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For the past few months, since I started watching second season screeners from Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, whenever somebody asked how the new episodes were, my stock answer was: “Dark.”
That was inevitably greeted by a face somewhere between a wince and eager anticipation, an expression that perfectly encapsulated how many people felt about the Emmy-winning drama’s first season. People’s general willingness to rave about Elisabeth Moss’ performance, Bruce Miller’s solid capturing of Margaret Atwood’s themes and the glorious series-establishing direction by Reed Morano was almost always followed by, “But it’s such a hard show to watch” or “It hurts too much to binge.”
Air date: Apr 25, 2018
Part of why The Handmaid’s Tale hit as hard as it did when it premiered last spring was that it was a bracing splash of salt poured upon a collective wound felt by its target audience. We’re 12 months later and those wounds haven’t magically healed, and the news that the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale is “dark” amounted to slamming the salt shaker on the table.
Embargo now passed, I can add that in addition to being dark, the first six episodes of the new season are very, very good, something nobody could have taken for granted with Miller and company moving farther and farther from Atwood’s source material (and with Morano too busy with a burgeoning feature career to return behind the camera this time around). With Moss again leading the way, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to thrive in many of the same emotional, yet soaringly beautiful, ways it succeeded last year — though several key flaws remain unimproved and are sometimes even exacerbated because everything else around them is so good.
The premiere, hitting Hulu on April 25, begins with a sequence as harrowing as anything the show has done before. Offred/June (Moss) and a group of her fellow handmaids are transported, disorientingly, to a holding pen, where they’re muzzled and herded by armed guards out into the middle of a Boston landmark, once beloved but now a staging area for a long row of gallows. Like many of this season’s best moments, the scene is almost dialogue-free and sold on the flitting uncertainty in Offred’s eyes, at once terrified and broken and yet simultaneously fierce.
Were I to point to an early theme in this season, it’s the continued identity gap between Offred, enslaved and pregnant with a child destined for Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his menacingly angelic wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), and June, too long separated from daughter Hannah and husband Luke (O. T. Fagbenle), safely in Canada with June’s friend Moira (Samira Wiley). The more we learn about the protagonist in flashbacks, featuring Cherry Jones as her social activist mother, and in the present as Offred continues to look for avenues toward freedom, the more we see that there are consequences that come with being June.
The results are dark and often miserable, even when The Handmaid’s Tale offers fleeting glimmers of hope, and any time you think the descent has stopped, the show finds a new murky place to go, with the fourth and fifth episodes offering fresh levels of thrilling discomfort. That’s a lot of plot happening thus far in the second season, and one of the best ways to cut through the despair is for it to move at a fast pace, which so far it does.
Geographically, The Handmaid’s Tale is opening up beyond the ironically counter-revolutionary prison of what used to be Boston and the freedom of Canada. After it being discussed last season, the show takes us out of the city to the Colonies, which offer an interesting sort of relief, not because they’re happier than urban Gilead, but because directors Mike Barker and Kari Skogland take the opportunity to introduce a new visual language. The Colonies are a Gulag-meets-Deadwood arid frontier of big skies, a burnt-out color palette and new rules and structures to expand the universe.
The more places we see and the more people we meet, the more we see how the persecution of Gilead extends past women — how homosexuality and basic religious and intellectual freedoms have been curtailed, too. There’s an attempt to be intersectional, to break with some of the insularity of the first season, that’s admirably if not always smoothly handled. The Lost-esque (Or Orange Is The New Black-esque, if you prefer) flashback structure, filling in different backstories or histories with each episode, feels more obvious this season in the points it’s trying to make and the contrasts or comparisons it’s trying to underline. Fortunately, the advantage of limited streaming seasons is that The Handmaid’s Tale is still far from over-explaining the dystopic universe or its primary characters, but I can already sense the danger in demystifying the show’s high sci-fi trappings. The varied threats of Donald Trump’s America have already imposed a specificity and weight on what could have once been a catch-all allegory.
Moss is still a marvel, only improving as pregnancy and increased jeopardy heighten Offred’s circumstances. I think she’s directly responsible for the sparse dialogue of these new episodes, as the writers have discovered that you don’t need to spell things out when you can just hold on Moss’ face and let conflict play wordlessly. The same is true of Alexis Bledel, like Moss a deserving Emmy winner last year, who gets to be the centerpiece of the scenes in the Colonies. I do lament a decrease in the voiceover-driven dark humor that was so integral to the tonal variety of the first season. It’s not gone entirely; it just feels reduced.
If Bledel and Moss were last year’s awards darlings, Strahovski seems poised to join them this year. Serena is such a complicatedly unlikable creature, an ice queen capable of both affecting softness and petty viciousness. The clash of Strahovski’s guarded menace and Moss’ open accessibility is always a pleasure to watch. Throw in Anne Dowd, also an Emmy winner last year and getting even more screen time this season, and you only slightly miss that the first six episodes are too light on Wiley’s Moira.
Criticizing the show’s men is tricky. On one hand, it’s not their story and keeping Fiennes’ Commander and Max Minghella’s Nick one-dimensional is a choice. They should feel grateful they have names. But man, they’re boring, and yet they keep getting screen time and every once in a while the show unsuccessfully asks you to care about what Commander or Nick is up to.
But even if those characters and performances are inert, those are the moments when you can just concentrate on what is probably TV’s most breathtakingly shot show. For all of the returning stars and writers and directors, cinematographer Colin Watkinson practically deserves equal billing at this point. There are composed tableaus in these first episodes that are purely painterly, examinations of color — the aquamarines and handmaid reds of Ane Crabtree’s costumes are the standouts — and space, dangerously tight close-ups or spatially challenging long shots, but sometimes I can just fixate on a stray shaft of light or the drifting particulate in the air for minutes at a time. Mark White and Elisabeth Williams keep finding new, exquisitely detailed sets for the show to occupy, locations that are familiar and yet alien.
The Handmaid’s Tale probably isn’t a show likely to win new fans. There are plenty of viewers who might dislike its heavy-handed politics or its literary liberties or that twisting in the gut that comes from so much internal and external suffering. For those who enjoy the agony, just brace yourself for that return to darkness.
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, Max Minghella, Ann Dowd, Madeline Brewer, Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley
Adapted by: Bruce Miller from the book by Margaret Atwood
Premieres April 25 on Hulu.
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