April 16, 2018
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 2 Review: The Hulu Series Charges Ahead of the Book, and It’s for the Better
This is what creative freedom looks like. The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 has the heavy burden of striking out beyond Margaret Atwood’s book upon which it’s based — a book that, with its bleak open ending — didn’t provide much of a path for the Hulu series to follow. And it was unclear whether showrunner Bruce Miller would be capable of guiding the series beyond its Emmy-winning first season, even as the writers planted the seeds of revolution within Atwood’s familiar story beats.
But there’s no reason to be worried. The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 is a laser-focused improvement upon its stunning, if uneven, first season.
Below, read our spoiler-free The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 review.
The Handmaid’s Tale immediately shot to the front of the pop culture conversation when it premiered on Hulu last year, with its incisive depiction of a near-future dystopia in which women were systematically repressed, and in certain cases, raped. What a timely analogue for the horrible current political climate the first season was! And what a powerful and messy tool to deliver that message!
There’s no denying the potency of The Handmaid’s Tale’s harrowing first season, anchored by stunning, oppressive cinematography and chilling performances by the Emmy-winning Elisabeth Moss and Ann Dowd. But it was a season whose striving for political relevancy sometimes overwhelmed its own narrative — sacrificing some of the story’s bleaker implications for moments of go-girl feminism. Season 2 is more of the same, which is a blessing and a curse. The show is still masterfully crafted, still hauntingly powerful, and still a little clumsy when it comes to its political themes. But The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 is more attuned to what made the first season so strong: the women.
The sophomore season of The Handmaid’s Tale smartly pivots to a more intimate and character-driven narrative, following Offred/June after she gets carted away by the Eyes, the secret police of Gilead. When the arrest turns out to be a terrifying ruse orchestrated by Aunt Lydia (Dowd, as sinister as ever) as punishment for the Handmaid’s refusal to kill Janine (Madeline Brewer), the show barely lets you breathe a sigh of relief before it embarks on a tense maelstrom of drama.
Aided by her lover and baby daddy Nick (Max Minghella), June attempts to escape Gilead. But her sudden disappearance alerts the entire upper echelon of Gilead — especially with her carrying the baby “belonging” to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Meanwhile, Emily (a brilliant Alexis Bledel) is wiling away as an Unwoman at the radiation-saturated Colonies, and Luke and Moira are biding their time working with refugees in Canada.
Though the action sounds like it’s non-stop, those thrilling moments come in waves — punctuating the simmering slow-burn of character drama. The first six episodes that I received to review moved quickly, but it also felt like the show was finally allowing itself room to breathe, lingering on dreamy recollections of June’s relationship with her mother in one episode, or giving Emily her due in our first flashback episode that wasn’t dedicated to June or the Waterfords. The second season finally starts to feel like a fully realized ensemble show, shifting away from June’s singular perspective to one that encompasses a whole world of women — without going through the awkward motions of world-building.
I had worried when The Handmaid’s Tale producer Warren Littlefield extolled the “bigger” budget and bigger scope of the series in season 2 at a TCA panel earlier this year, saying that “Part of it is the expansion of our world, creating Colonies and also using the narrative approach of multiple timelines, we’re able to see how did Gilead come about? How did it all happen?”
But the show feels bigger not in the world-building — we’d been hearing about the Colonies so much that seeing them in all their eerie dystopian imagery already feels familiar — but in its character dynamics. June is still very much the central character in this series, but the show makes use of its talented supporting cast by giving Bledel, Dowd, Strahovski, Brewer, and Samira Wiley the spotlight in various episodes through flashbacks or asides. It’s almost Lost-like in the breadth of character-building and arcs that we see.
Bledel — who was a standout last season as a character who all but disappears several chapters into the novel — gives a withering performance in season 2, and proves that she deserves her increased presence. And the second season wisely makes more use of the brilliant, terrifying Ann Dowd. More Aunt Lydia could easily be overkill, but Dowd is just so delightful to watch in all her malevolent glee. Every scene of hers is so unsettling to watch, as she gracefully switches from maternal — luring you into a sense of security — to sinister. It’s a little troubling the lengths that the show goes to make Strahovski’s jealous and cold Serena Joy sympathetic (there’s an Ann Coulter connection just waiting to be drawn in episode 6), but there’s no denying that Strahovski gives it her all, embodying a unique kind of female villain.
But despite the expansion of our POVs, The Handmaid’s Tale feels more focused than ever. That’s because the second season is wholly interested in the power dynamics between women: Serena versus June, Lydia versus June, June versus Offred. Even in the show’s flashbacks, the season timidly explores the tense friction between June and her third-wave feminist mother (Cherry Jones).
More so than last season, the men are the weakest part of this series. Apart from Nick, the men of Gilead barely play a large part in the season, and when they do, they either weigh down the show with dull political intrigue or transform the story into a lurid romance. Though if lurid romance is what you want, don’t worry, this season is even more steamy than ever (in a consensual kind of way).
And then there’s June: that elusive, polarizing heroine at the center of it all. Moss gives another stunning tour-de-force performance in season 2, ricocheting from smug victory, to abject paranoia, to dead-eyed despondency. Where her contrasting actions and thoughts made little sense in season 1, this June is unfiltered, throwing around the f-bomb every other sentence and letting her face contort in anger or disgust. She certainly fits more with the rah-rah feminism of the show, which is what finally makes it so clear how a woman like June can become Offred in the first place.
Buoyed by its razor-sharp focus on its female characters, The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 surpasses its first season. Though it does sometimes give in to the show’s penchant for political awkwardness and has prolonged, miserable scenes that could rival Game of Thrones‘ torture porn, it seems like the Hulu series is all the better for stepping out from the shadow of Atwood’s book.
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