The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t messing around, as is brutally apparent by its choice to start Season 2 with a scene of mass execution. There are plenty more to come, along with various kinds of torture, pain, and horror under the repressive Gilead regime. Hulu’s arresting series (which was my top pick for the best series of 2017) returns with an even more exacting focus on the draconian practices of Gilead, through the eyes of our heroine Offred / June (Elisabeth Moss), freshly punished for her role in a defiant act of mercy that ended the first season. But with this examination — that now moves away from Margaret Atwood’s novel — also comes an relentless parade of brutality that makes The Handmaid’s Tale occasionally feel closer to a Saw movie than a story of fundamentalism gone mad.
Then again, the way I watched the first five episodes made available for critics is not the way I would advise anyone to watch the show (Hulu actually added a sixth episode after I wrote this review, but I needed a break). I binged it, which is not a healthy way to get through this particular story. It’s too heavy, and occasionally heavy-handed, for more than an episode, maybe two, at a time. This season also expands to the Colonies, and if you thought things were bad in Gilead, just you wait. Overall there’s less of a focus on sexual exploitation so far in Season 2, but the theme of the methodical dehumanization of women and anyone considered “other” is still very fully felt. The murder of anyone the new regime sees fit to remove from their society — particularly intellectuals, journalists, etc — is heavily reminiscent of Nazi Germany, as is the time we spend with the resistance network hiding escapees (that also has a particular Underground Railroad vibe to it).
And yet, despite all of this horror, The Handmaid’s Tale retains its restrained visual aesthetic, one where its controlled and deliberate costuming and settings are in direct and powerful opposition to the bursts of violence. But that air of restraint is also what makes the series occasionally so emotionally excruciating, especially in the Waterfords’ world (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski, who so far play much more reduced roles). When Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) patronizes June in a sing-song voice, it’s viscerally infuriating. The cool and casual way that power is wielded to maximize the authority of the white men in the series is also agonizing, as is the way human life means absolutely nothing — unless that life is a baby’s.
Once again, the series’ relevance is clear as a cautionary tale, but some of the scripting can be ham-fisted in that regard. But whatever issues Handmaid’s has with narrative nuance, though, is more than made up for by exceptional work by its cast. Moss is, again, outstanding, especially in a few episodes that take us away from Gilead and find her alone with herself (and with hope) for the first time since the rise of this regime. The series is always at its best in these quiet moments of contemplation, and Offred’s journey this year is a topsy-turvy one of triumph and despair. The despair can sometimes, often times, be suffocatingly bleak, especially after hope is snatched from these characters again and again. There’s always a new normal that’s so much worse than before, and new horrors that await each day.
That almost stomach-churning bleakness is what keeps The Handmaid’s Tale from being bingeworthy, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Yet Offred’s story — as well as Ofglen, where Alexis Bledel again does some of the best work of her career (she’s somehow less convincing as a professor than a revolutionary, but it mostly works) — is so compelling that you hesitate to look away. June’s pregnancy adds a new layer as well, not only for the status she is afforded because of it, but in her own desperation to not allow another child to become the property of Gilead. Mayday is still at work as a resistance movement (and Offred gets some help from Max Minghella’s Nick, too), but its triumphs can sometimes just feel like cruel teases. There’s a long road ahead, and freedom will be hard-won. But as the series continues to illustrate, the most important thing is to never give up the fight.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 premieres Wednesday, April 25th on Hulu.