the devout 15-year-old girl who had rebelled against her arranged marriage, was ritually drowned. It was incredibly powerful drama.
But if the show keeps substituting set-piece horrors like that for progress in the main story, I’m not sure how much more I can take.