“The Handmaid’s Tale” season one is dark, provocative and award winning. Since it ends fairly close to where I remember the book ending, I wasn’t sure how they were going to match the tension and be able to continue the story, keeping the darkness and dystopian, religious overtones. Not only is the plot continued beautifully in season two, balancing June’s (Elisabeth Moss) viewpoint with Ruby (Samira Wiley) who has escaped with haunted memories, reunited with Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) but the oppression seems even harsher in the wake of this years political events, allowing viewers to see one potential outcome if our freedoms are stripped away. It is compelling, harsh and yet the spirit and strength of the main characters are keep you on the edge of your seat.
The new season begins at the same point in time as the first season finale left off, with June being removed from the house of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). She is taken to a staging area where she is grouped with her fellow Handmaids from her neighborhood who also refused to stone their fellow handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer). This act of defiance has cost them as they are place in front of nooses and their lives threatened by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). June is removed and her pregnancy announced but that doesn’t exempt her from the consequences of her actions as she must watch as the others are punished. If she doesn’t obey, her movements will be more curtailed and while she won’t be punished, her fellow handmaids will. By the end of the episode, she is removed for a medical check up and in the process, Nick (Max Minghella), the father of her child, comes to her and gets her to safety.
The next two episodes deal with her escape, broadening her relationship with Nick but also deepening our knowledge of Gilead, showing us Emily (Alexis Bledel) formerly a Handmaid, Ofglen but now working on a farm with other exiled Handmaids, all called Unwomen. The show delves into Emily’s background as a professor and in the current time, shows her trying to aid the Unwomen as they become sick from working on irradiated soil. We learn about June’s mother, Holly (Cherry Jones), who was a feminist and wanted her daughter to do more to fight for freedom as in the present June attempts to escape to Canada via a plane that Nick has set up. While she still works to find Hannah, she now must also protect her new child.
What makes this show so compelling is the utilization of the dystopian society to create social commentary on our current political climate. Despite the book of the same name by Margaret Atwood having been published in 1985, the writers of the show have gone to great lengths, with consultation from Margaret Atwood, to modernize the story but maintain the tone and spirit of the book. The first season was completely faithful to that book while bringing fresh insight and the second season carries that vision forward. The writers have extrapolated on the ending of the first season on what the consequences would be for the Handmaid’s act of defiance. It is completely credible given the totalitarian government, the extreme strictures on women, and the militarized regime. June’s good behavior is coerced by threatening her fellow Handmaids while the other women are re-indoctrinated by the Aunts, their fertility a prize in a world where most women are sterile. They are needed but not necessarily with their minds or spirits intact.
This is also one of the few shows that can pull off flashbacks on a regular basis that not only work but serve the purpose of heightening the tension and clarifying what led the world we know to the one where Gilead is in charge. While not everything has tied together yet, each of the first three episodes feeds us a little bit more information, giving us insight into the characters, such as Emily’s past and her relationships as well as providing a bit more of the timeline of events in the past. This pieces are beginning to fall into place and each piece of the past connects to a person or event in the future. That connected writing using these glimpses of the past makes for more intense scenes in the character’s current lives.
The first three episodes are vibrant and compelling, made even more so by the acting. Elisabeth Moss brings such a fierceness and vulnerability to her character, her character equal parts passionate, continually fighting and yet always searching for a way to reach her daughter. She may be lost in the world of Gilead but she is the brilliant shining star of Handmaid’s Tale, without which there is no show. She is matched by Samira Wiley as Ruby, who keeps a sense of humor even in the darkness of her time in the brothel, her portrayal haunting as she attempts to make peace with her trauma. Bringing Alexis Bledel back as Emily is brilliant. I’ve loved her in many roles but the depth of her acting in this series is beyond anything I’ve seen from her before. I’m looking forward to the rest of what she brings this season. Finally, we cannot have heroes without villains. While Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia is frightening, the actress is compelling and stern, bringing to mind matrons of the church whose zealotry brings them to do horrific acts all in the name of their belief in their mission. Her acting opposite the other women is what makes each scene she plays so filled with conflict and tension. And while the men who act in this series are equally good, O. T. Fagbenle, Max Minghella and Joseph Fiennes, it is the women who are the heart of this show and even more of this season.
The only small flaw is that it is a touch slower paced at the beginning g of the first episode but it speeds up by the end of that episode. The slower scenes are important for setting up the season while the back story helps to build the history of the world and the characters. Without it, half the depth would be missing along with part of the character’s internal conflicts.
The Handmaid’s Tale is without a doubt one of the best series I’ve seen and while there are changes in second season, the show retains all the qualities that gained it so many accolades. It is beautifully written, connected to current events, intelligently extrapolating the consequences of restricting people’s rights and allowing our freedoms to be stripped from us. The flashbacks to the past are critical to character development. Heightened by some of the most incredible acting, I can’t wait to watch the rest of this season and watch how the characters fight the injustice and cruelty in their lives and whether they will find an escape from it all.
Rating: 5 red cowls out of 5.
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