'The Handmaid's Tale' exploits the power of a good backstory in a way 'Euphoria' and 'Stranger Things' don't
Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' is a rare exception that uses a character's backstory to great effect unlike other shows with an over-reliance on social tropes
Television history was made when millions of viewers finally realized to their horror why the gentle giant of 'Game of Thrones' Hodor had repeated that nonsense word for so many episodes. The seminal television moment revealed the power of a good backstory.
Origin stories have been a popular storytelling device on television for a long time. Done well, they can define a character's traits in the audience's mind or retroactively explain a character's actions.
The writers for Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' are clearly up to the task if the recent Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) backstory episode is any indication. Fans have always been curious about Aunt Lydia's past. Had something horrible happened to her to make her the monster she is?
By the end of 'Unfit', the eighth episode of Season 3, you get what demons drive her and why she is perfect for her role, policing handmaids in the Republic of Gilead. The episode revolves around an incident that reveals who she is. When she is feeling vulnerable after being rejected, Lydia is ashamed. Ashamed of being alone and ashamed at having tried to end that loneliness. This is when she snaps and redirects all that shame towards Noelle (Emily Althaus).
You realize that her warped morality and judgment stems from her envy of mothers who, in her assessment, haven't 'earned' the happiness that she herself has been denied.
The backstory could easily have become a one-note characterization using the 'unloved spinster' trope. But what matters is the shading, the particularities of her story. Her attempt at companionship and subsequent failure make her revert to her 'safe' behavior. As she is blaming herself for stepping out of her self-imposed boundaries, she finds her external scapegoat in Noelle who had encouraged her 'risky' behavior.
And with that, she comes full circle. Her original assessment of Noelle was right. She is 'unfit'.
In a recent interview, showrunner Bruce Miller said the writers had thought long and hard about Aunt Lydia’s backstory since they began developing the show. "What I was looking for in her past was: what does feeling humiliated do to her? In some ways, what I wanted to show is that Lydia is just as unforgiving to herself as she is to everybody else. That doesn’t make her a good person. But it certainly is interesting,” Miller said.
Everyone loves an interesting villain. We are also okay sympathizing with some of them.
Magneto as the Jew who understands exactly what people do to those who are 'different'. Maleficent with the allegorical backstory which captures the deep betrayal women feel when they are sexually assaulted by someone they love.
But what is not okay is a tacked-on backstory to create sympathy for a villain who needs to make a narrative about-turn.
We present specimen Billy Hargrove (Dacre Kayd Montgomery-Harvey) from 'Stranger Things'. A malevolent bully we have spent season 2 hating, Billy becomes a full-blown monster in season 3 after being possessed by the Mind Flayer. There are hints in Season 2 that his bullying persona is learned behavior courtesy an abusive dad.
However, we never really inhabit his POV nor do we understand the family dynamics. There is no need since at this point his sole narrative role in the show is that of The Bully.
But Season 3 requires him to become the hero who sacrifices himself to save Eleven. An unlikely move for what the narrative has built him up to be at this point. So what do the writers do? Add another trope. The child abandoned by his mother—the only person he has ever loved, whose memory is enough to shake off the personality he has developed over the years AND the influence of the Mind Flayer. He even says he is sorry! And just like that, in a few moments, his unearned redemption arc is over.
While Billy is a case of too little, Nate of 'Euphoria' is a case of too much.
A flashback shows that Nate knows about his dad's obsession with fem boys. It is more than enough to justify why he would cultivate his jock image to counter what he thinks is his father Cal's weakness. When Jules' existence threatens Cal's 'successful businessman and family-guy' image, Nate thinks he has to step in as the 'real' man of the house to take care of Cal's mess. And then comes the scene in the police station, where he is being held after he assaults Maddy. Dear Dad steps in and shows him exactly how to get away with assaulting women. 'Don't admit to it' and 'walk out with your head held high'.
In other scenes, we see the overwhelming pressure Cal puts on Nate to appear perfect—criticism about how he plays football, about his not-white girlfriend.
Is all this not enough to understand the aggression that Nate has built up within him? Or of his need to control his environment so that he doesn't have to deal with surprises?
'Euphoria' writers don't seem to think so. So we have the additional and unnecessary inclusion of Nate's confusion around his sexuality. Of whether he loves Jules or is disgusted by her. We wonder if his persecution of Jules, an openly trans character, is because of his own latent homosexuality. Narrative-wise, Nate has too much on his plate and he is too good a villain to be stymied this way.
Here is hoping 'Stranger Things' and 'Euphoria' take a page out of 'The Handmaid's Tale' book.