The first 10 minutes of episode one of season two of the Emmy-winning series are among the most harrowing I’ve ever seen on television. As Kate Bush’s “Woman’s Work” plays, discarded handmaids are led into a rundown Fenway Park to a scaffold of hangman’s nooses. “You shall feel the pain of his judgement, for that is his love” exclaims Aunt Lydia.
The Handmaid’s Tale is back and it’s bigger, bolder and better than ever.
Emmy-winner Elisabeth Moss’s June/Offred (her names are volleyed back and forth but with purpose) has escaped her captors and is taken to the abandoned offices of The Boston Globe. It’s an incredible visual, in this era of attacks on the free press by the current administration running parallel to the horrible treatment of women. The show’s Lost-style flashbacks consistently work here, as they reveal how the rights of women were chipped away (June’s husband has to sign for her to get birth control at the pharmacy). June has escaped, yes, but she is still trapped. Funneled food and supplies by an unknown man until Nick finally arrives but for June it’s not a welcome reunion (“Are you trying to play hero, Nick?”); he wants her to stay safe, she wants to go north to Maine find her family and protect her unborn child.
The visuals in The Handmaid’s Tale continue to stun, finding cracks of light (life?) in every corner, doubling down on those birds-eye views (under his eye…) and redefining the ugly/beautiful in its compositions of beauty and brutality.
There’s something extraordinary in the land of the Gilead in the roles that women play. They are both the victims and the tormentors. In every regard, this new world is a caste system whereby women must be subservient (as well as participants in their own rapes) not simply to the men that rule this new society but to the women who keep them down. It’s one of the more complicated aspects of the show and continues to be expertly handled; how and when women support each other or step on each other to rise.
After her incredible Emmy-winning first season guest spot, Alexis Bledel Emily/Ofglen is front and center in episode two with her backstory filling in not just the details of her past as a microbiology professor but the beginnings of the anti-gay sentiment and purge beginning to take place. She’s told by the head of her department, who is also gay (wonderfully played by John Carroll Lynch) that she’s being removed from her teaching post simply for talking about her wife in class. He’s under tremendous pressure and solemnly says “I thought my generation was the last to deal with this.” As her situation gets more tenuous, Emily takes her wife and child in a mass exodus to Canada.
Season two breaks out geographically to finally show us The Colonies, a concentration camp-type location where discarded handmaidens mine toxic materials with no protection and suffer horribly for it. It almost starts to beg the question of how much is too much but then, it’s complacency that has brought us here. Emily’s bio background comes in handy as she tries to heal the wounds of the women she’s with and she brings humanity in the most inhumane situation. When a newcomer arrives (played by Oscar winner Marisa Tomei), she is treated with rancor and hate. Emily befriends her but as truth is revealed the relationship becomes compromised.
In the year since the debut of the dramatization of Margaret Atwood’s novel, the continued attack on women’s rights (reproductive and otherwise) continues to rain down politically and last fall Hollywood itself was stymied with the brutal reality of the history of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual abuse that turned into the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. It would have been nearly impossible for Atwood (whose novel was published in 1985) to have really seen where we would be today and show creator Bruce Miller, now working without source material, has embraced the past year to produce television’s most eviscerating and important drama.
The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale debuts on Hulu April 25th with a two-episode premiere.