Warning – MILD SPOILERS for Season 2 Ahead:

No image from The Handmaid’s Tale haunted me so much as a woman’s wordless hanging, so leave it to Season 2 to open with dozens of gagged women herded to stadium gallows for a mass execution. The Hulu drama based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 parable was never one to ease viewers back into this wayward-but-only-so world. This is a place where the micro-expressions of horror behind every woman’s eyes can burst into reality at any moment. The oppression and torture is presented with such crushing familiarity that a mass hanging in Fenway Park literally makes it our national pastime.

Season 2 of the Emmy-winning adaptation picks up with June’s capture — itself the ending of Atwood’s original novel — and attempts to expand our perspective of Gilead in key regards. The series regular promotion of Alexis Bledel’s Emily (formerly Ofglen) takes us to the alien-seeming “Colonies”; home to the “Unwomen” who toil in a radioactive concentration camp with the cheery motto of “we come here, we work, we die.” In the distant north, Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) and Moira (Samira Wiley) struggle to reconcile their freedom and comfort with the fate of those still trapped in Gilead, while the possibility of invasion looms. Yet another character’s trip along an underground railroad of sorts introduces us to the “Econopeople”; those who fell through the cracks of Commanders, Guardians and Handmaids, and struggle to survive in relative peace and obscurity.

It’s in those early episodes that Season 2 has trouble finding its dramatic center. Last year’s episodes had the fortune — if you can call it that — of premiering at a time when the uncertainty and despair of the Trump administration made The Handmaid’s Tale a terrifying portent of our worst fears. It would seem presumptuous to claim the mood of the country has shifted, but where resistance and hope have crept in, The Handmaid’s Tale asks us to double-down on futility. Trips to the Colonies and Canadian safe-havens have no outward* story avenues and feel more rooted in grief than hope. In some regards, Season 2 feels too self-aware of Trump parallels like the chaos of an airport travel ban; tilting more at familiar imagery than the kind of religious body-snatching horror that pervaded the first year’s flashbacks.

*A scene partway through the six episodes given to critics places one character on the precipice of major change, and I had to wonder if Season 2 could commit to such a drastic shift. Instead, it waits for the absolute last second to snatch triumph away, admitting that some sense of status quo need be maintained.

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There’s a larger question here for series that burn through an entire book’s material and struggle to find new ground in Season 2. Atwood originally presented The Handmaid’s Tale through the micro lens of Offred’s experience in the Waterford house, with only vague hints at Gilead’s future. Hulu’s version is less-equipped to tell that tale with a macro lens, and finds less to do for characters with no plausible hope of changing their circumstances. The expansion makes a TV sort of sense; Bledel is every bit as talented as Elisabeth Moss in letting a mix of feminism and fatalism speak volumes of human resilience, while glimpses of Emily’s past spotlight more specific oppressions of this new reality, be they the LGBTQ community or the press. It’s when Season 2 strains to connect those horrors in an episodic sense that the early episodes lose focus.

But what the series does, it does so incredibly well. The Handmaid’s Tale is a masterclass in blending dark humor with subtle world-building and complex relationships that turn toward horror on a dime. There’s so much anger, longing and guilt that Moss and Yvonne Strahovski can exchange in a few glances that pages of dialogue wouldn’t convey. Once Season 2 returns to familiar territory, those trappings of kitchen-sink horror far outweigh any regression of the narrative. Moss is at her best letting Offred’s protected status drop any pretense of compliance, and Season 2 does extraordinary work fleshing out the resentful loneliness of Strahovski’s Serena Joy; once a proudly-controversial campus speaker in the vein of Milo Yiannopoulos, now desperate for the camaraderie of women beneath her station. The two share in Offred’s pregnancy with such potent mixtures of pity and passive aggression that I could spend an entire season without the world outside. The same goes for Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia, who balances her role as omnipresent taskmaster with sympathetic matriarch so delicately you’ll forget the series even has male villains.

The Handmaid’s Tale does its best work on a smaller stage. The haunting image of a woman’s shoe abandoned by her desk, and its companion at a blood-stained wall. Gorgeous camera work that frames black-suited men at a conference with lines of handmaids peering through windows behind them; glass etchings made to look like bar codes. Any structural flaws early in Season 2 are so well-patched by the tapestry of longing and couch-gripping tension at the Waterford home that I can’t decide if I want The Handmaid’s Tale to move toward a meaningful end, or terrify me forever.

AND ANOTHER THING …

  • New guest stars for the season include Marisa Tomei as a Commander’s wife, Clea DuVall as Emily’s wife and Cherry Jones as June/Offred’s mother, though it isn’t clear exactly how long any of them are sticking around.
  • There’s a running undercurrent of Offred’s religious leanings this year, but I’m not sure what to make of it yet.
  • Absent this year are the visual talents of director Reed Morano, though Season 2 directors more or less follow the same oil-painted aesthetic and extreme close-ups.
  • My notes had at least four instances of “DGAF OFFRED IS BEST OFFRED.”
  • I never expected to laugh as much as I did, but be on the lookout for one of the darkest exchanges about brunch you’ll ever witness.

The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 will premiere its first two episodes Wednesday, April 25 on Hulu.

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