Six episodes were provided for review prior to broadcast.
Hands down the most terrifying series on television in 2017 was the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The deplorable state of Gilead, a future United States gone bad by way of totalitarian fundamentalism, is a shocking and scary peek into what life can revert to when the wrong people are making decisions. This new season continues to be a grueling, essential viewing experience, as series protagonist June Osborne a.k.a. Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is pushed to her breaking point.
Following an act of rebellion by the handmaids as they refused Aunt Lydia’s (Anne Dowd) order to stone one of their own, Janine (Madeline Brewer), for her attempted suicide-infanticide, season 2 picks up right after and wastes no time in reminding you of the hell that they’re living in. Aunt Lydia isn’t going to take the handmaid’s dissension lightly and her ruthless revenge tour is absolute evil as if conjured by the devil himself.
One of the most fascinating and compelling aspects of the inaugural season was the relationship between Aunt Lydia and Offred. Anne Dowd was incredible as she toed the line between tormenter and den mother and this dichotomy is now taken up a notch as Lydia recognizes just how strong Offred really is. Elisabeth Moss’ emotionally layered portrayal enters a realm of almost snarky, sarcastic tone as she grows into her power. Her pregnancy shielding her from extreme consequence, she learns how to wield this advantage to her benefit. This back and forth battle of wits between these two power players remains just as exciting and complex, each using every ounce of their spirit and conviction to obtain the upper hand.
Making a return this season are the flashback scenes. Arguably even more horrifying than the present day story, they provide a harrowing timeline of how the States evolved into Gilead from the points of view of the main characters. It’s soul crushing to watch as progress is flown back and hate begins to emerge from the shadows (sounding familiar yet?). It’s also always fascinating to see these characters in their former lives.
New peeks into June’s relationship with her mother (Cherry Jones), Serena Joy Waterford’s (Yvonne Strahovski) help in sculpting the new law and Emily’s struggles as a lesbian woman during the rise of Gilead all help to provide clues as to what drives them and what they’re fighting to reclaim, getting you that much more invested in their journey. A show with a staggering amount of ensemble players, The Handmaid’s Tale does an excellent job of giving each character moments in the spotlight that never encumber upon the flow of the overall narrative.
Season 2 spends quite a lot of time in the harsh lands of the colonies where the exiled women, hatefully referred to as “unwomen,” go to work and live out their lives until their bodies break down or succumb to disease. A very welcome surprise is that Emily (Alexis Bledel) has become somewhat of a co-lead this season, as the story now jumps back and forth from the events in Gilead to the parallel events on the colonies.
Adopting a doctor role, we watch as she plays caretaker to the colony workers, often times in vain. The colonies are toxic and disease infested – even the water they wash with is contaminated so that contact with a cut or sore would mean instant infection. You’re sent to the colonies to work simply until you die and it’s become so expected that a morning where only two women are found dead is reason to be thankful. Alexis Bledel is fantastic here, too, her quiet strength and endurance masking a rage that sits at the ready.
The imagery of this season continues to be gorgeously deep and profound. The dystopian, dusty, hot and toxic look of the colonies works as an accurate depiction of the rotting country in stark contrast to the lies of the green uniform beauty of Gilead. Another powerful vision is a warehouse in Boston stuffed to the brim with street signs from before Gilead. An entire city’s infrastructure relegated to furniture collecting dust in a storage unit. Dark and cobwebby, it holds a sad resemblance to a graveyard.
There’s also a recurring theme of the noose throughout the first few episodes. This image representing at times an alluring, tempting escape option and other times a reminder of the cruelness purveying in this new world. One exceptional moment sees Aunt Lydia, directly after torturing the handmaidens, in what looks like it could be a moment of empathy on her part as she nestles up to a rope like she wishes she could tie it around her own neck. Instead, she laughs with maniacal glee as she tugs on it, ringing the church bells informing all of Offred’s pregnancy.
It’s this depth of vision that perfectly encapsulates the ongoing struggles in the show between humanity, religion and survival and places The Handmaid’s Tale a level above the endless viewing options that exist today.
Showcasing fantastic performances, a challenging narrative and visually arresting imagery, The Handmaid's Tale Season 2 continues to be essential viewing.