[This review includes some SPOILERS for the first two episodes of The Handmaid's Tale season 2.]
There are few viewing experiences on television that can compare to Hulu’s Emmy-winning The Handmaid’s Tale. The adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed novel took a strong stylistic approach in season 1 that offset the color-coded gloom and oppression of the near-future Gliead with pop songs whose incongruity was perhaps meant to be deliberately disorienting and to ring a little false, all in an effort to turn up the volume on the oppressive society the series was depicting. From a visual standpoint, however, the show was a sight to behold. Under the direction of Reed Morano, The Handmaid’s Tale cemented itself as a compelling literary adaptation with a strikingly bleak visual language all its own.
The season would go on to win a number of awards, both for the series and for its star, Elisabeth Moss, who plays Offred (formerly June) as endlessly enduring the oppression of Gilead, while adding more than a hint of defiance to the role via a series of pointed voiceovers. The internalization of her experience was deepened by flashbacks into June’s life pre-Gilead, in which she and her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) were slow to respond to the crumbling of society, and what arose in the wake of fallout from war and troublingly low birth rates. The result was a series that aimed to draw the world of Gilead more clearly, to concretize it more so than Atwood’s novel. The Handmaid's Tale was successful to a large degree, though as season 2 gets underway, perhaps it did its job too well.
The world of Gllead is intentionally a tough hang. The despair has become inescapable in season 2; it’s on display everywhere the camera looks. As a result. those watching begin to feel as worn down as the characters who’re forced to live through Gilead's unrelenting punishments. That’s made evident in the premiere. Titled ‘June,’ the hour pushes the series well past the events in the book, telling in exacting detail what transpires after June was loaded into a van at the end of season 1. The end was similar to the book, though it was known that Offred survived her ordeal, just not how. The finale was filled with a similar ambiguity; her destination could bring salvation or another round of torture. The episode, written by series creator Bruce Miller and directed by Mike Barker, aims to have it both ways.
It is a bit of a cheat to see June back in the clutches of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), and Barker makes viewers keenly aware her predicament, by once again employing the series’ penchant for extreme close-ups, lingering in this instance an image of June and the other women as they've been muzzled before what will presumably be their execution. It's a fake out, a reminder of both the values of this dystopia and the way in which the series deploys its tension through a series of excruciatingly slow reveals. It’s only later that June makes her actual escape, with the help of Nick (Max Minghella), driver for the Waterfords, apparent spy for an underground organization, and father of June’s unborn child. And, as the series was prone to do in season 1, the episode ends on a suspiciously triumphant note, with June casting off her red robe and cutting the tag from her ear, leaving a blood-soaked Moss to appear as an indelible image of defiance.
Although it presents the possibility that there is hope on the horizon — at least for June, if not all the other women made to suffer under the religious regime — The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t ready to let go of the world its gone to such great lengths to realize, and so there is an inevitable doubling back. Part of that has to do with the continuation of June’s story, which, in episode 2, ‘Unwomen,’ relies almost entirely on Moss’s ability to convey a multitude of emotions -- from sorrow to anger to sheer panic -- through facial expressions alone. But in an effort to drive the realities of Gilead home and offer a reminder that June is by no means out of danger, the series shifts its point of view from June to Emily (Alexis Bledel). Known as Ofglen in season 1, Emily was last seen being carted off by guards after killing a few of them with a stolen car. The news that Bledel would be a fixture in season 2 may have come as a surprise to most viewers, since Emily’s fate seemed a forgone conclusion. But Miller and his team decided to bring the character back, and us her as an entry point into the heretofore unseen Colonies.
The Colonies brings with it a new level of bleakness for the series, one where noxious gasses billow from the ground and sentries wear ominous-looking gas masks, which further dehumanizes them. A new prisoner played by Marisa Tomei. a former member of Gilead’s upper class, becomes a familiar framing device, as the episode cuts to Emily’s flashback. The sequence again details the rise of Gliead, illustrating Emily’s final days as a college professor, wherein a colleague, played by John Carroll Lynch, is hanged for his sexual orientation. Later Emily is denied entry into Canada along with her wife Sylvia (Clea DuVall) and their child. In an act of defiance or retribution or both, Emily poisons Tomei’s character. Like June burning her red robe, it’s a small victory in world that doesn’t give them up easily, but its a victory that comes with a cost, part of which is an even more rapid descent into hopelessness.
If that sounds difficult to watch, well, it is. And therein lies a potential trouble spot with The Handmaid’s Tale in it second season. By expanding the world and realizing it in such exacting detail, the series essentially doubles down on the pervasive sense of despair. There is something to be said about the unrelenting grimness of it all; the show definitely knows a thing or two about making it feel absolutely palpable. But in the process the feeling begins to feel less compelling. The series remains captivating for now. Layered between the misery and the tension is the sense that the series will move past the static bleakness its found itself in early in its second season. It was always a gamble to push past the events in Atwood’s novel, and so far expanding the story has been something of a mixed bag.
The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 continues next Wednesday on Hulu.