There’s no show in TV history I’ve admired more, while looking forward to watching less, than The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a beautifully shot, stunningly acted, thoughtfully written depiction of a world I dread visiting, and each time a new episode becomes available — particularly as screeners began trickling in for the second season, which debuts Wednesday on Hulu (I’ve seen the first six episodes, two of which premiere this week before the series shifts into a once a week schedule) — I find myself doing an emotional calculus of how much the series’ abundant creative gifts will compensate for how much the story fuels me with despair and rage.
I’m no stranger to, or hater of, TV misery porn. Many of my favorite shows, past and present, consistently reduce me to a puddle of goo and leave me asking for even more tears. But The Leftovers season one or those penultimate episodes of each season of The Wire feel like uplifting chucklefests in comparison to the world that Margaret Atwood created in The Handmaid’s Tale novel, and that Bruce Miller and the rest of the TV team have continued. The dystopian future of Gilead — America reinvented as a misogynist, racist theocracy built on the wombs of women like Elisabeth Moss’s Offred (her real name, June Osborne, stripped away from her along with her freedom) forced into meek servitude and institutionalized rape to produce babies for the nation’s infertile elites — is just so monstrous in so many ways, while also not feeling that far off from what some elements of modern society are pushing for, that to watch it is to feel as trapped in the place as June herself.
But to watch it is to also appreciate just how skillfully made it is, and to appreciate the many ways that Miller and company have in the second season improved on what they did in the first, even as the series at times is even heavier than before.
Last season’s finale left me worried that the series should have left well enough alone and ended now that the plot of the book had been exhausted. Instead, the new episodes deftly explore what happens next for June and everyone else in a way that feels true to the source material, while also feeling a bit looser and more sure of itself now that the story is wholly the series’ own.
We pick up where we left off, with June and many of her fellow Handmaids rounded up in the wake of their small show of rebellion, where they refused to stone to death one of their own. The sequence that begins the season is harrowing to the point of requiring anti-anxiety meds, shockingly twisting a piece of American iconography for a disgusting new purpose in Gilead, much of the action seen through the series’ most potent weapon: the infinitely expressive and vulnerable face of Elisabeth Moss.
From there, though, things get both more hopeful and less, as the story expands well beyond June’s life as Offred, living in the home of Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Through Emily (Alexis Bledel), a Handmaid who was horribly punished multiple times last season for being a lesbian, we get to see “the Colonies,” an irradiated rural wasteland that has become a concentration camp for “unwomen” who refuse to conform to Gilead’s oppressive laws. We meet lower-class “Econowives,” who are fertile but allowed relative freedom because they have yet to break any laws of the new religion. We get a glimpse of Gilead’s version of the Underground Railroad, and in both present-day scenes and the Lost-style flashbacks that provide structure for each episode, we see more of how America fell, and which parts of it were most harshly cast aside by the rulers of Gilead.
Season one attempted to move beyond Offred’s circumstance, with mixed results. Many of the show’s other characters — in particular, June’s husband Luke (O. T. Fagbenle), struggling to stay alive and make it across the border to the refugee paradise of Canada — just couldn’t sustain their screen time away from our heroine, and the only actors punching in Moss’s weight class were Bledel (unbelievably great and raw, especially if you still think of her as Rory Gilmore) and, as the smug collaborator Aunt Lydia, Ann Dowd. (Moss, Bledel, and Dowd all deservingly won Emmys last year.) Season two finds ways to use June more often as our eyes on other parts of the world, while also deepening our understanding of this place and the other people in it. Aunt Lydia in particular is revealed to have many faces beyond simply being an avatar of sadistic nun stories, and can even at times seem almost tender and genuine with Offred and her other charges.
To go along with that, the new season also does some morally tricky but necessary work in showing how people who aren’t privileged white men like Commander Waterford have come to buy into this heinous new society, both in the America flashbacks and in the Gilead scenes. This feels both honest (how many people in our world do you know who vote against their own best interests because they’ve been convinced it makes emotional sense?) and crucial to understanding how this regime sustains itself on more than just fear and military strength. Even a character for whom we have great empathy starts to accept the tenets of the place after a while as the only way to continue functioning within it.
“There is more than one kind of freedom,” Aunt Lydia insists to the Handmaids at one point. “There is freedom to, and freedom from.” America was built on the former; Gilead claims to be built on the latter.
The flashbacks become even more pointed in drawing parallels between this fictional universe and ours. The Emily-centric second episode takes us back to her days in academia, where a colleague has gone back into the closet to avoid the rising tide of institutionalized homophobia, lamenting, “I thought mine was the last generation that had to deal with this bullshit. I thought all of you were so spoiled.”
“Not anymore,” quips Emily, having no idea just how much worse things will get for her and women like her.