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Home»Features»The Handmaid’s Tale isn't 'provocative', it’s 'exploitative': Decoding the series’ dissipating appeal after historic Emmy loss»

The Handmaid’s Tale isn't 'provocative', it’s 'exploitative': Decoding the series’ dissipating appeal after historic Emmy loss

After its cracking debut in the Emmy Awards in 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale has made yet another history, by losing out on every single trophy it was nominated for this year at the Emmys. Here’s looking at the sophomore slump that hit the second season and refused to leave. 

The Handmaid’s Tale isn't 'provocative', it’s 'exploitative': Decoding the series’ dissipating appeal after historic Emmy loss

  • Pratishruti Ganguly

Last Updated: 06.13 AM, Sep 21, 2021

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The Handmaid’s Tale, available on Amazon Prime Video India, has set the record for the most number of Emmy losses in one year. Incidentally, the show was nominated 21 times at the Primetime Emmy Awards, nabbing the third-highest number of nods, only behind The Crown (with 24 nods) and WandaVision (with 23 nods). The Handmaid’s Tale has also successfully dethroned Mad Men, which picked up zero trophies in 2012 after being nominated 17 times.

The dystopian drama earned nominations in several major categories, including outstanding drama series and lead actress, both of which were collected by The Crown (Olivia Colman took home the prize for Best Actress).

This is the first time in the history of Emmy Awards that The Handmaid’s Tale has been unable to earn a single trophy at the awards. Incidentally though, it became the first streaming show in 2017 to collect a statuette for the Best Drama Series honour, with Hulu besting bigger players Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

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There were many reasons why this feminist dystopian drama, based on Margaret Atwood’s provocative 20th century novel of the same name, generated the kind of buzz that it did. It was definitely not the sight for sore eyes – the series was unflinching in its portrait of June/Offred, the protagonist and one of the many women in a totalitarian, Christian fundamentalist state called Gilead, who are forced to a life of servitude by producing children for the rulers. The show steadfastly adhered to Atwood’s landmark novel, diluting none of the horrors unleashed on the women to cushion the blow. It was also a star-making vehicle for Elizabeth Moss, who went on to produce as well as direct a few episodes of the show.

Critics argued that the realities depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale reflected the conditions of the US under Donald Trump’s presidency. Atwood herself termed it as “a documentary” on Trump’s US-led by a flagrant misogynist whose speeches were coloured with religious fundamentalism. It served as a cautionary tale for America where women protestors hit the streets with slogans like “The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instructional manual.” It hit too close to home in a country where women were quickly losing autonomy over their own bodies in light of the abortion laws.

Actor Stephen Kunken, who essays Warren Putnam in the series, explained in an interview the parallels he observed with the US. He remarked how lawyers helping people enter a country mirrors the desperation of Gilead residents. Not surprisingly then, the first season of 10 episodes received 13 Emmy nominations and won eight.

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But the tides began to change by the second season itself, when many writers dubbed the show to be “misery porn” or “torture porn” once the show derailed from Atwood’s source material by the first season finale. The relentless depiction of torture and pain, with little to no promise of escape, the second season was exhausting.

From tongue slicing, executions, gagging and shackling, The Handmaid’s Tale felt like gratuitous cruelty. What the first season successfully did – channelled years of simmering anger and frustration towards a regime designed to silence women at will – offered hope and catharsis through June in the concluding scenes of the show. The second season plummeted into almost fetishizing torture as Offred is yet again dragged into Gilead for a fresh dose of abuse. Further, the second season was three episodes too long – something critics have attributed to making the sophomore instalment even more harrowing than expected.

By the third season, The Handmaid’s Tale had almost steered its narrative towards a cat-and-mouse chase template, with Offred/June’s attempts to escape thwarted again and again. June’s decision to ship off her newborn to Canada while herself staying back at Gilead appears self-sabotaging rather than valiant. Thus, even when she is supposedly resisting fascist forces, she is ultimately going through the wringer of being tortured and resisting and tortured again without any sign of respite.

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Atwood’s novel focused more on survival than staging a revolution. It was about women finding ways to navigate in a totalitarian state that marginalised them as less-than-human. But with every passing season, The Handmaid’s Tale felt like a fiercely nihilistic doomsday tale. Dismembered bodies, nail-ripping, electrocuting, eye-gouging, harrowing childbirth episode where characters almost bleed out – the show felt like doomscrolling especially during a time where the world is grappling with a ravaging pandemic for over one-and-a-half years.

The fourth season, which debuted in April this year, is arguably tamer than the earlier seasons, and many commentators have touted this season as the show’s resurrection. The one criticism that the show was inherently masochistic with plotlines, and never seemed to move forward, was addressed this season – as the main characters were seen finally leaving Gilead back. Here, showrunner Bruce Miller foregrounds June’s transformation from the tortured to the rebel – and boy does it feel satisfactory.

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Even then, The Handmaid’s Tale lost much of its viewership during the second season itself, as viewers claimed the show was too triggering and nearly exploitative in its treatment of women. While the first season justified its horrors by posing a social commentary that seemed more relevant than ever, the subsequent ones appeared more horror for horror’s sake than posing anything remotely optimistic. HBO’s smash hit Game of Thrones suffered a similar fate, when it decided to move away from George RR Martin’s source texts. Despite these responses, the show has been renewed for a fifth season. Hopefully, now that June has scratched the surface of systemic oppression, the following seasons will not be as emotionally grating as its former counterparts. Or so one can hope.

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