What A Fresh Hell This Is: The Handmaid’s Tale Returns to Netflix For Season 2

Hulu’s award-winning drama writes the next dark chapters for the women in Margaret Atwood’s chilling dystopia

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in "The Handmaid's Tale."
Photo Credit: Hulu/George Kraychyk

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” returning for its second season on Wednesday, is at its fiercest and most devastating when it prioritizes showing the horror over having characters discuss it. The opening moments of the second-season premiere are largely a dialogue-free affair, and it is one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve seen in quite some time.

All of the Handmaids who defied their totalitarian captors in the first-season finale are muzzled like animals and driven en masse toward the gallows. A rope waits for each of them, illuminated by cold floodlights. Sealing the dread of this scenario is the fact that it takes place inside a landmark many recognize as quintessentially American.

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” returning for its second season on Wednesday, is at its fiercest and most devastating when it prioritizes showing the horror over having characters discuss it. The opening moments of the second-season premiere are largely a dialogue-free affair, and it is one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve seen in quite some time.

All of the Handmaids who defied their totalitarian captors in the first-season finale are muzzled like animals and driven en masse toward the gallows. A rope waits for each of them, illuminated by cold floodlights. Sealing the dread of this scenario is the fact that it takes place inside a landmark many recognize as quintessentially American.

It’s also a speck of light within the grimmest tale in serialized entertainment.

Based on what happens in the first six episodes of the new season, the second season has no intention of easing up on that darkness.

Gileadis not a place that rewards protest. That act of defiance initiated by Moss’s Handmaid comes with a heavy cost, and Offred/June may never finish paying for it. Long after the state is satisfied she’ll still be indebted to her deeply internalized guilt, a weight her oppressors — primarily Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) — crush her with again and again.

Perhaps it doesn’t need to be said that this series cannot be characterized as an easy binge. Heartbreaking, miserable, frightening -- any of those descriptors are more accurate than easy. Hulu releases its episode in lots of two, which, psychologically speaking, is probably for the best.

 

What saves “The Handmaid’s Tale” from feeling like a wallow in despair is Bruce Miller’s unsparing yet compassionate script, the drama’s wealth of phenomenal performances, and production's commitment to keeping the story moving at a rapid clip.

Little of the series' greatness is lost in these new hours, thanks to Moss and her co-stars Dowd and Alexis Bledel, who plays Ofglen, all of whom rightfully earned Emmys for their work. (Miller and the show itself also won Emmys.) Their performances gain even more depth and power in this sophomore run, as does Yvonne Strahovski, whose icy and conflicted Serena Joy receives more development. The actor proves she’s up to the challenge of that expanded focus.

  

One less-than-desirable outcome, however, is a decreased amount of screen time for Samira Wiley’s Moira, best friend to June in the recent past, where we took our freedoms for granted.

Using June to refer to Moss’s character in reference to Moira is intentional. One of the main conflicts of this new season involves the Handmaid’s battle for ownership over her identity. In previous episodes June wears Offred as a disguise, biding her time to escape her slavery. Now the state seeks to remove even that birthright not merely from records but from her mind.

This is probably why Offred/June seems to speak far less this season than in the first. Mind you, the directors compensate for that silence by making the highest use of Moss’s talent for expressing a library of emotions through her eyes and lips. Offred says the most when she says nothing at all.

 

Even the feisty spunk in her voice-overs fades, which seems appropriate given her lot, but her black humor added a bass note to the series that’s noticeably absent now. Offred’s world is dark and grows bleaker by the moment. And the new warning about Gilead seems to be that nobody can truly escape Gilead, not even Offred/June’s husband Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) or Moira, though both escaped to the safety of Canada. America’s new order envelops them and everyone else like an invisible fog.

Miller doesn’t have to go completely off-book in the second season, because a number of details about Gilead, such as life in the Colonies, have only been mentioned up to this point. This allows season 2 to take us into the bowels of this deathscape of yellowed horror up through the travails of Ofglen, now one of the “Unwomen” sent to be worked to death in camps.

  

Bledel capably evokes the nightmare of her character’s plight, although the burned-out hazy palette of its land, made to look even more poisonous and devoid of color by cinematographer Colin Watkinson, is a powerful player by itself.

Despite everything that makes “The Handmaid’s Tale” great, its shortcomings remain. Fagbenle, Joseph Fiennes’ Commander Waterford and Max Minghella’s Nick mostly seem to be there to prove there is a patriarchy holding these women in place even as their performances are anything but diminished.

Season 2 also continues the drama’s device of using flashbacks to fill in the histories of its characters and the world before, and the effectiveness of that tool is subjective these days; a lot of viewers are tired of it. Then again, the novel pulled at threads of the past without going into extensive depth, enough for Miller and producers to hang new storylines on. To be fair, it’s difficult to think of what could replace that stratagem; we all want an explanation of how, exactly, it all went to hell so we can note the warning signs and avert a similar fate.

 

Before Hulu’s version, the widest-reaching pop culture legacy of Margaret Atwood’s story was one famously inspirational phrase found within its pages: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. “Don't let the bastards grind you down.” Like so many inspirational phrases, this is easier said than done, as we’re discovering in reality and as Offred shows us in this fiction.

Human beings can only take so much. And the new season of "The Handmaid's Tale" takes special delight in allowing bubbles of hope to surface in this opaque, sorrowful mire, only to submerge them before they can break open. Taken in large doses this makes for tough, wearying viewing. It’s also worth every moment of discomfort it dishes out. For now, we can take it.

 

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Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision