The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ used to feel provocative. Now it’s just exhausting.

Elisabeth Moss as June, left, and Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia. (Hulu)

There’s a scene in the newest season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” (be warned, vague spoilers and many trigger warnings ahead), in which a character has a cloth placed over her face, and while watching it I thought, What’s next? Waterboarding?

And then, yes! It was waterboarding.

By then, the episode had already included a grisly fingernails-and-pliers scene. The character had already been locked in a box and hit in the face and shamed and berated and gaslit. What else was left?

A show that began four seasons ago as an exploration of life under a fictional patriarchal theocracy now, in Season 4 — premiering Wednesday on Hulu — sometimes feels more like an extended game of Bad-Libs:

[Child bride] encounters [man who participated in her gang rape] while plotting to destroy [underground sex-trafficking ring], which is naturally run out of [swanky erstwhile country club].

It’s not that the show was ever easy viewing. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is based on Margaret Atwood’s classic feminist dystopian novel about “handmaids” who are forced to procreate for high-ranking men and their infertile wives. The translation from page to screen made the details all the more disturbing. It was one thing to read about stomach-churning sex ceremonies and ritualized rape. It was another to actually see a woman resignedly lift her skirt.

Still, the early seasons maintained a strong sense of purpose well apart from the shock of violence. We followed one character (June, played by Elisabeth Moss), learning about the routine she followed and the household to which she had been assigned. Much of the horror was left to the imagination, often to great effect. The most chilling scenes were sterile flashbacks in which the handmaids trained for their futures as rape victims — dozens of women sitting through classroom lectures where the curriculum is government-sponsored sexual slavery.

Actors Elisabeth Moss, Madeline Brewer and Bradley Whitford on April 22 recounted how their series "The Handmaid's Tale" evoked a variety of emotions from them. (Video: Justin Scuiletti/The Washington Post)

It was about jolting the political conscience, not kicking viewers in the gut with depictions of sadism. The idea was to force us to confront the hows and whys of its dystopian premise. Why would America have allowed itself to be replaced by the Republic of Gilead? How would the new theocracy maintain control? Why are people motivated to see their own depraved actions as necessary? How does the unspeakable gradually become normal, and once it does, how does a society ever come back from that?

The new season seems more interested in the what: What’s another way that women could be terrorized? What are some more ways after that? Have we had any scenes set in crisis pregnancy centers yet, where a woman seeking an abortion is pressured with scare tactics to keep an unwanted pregnancy? No? Okay, let’s throw one of those in. What about reappearances from villains who no longer serve the plot, but the actors are so great we can’t bear to fire them, so we just make them more cartoonishly evil?

Nothing is left to the imagination. We see it all.

The go-to defense for “The Handmaid’s Tale” has always been that it’s only reflecting reality. Women are raped, women are trafficked. In interviews, Atwood has said that all of the violence in her book had historical precedent; she kept files of news clippings and source material. But as the umpteenth bad thing happens to the jillionth sad woman, a viewer gets less wrapped up in the story itself and more in the ethics of watching it at all. When are we learning, and when are we leering?

I don’t mind violence on television. I don’t mind violence against women on television, when it’s used to illustrate something profound about who we are as a society.

I do mind it when the viewer most likely to get something out of the show is a serial killer jotting down ideas for his vision board.

Part of the issue here is that our protagonist, June, has become defined by the traumatic things that have happened to her, and her bravery has become defined by how she, alone, can kick trauma in the gonads. She is trapped, she escapes; she is attacked, she fights back. There are bombs, there are missions carried out under hails of gunfire. She lifts her red handmaid’s hood like a superhero’s cape, she glares into the camera and lives to fight another day.

It’s inspirational, and it’s exhausting.

When a woman’s pain is presented as the most interesting thing about her, her story line requires the pain. So it is with June, who during the first three seasons turned down multiple opportunities to escape to Canada. The stated reason is that she needs to remain in Gilead to search for her older daughter; the real reason seems to be that the show might not know what to do with a liberated June. Recovery isn’t as cinematic as struggle. It’s messy and slow and doesn’t often involve doing a hero’s run away from the exploding Capitol of a totalitarian regime.

Maybe my current frustration with “The Handmaid’s Tale” is that the show is giving us waterboarding scenes while other scripts move the conversation about women, violence and society into new areas. In “Promising Young Woman,” Carey Mulligan’s Cassie tries to avenge her friend’s sexual assault in a way that ends up exploring issues of guilt and culpability, in a way that shows how even a righteous desire for vengeance can erode the soul. In the world of that movie, bravery has absolutely nothing to do with how many discrete traumas episodes a character can endure, or even whether she survives in the end.

In HBO’s “I May Destroy You,” an aspiring writer spends the entire season unpacking and repacking the night of her sexual assault in a bar, trying to remember it, make sense of it, and understand what it did to her. In the show’s final episode, she envisions multiple different versions of confronting her attacker — some of them outlandishly vigilante-ish, some of them poignant and radically compassionate.

Those stories showed me something I rarely see on-screen: worlds where violence against women was a starting point but not the main point. Where women moved on, or didn’t, when the violence was over. Where the leading women were interesting for reasons other than the fact that they’d been victimized by terrible men.

Toward the end of the Season 4 episodes of “Handmaid’s Tale” made available for review — I watched seven, and seriously, the vaguest of spoilers — something happens to June that puts her in a different spot than she’s been in for the bulk of the series. She is finally in a place where she might be able to recover, and I found myself wondering — would the show let her? Would the remainder of the series do the hard work of showing June at rest? Or would she again throw herself into a lion’s den?

The thing is, whether your show is a sci-fi dystopian drama, a dark revenge comedy or a prestige limited HBO series, it’s actually not difficult to concoct scenes of women in peril.

It’s much harder to come up with scenes of women being left alone.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit