The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale picks up precisely where it left off at the end of season one: with the drama’s defiant main character, June (Elisabeth Moss), in the back of a van, en route to a place where she will likely face consequences for defying orders to stone one of her fellow handmaids to death. In the opening sequence, when the van eventually reaches its destination, June exits to find that she is one of many women who have been captured in similar black vehicles and are now being corralled by the cops. Muzzles are immediately placed over the women’s mouths, and that imagery set against the incessant sound of barking police dogs conveys everything about the way that Gilead, the authoritarian republic that used to be the United States, operates. Here, canines have greater freedom to speak than grown women do.
Soon, June and her frightened cohorts, many of them weeping, are led into a tunnel. When they emerge, it becomes alarmingly clear where they are: in the middle of what used to be Fenway Park, where gallows have been set up so that these women can be hung to death in center field. This is all more than devastating enough. But then the heartbreaking Kate Bush song “This Woman’s Work” begins to play, and the first few minutes of season two instantly become so upsetting that it’s challenging to soldier forward and keep watching.
But hey, this is what you sign up for when you start streaming The Handmaid’s Tale, which returns to Hulu April 25 and is just as brutal, visually pointed, and brilliantly acted as it was in season one. The sexist, punishing world that Margaret Atwood conjured in her 1985 novel and that season one of this Emmy-winning series so strongly evoked, is, paradoxically, so unimaginable and so believable that observing it, even from a safe, streamer’s distance, can be really tough on the spirit. That feels extra-true in this new season. That’s also part of the point. Gilead is a relentlessly awful place for many, and the series, like those who make the rules in this society, has no intention of giving the afflicted a break.
That said, The Handmaid’s Tale, created for TV by Bruce Miller, who wrote the first two episodes of the new season, is still a rewarding experience. The directors — Mike Barker handles four of the first six hours, with Kari Skogland commanding the other two — smartly continues to follow the aesthetic template established in season one by Reed Morano, frequently cutting to overhead shots to remind us that the handmaids are always “under his eye,” but also using extreme close-ups to create an almost claustrophobic intimacy between the viewer and Moss’s June, or as she’s known in handmaid circles, Offred. The Handmaid’s Tale remains one of the most meticulously, thoughtfully photographed series on television.
Even more notably, it’s flying for the first time this season without the bulk of Atwood’s novel to support it. What happens to June/Offred from here forward is pretty much not covered in the original source material, and that infuses The Handmaid’s Tale with a greater sense of narrative surprise than it possessed last season, at least for those who were already familiar with Atwood’s text. Without spoiling too much, here’s the basic gist: June is still pregnant, carrying a baby that she is supposed to deliver for the couple she serves, Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), even though the child was secretly fathered by the Waterfords’ driver Nick (Max Minghella). But in the first few episodes, June remains determined to reunite with her daughter and, more importantly, to escape Gilead, even if that involves taking some pretty extreme risks to make it happen.
The series occasionally turns its lens on other key characters, too, including Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), whose real name is Emily, and who is now living in the Colonies, a horribly polluted region where disgraced women are put in charge of clean-up until they inevitably die from working in such close proximity to environmental toxins. (Seriously: This place is so bleak it makes Great Expectations seem as cheery as a bright pink Peep.) We also check in with Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) and Moira (Samira Wiley), who are attempting to move on with their lives within the safe confines of Canada, and get access to flashbacks that provide even more insight into the backstories of several characters, including June and the Waterfords.
But, praise be, the primary focus of the story remains June, a wise choice since the show is always at its most compelling when that character’s struggles are front, center, and revealed by the consistently brilliant Moss. The former Mad Men star must wear an even wider variety of masks this season, and she takes them on and off with such controlled ease that it is sometimes staggering. The use of her voice-over narration has been dialed back a bit but her ability to tether her feelings to the audience is ever-present, especially in scenes in which she looks directly into camera as if her story is being told to you and just you. There are moments in The Handmaid’s Tale that can be a little too: too bloody, too blatant in their messaging, or played with a bit too much dramatic music on the score. But Moss is never “too” anything, and never makes a choice that rings false. Even the smallest gestures she makes — the way she flinches just a tiny bit when a doctor refers to the child growing inside her as Mrs. Waterford’s baby — land with a punch, all the more so because of their subtlety.
She’s surrounded by equally convincing actors, including Queen Ann Dowd, who continues to find new levels of maternal monstrousness in handmaid minder Aunt Lydia; Bledel, who appropriately encases Emily in an increasingly hard shell; and Strahovski, who wields her white privilege with even more cunning this season, but still manages to effectively put Serena’s vulnerabilities on display.
As the pasts of these characters are further fleshed out, The Handmaid’s Tale reckons with how we perceive heroes and villains in this, or any, story. Episode four, which takes another look at the evolution of June’s relationship with Luke, is an especially thought-provoking exploration of how females can be sidelined or marginalized, even before the rise of Gilead.
When The Handmaid’s Tale debuted last year around this time, its vision of a misogynist dystopia where white men call all the shots and strip the most vulnerable women of their rights put it right in sync with the worst nightmares of the Resistance. This season still strikes political notes — in one flashback, when the neo-conservative Serena attempts to speak at a university, she’s met by protesters holdings signs that say “Resist” and “Stop Nazi hate,” all of which would fit right in at any anti-Trump rally. The series, as it did last year, is still showing us what happens when civil society tumbles down a slippery slope, and reminding us that, in real life, there’s still time to stop our own slide.
But the electric shock that came from seeing the connections between Handmaid’s Tale reality and actual reality in season one has dulled a bit, in part because the Trump presidency is no longer new and the themes that The Handmaid’s Tale attempts to address aren’t terribly surprising either. We’ve already become acquainted with having Donald Trump as president, and we’ve done the same with Gilead as well.
But that makes season two of this searing drama relevant in a different way. The Handmaid’s Tale, 2018 Edition, is, to an even greater degree, about the dangers of becoming complacent in the face of extremism. And it’s arriving at a time when some Americans may already be resigning themselves to what this country has become under Trump’s eye.