2018 has been strong for horror, but some of the year’s most disturbing moments have been found in this dystopian Hulu series, not the cinema.
“Few times I’ve been around that track; So it’s not just gonna happen like that…”
2018 has found a certain comfort in mining terror from a very personal, familial place. Films such as A Quiet Place, Hereditary, The Strangers: Prey by Night, and even more have decided that one of the scariest ideas possible is when an innocent family finds itself in trouble. While there have been many examples of this idea getting explored to success in various horror films from this year, truth be told, the strongest example of this is from the second season of Hulu’s dystopian drama, The Handmaid’s Tale. The season’s final few episodes, in particular, manage to be far more disturbing and terrifying than any other piece of horror that’s out there this year. Those that have been on the fence about checking out this series and are searching for a new way to stab your soul full of holes, look no further than the overbearing second season of The Handmaid’s Tale.
For starters, the beginning of the season includes a wealth of trauma like terrorist bombings, assassination attempts, genital mutilation, and psychological and physical torture, but the final episodes are a true exercise in what humanity can endure. The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale has thirteen episodes as opposed to the ten that comprise the first season and it’s sure to make each of these three episodes count in a significant way. Things get worse and worse in each passing entry, almost intentionally so, in order to show the audience just how far society can plummet.
During these final few episodes of the season, I felt significant dread and even nausea at times when working through them. It’s a visceral experience that I haven’t felt from something other than Martyr(s) or A Serbian Film, which is saying something. Some might argue that it’s not worth watching something that becomes so depressing or is such an emotional gauntlet, but these episodes make the audience feel nearly as overwhelmed as June and company are within the series. It’s an overwhelming experience that’s not easy to pull off and while the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale has become so brutal that it’s led to many fans jumping ship, those that have stuck around have found themselves part of quite the personal, aggressive series.
The final episodes of the season really go for broke, as if they’re trying to push the audience over the edge and see when they’ll break. All of the material from these final installments touches on various degrees of jaw-dropping horror. It’s hard to decide what’s worst here. There are two fifteen-year-olds who are drowned to death because they’ve found “forbidden” love together. Another character gets her finger cut off because she suggests Bible scriptures and more lenient policies for life. In spite of her having the support of the bulk of the women in Gilead and being the wife of a Commander on top of that, she’s still not immune from amputation. Her wedding ring sits coldly on a bureau drawer now because its finger is gone.
The miracle of birth is also transformed into a twisted ceremony in various ways. At one point June gets aggressively raped (while another woman holds her down, no less) as a flimsy excuse to induce birth. Later on, the terrors of giving birth alone and unprepared are explored, with the episode really playing into the pain and struggles of something like this. And if that wasn’t enough there’s also a tacked on threat that involves a preying wolf and a very pregnant woman that obviously doesn’t turn graphic, but the threat is very much teased and a nice touch of some more visceral horror. While men are not immune to danger and humiliation in Gilead, it’s interesting to note that the majority of these horrors do happen to center around the female gender.
Furthermore, so many characters just snap this season, both those that are at the bottom of society and those that are in control of it, as if to point out that this twisted system is finally causing a crack in what humanity can handle. Even the “pros” are calling for mercy and the fracture lines are starting to show in what was supposed to be a paradise.
On that note, we’re at a point where a fourth Purge film has just come out and a television series based on the morally corrupt “holiday” is on the way, but The Handmaid’s Tale presents an even more terrifying dystopian alternative to the Purge’s universe because there is no end to what it proposes. The Purge may be more unrestrained, but Gilead is definitely more vindictive and traumatizing. The Strangers: Prey at Night and the upcoming Halloween see ordinary people victimizing ordinary people for no other reason than being there, but in Gilead the victimizers are living with the victims and making the rules. They don’t have to wear masks because all of this is sanctioned. This has been present since the start of the series, but the show’s second season, particularly the final stretch of episodes, turn up the psychological mindfuckery and deliver some of the most grueling emotional “torture porn” I’ve seen in years.
Both Hereditary and A Quiet Place looked to families as a source of its horror, which is also certainly a common theme shared within The Handmaid’s Tale. As effective as these two films are, The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t have to resort to supernatural forces or aliens to generate its terror. They are both incredible horror films, but something that’s even more frightening than an unknown monster is a human being that is convinced that their evil beliefs are gospel. The reveal of Serena’s missing finger or Eden’s execution are arguably more frightening than anything in A Quiet Place and while Hereditary may ultimately be scarier in content, but the message present in The Handmaid’s Tale is a much more disturbing, bleak alternative.
It’s also important to give credit where it’s due to not only Elisabeth Moss, who gives such a raw, ugly performance, but also Yvonne Strahovski whose character especially goes through the wringer this season and in many ways is an even bigger victim than June. She loses a child just as much as June does, so to speak. Additionally, Jeremy Podeswa directs the ninth and tenth installments towards the end of the season and he has credits on True Detective, Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and Dexter, but the directors at work on The Handmaid’s Tale are not traditionally horror directors. Perhaps this is why they’re able to cut to the core so effectively and make this material have such impact. They’re not operating with typical horror sensibilities and because of that, the series moves with a stark, unpredictable terror that can strike at any second. Friends turn into enemies within seconds on this show and every character is only as good as they are in that current moment.
While all of the pain that’s present during the end of this season may seem a little over the top, it’s debatably necessary in order to push June to the places where she needs to go for the greater good. She could have had her happily ever after and yet she chooses to stay in this haunted house. She prolongs her exposure to this horror in Gilead, but after these characters have been to hell and back, it feels like next season will have to get easier. The great thing about horror is that it has a tendency to make its surviving characters feel invincible and like anything is possible. The end of The Handmaid’s Tale’s second season might be the best horror from 2018, but hopefully, season three of the show acts as one of the big inspirational dramas of 2019.
June and company are well overdue for a break.