9:30 am EDT, April 16, 2018

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ season 2 review: What to expect, when you’re expecting the worst

The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 widens the lens of Margaret Atwood’s novel — but is it worth the trip back to Gilead?

Of all of the hurdles facing The Handmaid’s Tale season 2, expectation is probably the most daunting. The first season of Hulu’s dystopian drama was brilliant, unsettling, and provocative as it followed the Handmaid Offred (or June, Elisabeth Moss) through most of Atwood’s seminal story. Now, creator Bruce Miller and his writing team are tasked with expanding the tale beyond the boarders of the novel, exploring realms and tales toward which Atwood scarcely nods in the source material.

What’s more, The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 faces an additional challenge: Providing an answer to the beloved novel’s famously ambiguous conclusion. Since its publication in 1985, Offred’s fate has been a mystery of feminist literature, her destination as she is summoned out of the Waterford house and into a waiting black van completely unknown. Now, 33 years later, it’s up to Hulu to pull back the curtain.

But fans don’t need to worry — the opening act of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 proves that Miller and his team are every inch as darkly, viciously creative as Margaret Atwood herself.

Offred’s final words of the first season (and the book), that she is going “into the darkness, or else the light” prove to be a telling guideline for the new material. There is some light awaiting June, a few sparkling moments of humanity in her upcoming adventure.

But, you know, not very much.

The corpse of the United States as reanimated into the Republic of Gilead is short on most resources, but it has endless stores of diabolical misery. Gilead is torture and death, sin and punishment — and The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 offers these in spades.

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Dedicated to its cruel craft, the second season is as sure-footed as ever while it breaks this brutal new ground. From the Colonies to the Econopeople, from threads of resistance to the Commanders’ inner sanctums, The Handmaid’s Tale manages to blend its broadened scope with the delicate intimacy that stamped its first season. Impressively, neither element suffers for the combination.

As expected, it’s not fun. (Like, it’s basically the extreme opposite of fun.) But as with season 1, The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 is profoundly rewarding viewing for those with the stamina to pay it proper attention.

The nature of this reward is not quite the same as it was in The Handmaid’s Tale season 1. Marched out in the early months of the Trump administration, The Handmaid’s Tale was initially replete with uncomfortable parallels to reality, real or imagined, providing fodder for many a think piece. Though there are flashes of current events to be found, the same pressing modernity is not as urgent in The Handmaid’s Tale season 2.

Upon our return to Gilead, political symbolism recedes somewhat, and there are perhaps fewer keen statements to observe about our own careful social crafting of men and women.

Instead, character and conflict take center stage in The Handmaid’s Tale season 2, as the lines between survival and submission become increasingly stark. June finds herself in an almost physical battle against her identity as Offred, a struggle that results in multiple casualties as the vengeance of Gilead breaks around her. Elisabeth Moss won an Emmy for the role in the first season, and her performance is equally brilliant here.

June shifts between moods like mercury, infinitesimal changes in her expression carrying her between terror and rage, grief and obstinance, lust and apathy. It’s up to the viewer to pick out the differences, but The Handmaid’s Tale is happy to give us the time. The camera lingers over faces and hands long enough to tell an epic in every twitch. This attention to detail is oppressive, and exhausting — and it makes The Handmaid’s Tale the nerve-wracking triumph that it is.

Related: Emmy Award-winner Bradley Whitford has scored a recurring role in The Handmaid’s Tale season 2

June, of course, is not the only character upon whom season 2 lavishes its dark attention. The former Handmaid Emily (once Ofglen, played by Alexis Bledel) forges her own story in the irradiated wasteland of the Colonies, where she and other “Unwomen” are worked to death by Aunts and overseers.

Emily receives the benefit of several flashbacks in the second episode of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2, a harrowing narrative of loss that Bledel carries effortlessly. By the time we find her in the Colonies, Emily’s expression is almost permanently locked, her voice a whispering monotone. But beneath this, she is fathoms deep, and brewing a storm.

June’s mysterious Eye boyfriend Nick (Max Minghella) also has a bit more to do as The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 carries on, as does Ann Dowd’s tremendous and monstrous Aunt Lydia. (Yes, Aunt Lydia gets worse.) Unfortunately, the early parts of the season give shorter shrift to characters like Moira and Luke, who wait in an Eden-esque Canada and try to keep their traumas to themselves.

Those pillars of Gilead, Serena Joy and Commander Waterford, also feel as though they are following the steps of a familiar dance. But these two have an awful little kingdom to preserve, after all, and threats to their stasis can be detected as the season progresses.

Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 is a potpourri of expectations met and defied. The season surges and ebbs on the tide of June’s emotions, ponderously slow in places, ruminating and subtle. And yet, the roar of this story’s building retributive wave can almost always be detected in the distance.

Sifting through themes of faith, abandonment, and responsibility, seething with potent imagery, The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 is a powerful return to a world that none of us want to live in. As expected, it is not a fun trip, but it’s worth the journey all the same.

The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 premieres on April 25 on Hulu.

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