Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and HBO’s Game of Thrones are two shows that have something in common: they both overtook the source material and set out bravely on their own. The end of Game of Thrones season 5 marked the point at which showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had reached the end of the books that George R.R. Martin had written so far, and The Handmaid’s Tale reached the conclusion of Margaret Atwood’s book (minus the 200 years later epilogue) at the end of season 1. But while Game of Thrones has been criticized for spending the last few seasons rushing through plot points to get to the finish line, The Handmaid’s Tale has the opposite problem; without a roadmap from Atwood, and with an inherent need to maintain the status quo, the show is treading water.
The season 2 finale, in which June decided to stay behind in Gilead and let Emily leave with baby Holly/Nichole, was controversial but promising. June had recently been reunited with her first daughter, Hannah, who was now several years older and not initially overjoyed to see her mother. During their brief time together, Hannah asked June why she hadn’t tried harder to find her. In light of that exchange, it made sense that June would refuse to let Hannah down a second time by leaving her alone in Gilead.
However, while this finale set up a third season where June would be desperately trying to get Hannah back, much of season 3 has been preoccupied with a rather tedious custody battle as the Waterfords pressure the Canadian government to return baby Nichole. Hannah, meanwhile, has barely been seen, and has now been taken out of reach once again after June’s ill-thought-out attempt to visit her at school. A subplot about June helping to organize the resistance within Gilead – arguably the most interesting new element introduced this season – has also been neglected. It’s little wonder than viewers are feeling frustrated.
The general fan consensus is that Game of Thrones began to decline in quality once it left the books behind. Martin gave Benioff and Weiss key plot beats so that they would know how to end the series, but there wasn’t the same wealth of source material to draw on. Easily the most maligned season of the show was the eighth and final season, which was just six episodes long and wrapped up not only the story of the encroaching army of the dead, but also the Game of Thrones itself – with Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow heading south to fight one last battle against reigning Queen Cersei Lannister.
Speaking to Variety last year, Martin was asked why the show was ending with season 8, and replied that “we could have gone to 11, 12, 13 seasons, but I guess [the showrunners] wanted a life.” The author elaborated, “[Benioff and Weiss] have been saying for like five years that seven seasons was all they would go, and we got them to go to eight, but not any more than that.” Not only did the showrunners insist on wrapping things up within eight seasons, the final two seasons were also shorter, with season 7 having just seven episodes and season 8 a mere six.
This meant that the conflict between the living and the dead (which had been building since the very first scene of the very first episode) was wrapped up in a single episode, the conflict with Cersei Lannister was wrapped up in two episodes, and everything else – from Daenerys Targaryen’s madness to the question of who would sit on the Iron Throne – was dealt with in the season finale. While there was certainly foreshadowing in the series for Daenerys’ eventual fall, many felt that the execution was extremely rushed, with Daenerys going from putting her entire army on the line to protect the people of Westeros to slaughtering women and children en masse in the space of a couple of episodes. The showrunners had a clear map of how the show would end, but effectively took a shortcut to get there.
In the epilogue of Margaret Atwood’s book it’s revealed that Gilead does eventually fall, though June’s fate is left unknown. As mentioned above, everything before the epilogue was covered in season of The Handmaid’s Tale, and showrunner Bruce Miller has said that he’s roughly sketched out ten seasons of the show – a prospect that may be daunting for fans who are already feeling fatigued by the plot. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Miller said that he might consider portraying the fall of Gilead and its version of the Nuremberg Trials in the final seasons, but anything like that is still a long way off:
“My arc is still very much the arc of the novel, which is the arc of this one woman’s experience in Gilead at this time, and her recollections that paint this picture of what it was like and what the experience of this world was like, which really is still the book. People talk about how we’re beyond the book, but we’re not really. The book starts, then jumps 200 years with an academic discussion at the end of it, about what’s happened in those intervening 200 years. It’s maybe handled in an outline, but it’s still there in Margaret’s novel. We’re not going beyond the novel; we’re just covering territory she covered quickly, a bit more slowly.”
On the one hand, The Handmaid’s Tale‘s portrayal of oppression by a cruel and totalitarian government is fairly realistic; June suffering in impotence under threat of death, torture, or being sent to the colonies is easier to believe than her single-handedly leading an army of revolutionaries to topple Gilead. On the other hand, a character suffering under a relentless, inescapable status quo doesn’t necessarily make for good television. The idea of June still being a handmaid beholden to a commander, still separated from her family and still limited to whispered conversations in grocery stores as her main act of rebellion five or six seasons in the future is exhausting to think about. Serial drama tends to rely upon moving the story forward, but already The Handmaid’s Tale is going in circles.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Serena Waterford’s characterization. A complex and fascinating character in the first couple of seasons, Serena managed to both inspire fierce hate and reluctant sympathy, as audiences came to realize that she was a victim of the world that she had helped create. At the end of the season 2, Serena made the momentous decision to let baby Nichole escape so that she wouldn’t have to grow up in Gilead. However, in season 3 Serena has backtracked after being allowed to visit Nichole, and is now once again Fred’s accomplice as the Waterfords work to undo season 2’s climactic and defining moment.
The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 hasn’t been completely without merit. There has certainly been some powerful imagery, such as the Washington Monument’s conversion into a cross, the destroyed Lincoln memorial, and the horrifying site of handmaids who have been silenced by having rings put through their mouths. But whereas Game of Thrones season 8 rushed from one earth-shattering change to the next, The Handmaid’s Tale is stuck in the mud.
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