Sitting down to watch The Handmaid’s Tale means giving in to a slow, bruising nightmare.
No matter how beautifully rendered it can be, The Handmaid’s Tale makes for my least favorite TV viewing experience maybe ever. It’s not just bleak — plenty of shows are bleak — but also determined to impress upon its viewers that its imagined dystopian future of fertile women being kept as breeding sows and ritualized rape reimagined as patriotic duty isn’t too far off from our reality.
Every episode takes such pains to point out exactly how much the pre-Gilead world was like our current world that it’s hard not to look around after finishing an episode to wonder if you, too, might be taking your fancy coffee breaks for granted. (Spoiler: You almost definitely are.) Flashback June (Elisabeth Moss) unwinds at yoga; flashback Emily (Alexis Bledel) scoffs at the idea that her generation might get forced back into the closet; flashback Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) gets shouted off a college campus and sets Twitter aflame. Margaret Atwood’s novel may have been published in 1985, but the show’s flashbacks to how Gilead came to be are entirely 2018, and far more terrifying for it.
So when I had to review the second season, premiering April 25 with two episodes on Hulu, I was horrified to realize that I had six advance episodes to watch in a relatively short period of time. Especially given the fact that season two progresses beyond the confines of the novel that inspired it, I knew I was in for six episodes of grueling devastation — and I’d have no idea what was coming.
Those two fears, as it turns out, quickly prove themselves to be the driving forces of this second season — for better and for worse.
(Some mild spoilers follow.)
Expanding The Handmaid’s Tale universe beyond Atwood’s source material lets the show get more imaginative
At the end of season one, central Handmaid June is shoved into the back of a van shortly after she finds out she’s pregnant. This is the point at which Atwood’s novel ends; she deliberately leaves the question of whether June is getting rescued or arrested ambiguous, before flashing forward decades to an epilogue, framed as a collegiate talk on the terrible blip in history that was Gilead. In the show, however, it’s quickly revealed that this is a punishment, which tells you all you need to know about just how dark it’s willing to go.
As my colleague Constance Grady details, the fact that the first season ended with the end of the book doesn’t mean The Handmaid’s Tale already covered everything that Atwood did. In particular, she notes, the first season barely touched on the backstory of June’s activist mother, nor did it wade into the horrors of the Colonies, the radioactive wasteland where undesirable or uncooperative people get shipped off to “work and die.”
So it’s unsurprising — and even exciting, in its own perverse way — that season two fleshes out both these areas. June’s mother (played with dry determination by Cherry Jones) was a passionate activist who implored her daughter not to close her eyes to the regressive evils of the world, a warning June rolled her eyes at until she got to reflect on it from her bare bedroom as a Handmaid.
When the show actually takes us to the Colonies in the second episode, it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s exactly the dusty hellscape that formidable Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) advertised. As we see through the weary eyes of Emily, the Colonies are a painful layover on the way to death. Women there spend every day striking shovels into the ground, the earth hissing with almost as much resentment as them, waiting to cough themselves into oblivion.
At first, it seems like there’s only so much story the show could wring out of a literal death trap. But the show makes a smart choice to contextualize just how awful this place is by letting us get better acquainted with Emily, her pre-Gilead life as a biology professor, and her furious misery in the Colonies. (It helps that Bledel continues to do the best work she’s probably ever done here, lacing Emily’s anger with such palpable pain that it practically burns the screen.)
In fact, season two’s best successes come when it finds a way to broaden the scope of the world beyond June’s limited perspective, finding more personal ways in. While June is still the main character, being in Gilead as long as she has means she’s now gotten over the initial shock of it all to become more attuned to other people’s experiences. Even the camerawork reflects this, relying less and less frequently on the kinds of close-ups that director Reed Morano perfected in the series’ first three episodes as a way to make the horror that much more intimate.
Even when June gets tantalizingly close to escaping, she looks closer at the world around her, sees exactly how much this new world order has plundered, and mourns the loss of her entire world rather than simply her own life.
More often than not, these moments are devastating in exactly the way The Handmaid’s Tale needs them to be. Other times, they reveal the show’s weakest points instead.
The show’s continued insistence that it’s Timely proves to be both its best and worst asset
The Handmaid’s Tale was produced before the 2016 presidential election. It nonetheless tapped into a vein of progressive fear that everything could come crashing down at any moment, so explicitly that it could be hard to look at for too long without wincing.
Season two, which was written and produced after the election, understandably leans into that impulse even harder by weaving in details from our new reality. Flashbacks are now littered with “#RESIST” graffiti and protest signs; warring factions sneer at each other’s “bubbles”; Twitter mobs become actual mobs. (This is a good show, but a subtle show? Not so much.) In one gorgeous, harrowing sequence, we see a warehouse scattered with personal belongings — a Red Sox hat here, a child’s craft project there — only to discover it’s the Boston Globe offices turned, as the show puts it, into “a slaughterhouse.”
Just as in the first season, the most confident of these moments are the ones that outline exactly how grinding, humiliating, condescending, and horrifying the experience of being a Handmaid truly is. The way a Wife like Serena Joy sees Handmaids versus how Handmaids understand and resent their role illustrates the frightening gap between perception and reality, how one group sees progress at the expense of another.
But also, just as in the first season, The Handmaid’s Tale’s biggest blind spots come whenever it tries — or doesn’t try — to leave the perspective of a furious white feminist like June or Emily.
An episode that dives into Serena’s pre-Gilead life as a conservative advocate for women carrying out their “biological duty” tries to draw parallels to the current debates over free speech on college campuses. To do that, however, it paints a broad picture of college liberals as shrieking, violent monsters that feels more like a right-wing nightmare scenario than true life.
Then there’s the fact that the show’s insistence that it’s timely and relevant continues to clash with its hands-off approach to race. If The Handmaid’s Tale is supposed to be a cautionary tale about the way our world could disintegrate if powerful people decide their rights are more important, it’s frankly bizarre that race isn’t addressed as a possible factor. If the show wanted to imagine some kind of post-racial future, it shouldn’t have rooted itself so firmly in our decidedly racist present.
In season two, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to be an angry, searing piece of work. When it forces you to hold its infuriated gaze, it makes it clear that your inability to do so for long is exactly the point. But as it continues to broaden its world, the show needs to find a way to get more comfortable with the perspectives that make it most uncomfortable, or risk losing itself in its own myopic tragedy.
The first two episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season two premiere April 25 at midnight EST on Hulu.