For Better or Worse, Handmaid’s Tale Season Two Is an Exceptionally Brutal Continuation of an Already Painful Journey
When the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale aired last year, the world of the show felt to many to be eerily, disturbingly familiar. The xenophobia and misogyny we were (and still are) seeing in our own current political landscape looked like the road to Gilead, and it’s no wonder that Handmaids became a symbol of dissent, popping up at protests across the country.
But those all-too-timely parallels were largely coincidental. The book was written 30 years ago and the show started production long before the 2016 election when pretty much everyone assumed Hillary Clinton would be moving into the White House soon. That sort of accidental prescience, those direct lines into the heart of a zeitgeist can be profound, but also difficult to recreate.
In the second season, the parallels are deliberate, and they are loudly pronounced, down to protests centered around a Laura Ingram/Milo Yiannopolis type stand-in. The #Resistance is at the forefront of this season, and the connections to our current landscape are specific, rather than the sort of ominous, universal foreboding of the first. These specific references are a bit jarring, but it doesn’t mean this season isn’t great–it very much is. It’s just different, and it can’t hurt going in with a separate set of expectations from the original season.
While season one was all about world building and resistance–which led to audiences seeing our current circumstances so clearly and bleakly reflected–season two narrows in on how certain characters suffer the effects of that resistance. Season one set up the stakes of this world, and season two doles out the punishments. And that punishment, with the characters facing retribution for their actions last season, is pretty much nonstop. It’s also gory as hell. The last season was difficult enough to watch. Getting through an episode was an emotional endeavor. I’m not sure why they felt the need to add so much visceral gore to this season, but it does occasionally verge on feeling like a cheap replacement for the emotional pain of season one.
One thing season two does exceptionally well is to expand the world to focus on other characters, separate from June and the lives of Handmaids. Picking up right where season one left off, the show splits its time between June’s ordeal, flashbacks to life before, as well as exploring what life in Gilead means for other characters. We get to see what this world is like for “Econowives,” those existing outside of the Handmaid/Martha/Wife household hierarchy. We’re also able to follow Alexis Bledel’s Emily into the brutal Colonies. In this way, the second season doesn’t so much leave Margaret Atwood’s novel behind, but rather takes time to explore all the corners of the world she created. Unfortunately, that does mean that the characters outside of Gilead–specifically, Moira–don’t get nearly as much attention as most fans would hope. (At least, not in the first six episodes available for review. I’m holding out hope for an eventual major shift of focus.)
Ultimately, it’s impressive what the show could do with a second season, having exhausted the majority of its source material. It may not live up to the profound depth of the first season, but we probably shouldn’t be approaching it with the same criteria in the first place. On its own, it’s still a powerful, painful journey, not to mention an expertly crafted show, as gorgeously shot as the first season, with a kickass and often gut-wrenching female-driven soundtrack. So strap in for another emotionally grueling trek through Gilead.
(image: Take Five/Hulu)
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