To call the opening of season two of The Handmaid's Tale "shocking" would be an understatement. The Handmaids in June's (Elisabeth Moss's) city are brought to an undisclosed location, their mouths covered with restrictive harnesses. Aggressive male soldiers violently push the women from point A to point B, screaming at them to stay in line. Eventually we learn they've been taken to an abandoned baseball field now filled with nooses. The fear on the Handmaids' faces is palpable. When those nooses are placed around their necks, their fear becomes absolute terror.
But it's all a scare tactic. The Handmaids aren't killed; Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) just wanted to browbeat them back into submission. (They "rebelled" against her in season one's finale by refusing to stone Ofdaniel.) It was a reminder that Gilead's power structure is primitive, tyrannical, and brutal—and if they "disobeyed" again, the hanging might actually happen.
This all unfolds within the first 10 minutes of season two, and the violence only escalates from there. In one scene a Handmaid is forced to place her palm over an open stove flame. Minutes before this we see another pregnant Handmaid chained to a bed. In episode two we learn about the Colonies, a prison where infertile, "disobedient" Handmaids are forced to dig holes in toxic soil. The women are also routinely electrocuted, dismembered, and, in some cases, subjected to genital mutilation.
A lot of gruesome activity happened in season one, but it went up several notches for season two—so much so that think piece after think piece argued The Handmaid's Tale had descended from necessary political commentary to pure "torture porn." Many viewers agreed:
Their feelings are certainly valid. After all, season one managed to scare the hell out of everyone without the seemingly gratuitous violence. Instead the showrunners used psychological manipulation to paint a picture of this dystopian world—one where women are stripped of their rights and everyone who isn't a white, straight, cisgender man is persecuted. A world that, when you think about it, could easily become our own if we're not vigilant. This is what The Handmaid's Tale aimed to convey, and it worked—without making viewers overtly squeamish.
But what if The Handmaid's Tale wants to make its viewers squeamish? Sometimes I think it should. Some of the horrors the series highlights actually happen in the world, even now. The abortion bans taking place in the United States right now make it feel like women's rights are slowly chipping away. So maybe a show like The Handmaid's Tale—with all its painstaking "torture porn"—is exactly what we need to see to wake up and take action.
"I do not see it as any type of porn," one viewer posted to Facebook about the series' more gruesome moments. "These things are happening across the world and not seeing it does not make it go away. It is meant to make us disgusted and sick and hopefully we learn what an oppressive government is capable of. We should feel frightened by it."
"What's happening in The Handmaid's Tale isn't torture porn to every nation," another fan wrote on Reddit. "If it's fantasy and 'far from happening,' be thankful that it feels that way too, because it's a reality in so many nations around the world that people would always turn their backs against."
One fan posted an entire Twitter thread about why The Handmaid's Tale isn't needlessly graphic:
So is The Handmaid's Tale truly too violent, or is it simply holding a mirror to what the world is and could become? One thing is certain: If the show continues on this path of violence, it has to lead somewhere. There has to be a payoff, preferably in the form of June burning Gilead to the ground. With everything going on in the world right now, it'd be nice to see that too.
Season 3 of The Handmaid's Tale starts on Channel 4 Sunday 8th June.