Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s bestselling novel, took the idea of a country on the brink turning into something sinister, foul, and irredeemable. This new country is called Gilead. Women become lesser by law; some are turned into handmaids, their sole purpose to produce a child for the new commanders of the nation. Their wives remained at their side, lesser as well but with power over the home, while Marthas (maids) took care of the house. It is a chilling concept that found even more relevance in its second season as the scope and depth were widened and world events became eerily familiar, if still distant. At the center of this is a performance from Elisabeth Moss as Offred (her given name; June is her real name, and is the name that will be used for the remainder of the review) that is near unrivaled in the television landscape. While the second season may stumble in its final moments, it is staggering in its character and world development.
The first season was an endless void of nightmares for nearly every single character, a mountain of sexual assault, personal and physical slights, and cruelty of the highest order. While all of this may sound miserable, and at times it is, the show manages to use that to its advantage through the small pockets of hope and the window into its character’s minds that hope allows. The makes June’s moments of clarity or efforts of mental fortitude feel like great moments of triumph, no matter how small they were in the grand scale. Each passing event wore down these characters and yet resilience, determination, and kinship brought them back from the brink.
The second season opens with “June,” an episode that opens on ten tense heart-wrenching minutes of Holocaust-like imagery that is chilling to witness. It is a harsh reminder that despite all of those victories from the previous season, despite all of the build-up and hope, it doesn’t matter. The handmaids are held by a tight grip that will not let go.
The personal battles are fewer and far between this go-around, more tests of the will and strength of a character. It’s in the small, minute details where humanity can be found, the little things in everyday living that give some rest to the soul. This can be found in friendship, in the simple gesture of the handmaids whispering their real names to one another in the grocery market, and showing kindness in a world where it seems to be lost.
The cinematography, the lighting, and the overwhelming and menacing score all add up to a production that makes for a beautiful show. Its use of color, and each color meaning something to the characters and their social standing–the reds, the greens, the whites, the greys–all add up to some of television’s most eye-catching photography.
The world opens up, exploring the wider ramifications of Gilead and the fall of America. June’s lonely tour of the Boston Globe and the aftermath is gutting, her pained and remorseful gaze upon what lies in the bowels of the printing press basement a reminder that the collapse was just as cruel and bloody as the current world she finds herself in. We see the oft-mentioned Colonies, where women are sent to be essentially worked to death. It is a yellow-tinged, apocalyptic land that looks to be the byproduct of nuclear fallout and diseased soil. Its toilers cough and heave and dig, and it’s a life that only drags out the inevitable. We see more of Canada, and those that have managed to escape Gilead before and after, and Gilead’s impact on the greater world stage.
All of this adds up to a story that is still deeply personal. June is pregnant, and the child will soon be Commander and Mrs. Waterford’s. The pregnancy is like a ticking bomb, one that protects June for now, but only makes the abuse she faces far more mental. This mental instability and crushing defeat is at least temporarily severed by her love interest Nick (Max Minghella), who stoically cares and protects June, even though he works for the Commander leads to some tightrope storytelling. The Canada side of the story shows June’s husband Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) and Moira (Samira Wiley) who wish they could do more to save June, instead of having more to do in the flashbacks that accompany each episode. The Canada segments can feel a little disconnected since they are not part of the main story apart from the episode “Smart Power”, where the storylines converge. In “After,” however, it is used as Moira goes through binder after binder of casualties from Gilead in search of her former love, offering a dark window into the genocide that began the whole endeavor.
It is in the acting caliber and performance talent that the show truly shines. One of the strongest pieces of this season is the increased presence of Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia. Dowd has proven in multiple shows and movies that she is a wonderful actress (most notably in HBO’s The Leftovers), and here she is a benevolent and preachy figure ruling over the handmaids. With June’s pregnancy throughout the season, Aunt Lydia inserts herself into the Waterford home and shares a number of excellent scenes with Moss, fussing over her progress and behavior. Dowd and Moss together are a perfect combination, always elevating a scene and bouncing off of each other.
Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy, the husband of Commander Waterford, is far more rounded a character in these thirteen episodes. Before she was more a foil and cruelty to June, but now she finds nuance to her reasons, more of a backstory, and proper context for her strong-willed terms. Strahovski plays the character with a stern worriedness, wanting to open up but always coming to find disappointment or resentment. Some of her actions are still reprehensible and downright cruel, so some later moments don’t ring as true as they need to based on what came before. Joseph Fiennes’s Commander Waterford plays a difficult game, at times seeming kind, but using that kindness for his own gain. It is a balancing act that is impressive as his character can become more of a secondary presence during the season.
But this is Elisabeth Moss’ show, through and through. Episode 11, “Holly,” provides Moss with a treasure trove of acting potential. She meets and absolutely exceeds, every hurdle in a way that is mesmerizing to watch. The episode is focused solely on her, apart from short flashbacks and some time spent spying on two characters and runs through a gallery of emotions that is draining to watch. Moss is a masterful actress for the vast majority of the series and in her previous work, but in “Holly,” she outdoes herself. Her knowing smiles, broken stares, and devilish but incredibly subtle digs speak of someone who wants to break free and uses her presence alone as a weapon.
The finale, “The Word,” is a challenging episode not in its subject matter, but for what it offers. There are two character choices that, in all evidence of the previous 22 episodes, are not in those character’s hearts. That both choices happen in the last ten minutes of the season and shift the characters in meaningful ways, is disappointing both for the end point of season two and the beginning of season three. Perhaps there is some big, grand move that will explain this, and with proper time to delve into why these choices were made, it could work. But it is an unfortunate way to cap not only the 50 fantastic previous minutes of the finale but a great season of television.
Which brings me to a concern that some reviewers, including myself, have with the show: it may not want to break the status quo. Supporting characters can move about and shift their status, but it does not seem to want to change the main characters. With as many inhumane and devastating acts the show puts its characters through, keeping them on the same path would be spinning its tires. As gorgeous and beautifully acted as the show might be, there will need to be a shift. Fortunately, this is something that those final moments of the finale promise. But the fear is that things will simply return to normal.
The Handmaid’s Tale comes with a warning: binge watching it will eat away at you. It’s the kind of show that needs room to breathe, so Hulu’s weekly release schedule suits it well. For those playing catch-up, it might be suitable for nightly or even weekly viewing. Some moments are heart-wrenching and anger-inducing, but that’s the point. You are meant to feel that. In large doses, that is certainly hard to dive into. Despite that, it is an impeccably crafted series with pitch-perfect performances and a production that is both beautiful and devastating. This second season has met, and at times outpaced its first, and remains some of the very best television has to offer. Just make sure to be in the right mood.
The Handmaid’s Tale airs on Hulu. The season finale aired on July 11th, and the show will return for a third season in 2019. The Handmaid’s Tale has received 20 Emmy nominations in 2018, including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Role.