WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Have you ever been deeply impressed by a new friend, who dazzles you with their cleverness, their sophistication and their amazing depth of insight, only to have them betray you by hitting such a bum note that you decide it’s time to move on?
That’s the way I was left feeling after last night’s deeply divisive season two finale of SBS’ dystopian series, The Handmaid’s Tale.
The first season, based on Margaret Atwood’s iconic feminist novel, was by far the TV highlight of last year. In fact, nothing else even came close to this show’s ability to arouse intense emotions, and simply leave viewers gob smacked as we navigated a totalitarian future through the experiences of sex slave Offred, played by Elizabeth Moss.
Such was the emotional punch of the first season, that most of us were left begging for more – and hopefully a compelling resolution – following an ambiguous ending that promised either Offred’s escape from slavery, or perhaps a fate even grimmer than the one she had already suffered.
But there were no such feelings from me last night following a season two climax that saw Offred decline the chance to escape totalitarian Gilead, handing over her newborn baby to a departing escapee, possibly to return to the house in which she had been imprisoned, tortured and raped.
Yes, after relentlessly trying to escape her fate over two emotionally fraught seasons, Offred had declined a chance at liberty, apparently in the hope she could rescue her older daughter, who had been snatched from her by the fascist state.
At that moment I felt like a mouse that had been tortured by a cat – one of those cruel moments when the feline lets the tormented rodent go, only so it can jump on it again.
How many times now have we seen the prospect of escape brutally snatched from Offred? And now she’s got the chance to go, she declines it.
This felt like a betrayal, and a negation of two seasons of struggle.
And what’s more Offred asked for her new daughter to be called Nicole. That was the name given the baby by Serena Joy (played by the excellent Yvonne Strahovski), a character who had sadistically participated in Offred’s dehumanisation and rape.
Is it really believable that after all Offred had been through, that she’d have any sympathy for Serena’s trivial wishes?
Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale has been one of my favourite shows of the year so far, but now that it’s wrapped up and we see where all of its various threads were heading, it’s time to concede that as good as it was, it wasn’t a patch on the first.
Let's face it, The Handmaid's Tale told its full and complete story in season one – a story that covered the entirety of Atwood’s book.
The second season is charting unknown territory, and it’s not clear the writers have a clear road map.
Serena’s sudden journey from sadistic, hardline ideologue to sympathetic figure was the biggest bum note for me.
This is the woman who just a few episodes ago participated in a particularly brutal rape, and who for two seasons has enthusiastically supported a social order that tortured and executed thousands of people, exiled them to toxic wastelands and treated fertile women as little more than livestock.
Now we are expected to believe she has had a change of heart about her beliefs, despite apparently being one of the architects of the dystopian hellscape that is Gilead.
A recent, uncharacteristic act of rebellion against her husband saw her horribly beaten and humiliated. And having been fully aware of the punishment inflicted on other women for reading, she then openly defied the law and was apparently shocked when her finger was cut off.
The late-in-the-day defiance shown by Serena and some of the other Wives might have served a narrative function, but seemed more than a bit off-key after all these women had done in the very recent past to uphold a brutal and deeply oppressive system.
For a show that has until now never relented in its frank depictions of human evil, in a scenario deeply informed by real life events, this narrative change also struck me as dishonest.
Very recent human history has no shortage of examples of people who have betrayed the interests of their class in pursuit of ideological purity, or simple personal advancement. Serena and the Wives who support the Gilead system were a reflection of reality, and one perhaps that some people don’t want to acknowledge for too long.
Last night’s episode was a definite turning point for The Handmaid’s Tale. The point at which an AAA-list show simply became another high quality B-list show.
In a sea of awful television, The Handmaid’s Tale remains a beacon, but it’s no longer beyond reproach, no longer the highest watermark.
And years of seeing great TV shows go off their game has taught me one thing – when they stop excelling, it’s probably time to move on. I’m getting out of Gilead.