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Review: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ returns as a brutal message on extremism, complacency and trauma

No matter how bleak it gets, The Handmaid's Tale remains a powerful and rewarding series.
The Handmaid's Tale starts Season 2 with the punishment of the handmaids for not stoning to death a fellow handmaid at the end of Season 1.
(George Kraychyk/Hulu)
The Handmaid's Tale starts Season 2 with the punishment of the handmaids for not stoning to death a fellow handmaid at the end of Season 1. (George Kraychyk/Hulu)
Published Apr. 23, 2018

About eight minutes into the second season of The Handmaid's Tale, you hear Kate Bush's This Woman's Work play amidst close shots of muzzled women. It's so heartbreaking that you may question your stamina to get through another dozen episodes.

The song plays during a particularly devastating scene in what was once Fenway Park. The new season picks up right where Season 1 left off — with Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss) in the back of a black van and wondering where they're taking her.

Previous coverage: 'The Handmaid's Tale' poignantly adapts Margaret Atwood's story

The destination for her and dozens of other handmaids is a punishment for their refusal to stone to death a fellow handmaid.

When they arrive they're muzzled, a stark contrast to the loudly barking dogs lunging at them. The series is one that explores a world where dogs have more of a right to make noise than human women.

Through a tunnel they're led onto the baseball field where large gallows have been set up, seemingly to hang them all.

The scene is nauseating enough, but then Bush starts crooning "aha ooo" and "pray god you can cope/I stand outside this woman's work/this woman's world" and it makes you just want to scream and cry for pure hopelessness.

It's a brutal, punch in the gut opening to a season that expands Margaret Atwood's world beyond the first novel she penned in 1985. But no matter how dark Season 2 gets — and it sometimes feels like a soul-sucking black hole — The Handmaid's Tale is still a powerful and rewarding series.

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It's no spoiler that Offred/June avoids death in the first episode. But the speck of resistance and hope seen in the first season is all but gone in favor of jarring visuals that will inevitably be picked apart for commentary on politics and civil rights.

Even at its bleakest, The Handmaid's Tale furthers its intriguing complexity by giving more depth to its characters — even its villains. Yvonne Strahovski gets more of a backstory in complacency and confliction with her character Serena Joy. And Anne Dowd continues to masterfully craft cruel oppressive and aggressive guilt into the character of Aunt Lydia.

Atwood's book and the first season only briefly mention a number of details about Gilead and the larger world, like the Colonies and the events leading up to the new theocracy. Season 2 delves into the yellow hellscape of the Colonies through Ofglen/Emily (Alexis Bledel), now deemed an Unwoman forced to clean up the scourge of radiation without any protective gear.

Much of Season 2 deals with the ghosts their past. June is haunted by the memory of her daughter Hannah and her mother Holly (Cherry Jones), a lifelong activist who tried to warn June of an impending crisis.

A particularly unsettling flashback with Emily sees her dealing with the realization of being a "gender traitor" while she and her wife are denied their marital rights.

June's friend Moira (Samira Wiley), a former handmaid, and June's husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) successfully escaped to Canada but have to grapple with the guilt of who they left behind and what they should do next. They also work in a refugee intake center, so they're continuously confronted with theirs and others trauma.

As Aunt Lydia explains to the handmaids, "There is freedom to, and freedom from." There is more than one kind of freedom, and throughout the new season the people in and out of Gilead have to decide what kind of freedom they want. How they gain it and how they lose it is often out of their control and is the product of complacency and extremism.

Whether the camera shoots from above — showing the women as always being "under his eye" — or pans in close on Moss's silently expressing face, The Handmaid's Tale remains a deeply, visually unsettling series that you just can't turn away from.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at Follow @chelseatatham.


The first two episodes of The Handmaid's Tale premiere at midnight Wednesday on Hulu.