This spoiler-free review is based on the first six episodes of season two.
How do you take a show whose serendipitous timing made it the most prescient thing on television last year, and improve it without falling prey to the sophomore slump? If the first season was largely seen as a too-real depiction of our possible future, The Handmaid’s Tale season two is a portrait of our present. The second season of Hulu’s award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale takes us to a place that is all at once darker, and much closer to home. It holds up a mirror to our time and taunts, ‘recognize anything?’
The horror of Gilead only grows in The Handmaid’s Tale season two. Not only do we see firsthand the inhumanity of certain places or experiences that had only been hinted at before, like the Colonies, but we also see characters that we have come to love tested with increasingly impossible situations. It’s one thing to love to hate Serena Joy’s guts when she does something cold and menacing. It’s another to watch an ostensibly good character do something terrible when they’re forced to pick between bad choices without being narratively bailed out.
There’s also a hefty dose of body horror to go along with the creeping sense of dread, though no single episode packs quite as much of an emotional gut-punch as many of last season’s did, which is probably for the best.
There were several sizeable cliffhangers at the end of the last season, but a broader question surfaced as well: how did we get here? Season two makes a concerted effort to answer that question, in flashbacks as well as the present tense. Unlike in the first season, where flashbacks were largely used to reinforce themes and give us some insight into June, Nick, The Waterfords, or other citizens of Gilead, much of this season’s flashbacks centre on the span of time while everything changed. This focus on a specific period makes it easier for the show to spend less time on the chronological guessing game and more on the larger questions at hand.
The danger of this in-between place is that, like a frog in slowly boiling water, you don’t know you’re in it until it’s too late. It’s a time when life gets scarier every day, and yet many of us still more or less live our lives normally, unwittingly assuming the world will right itself again soon. Rather than hand-waving the coup as being blamed on Muslim terrorists as the book largely did, season two lives in the time when people go on working, going to school, and getting pregnant, because they don’t yet know they should be running. They don’t yet know that in a short time, their world will become a place that they would never dream of bringing a child into. They don’t yet know that it’s already the end.
Like the early seasons of Outlander, The Handmaid’s Tale stands out among the binge-oriented serialised television boom in that it recognises the importance of each episode’s arc and allots its minutes wisely. The first episode, June, rightly focuses on what happened to June once she got into that truck at the end of season one. Other characters’ stories are only covered insofar as their paths cross with June’s. The next episode, Unwomen, catches up with Emily and others who have been cast out from Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale is confident enough in the viability of these stories that it gives them the necessary room to breathe.
Hulu’s unique season structure of whetting our whistle with two to three episodes at the start of the season and then releasing one episode a week after that is a unique hybrid of the streaming and standard television models. It lends itself to this effective mixture of well-structured episodes featuring intense cliff-hangers that are sure to both ignite the conversation at the real and virtual watercoolers from week to week, and make for excellent binging for those who catch up when the season is over.
One thing that would make season two notably stronger are the promised improvements to the depiction of race on the show. By definition, people with less privilege stop being able to pretend everything is going to be okay before those with more privilege. Being a white person on a coastal, urban university campus is insulating in a way that being a queer black woman in much of rural America is not – so where are those vanguards who told everyone that the sky was falling? In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, that role is played only by older white feminists. Season one made a point of showing how Luke was less alarmed than Moira and June (while ignoring how everyone’s race would factor into the conversation), and season two could do to spend time on parsing how and when the fear found various people based on their identity and other factors.
From a technical standpoint, season two mostly lives up to the high bar of season one, though the modern sound track has largely been relegated to the closing credits and flashbacks. The direction still plays with light, extreme close-ups, and stunning overhead shots beautifully. For a variety of reasons, though, there are fewer of the type of stark set pieces that dominated the marketing materials for season one, and the direction sometimes struggles to find its visual style without them. As the story opens up the world of Gilead, what does that mean for the signature claustrophobic close-ups? In these first six episodes, it’s not altogether clear that there’s an answer.
The Handmaid’s Tale season two benefits from the groundwork laid in the first season, and makes the most of it by grappling with deeper questions presented by this world. As the first half of this season expands upon ideas only hinted at in the book, it updates the commentary of its source material to our 2018 context, which only raises the show’s sense of immediate urgency as well as its penchant for instilling existential dread. A natural extension of its source material, season two of The Handmaid’s Tale poses a disturbing question, well told: if Gilead is within all of us, how do we stop it?
The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 will start on Channel 4 here in the UK in May 2018.