When Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” was first published in 1985, America was in her Reagan years. A fervent, nascent religious right, certain their politics were sanctioned by scripture, set forth to fundamentally reshape American public life. Last spring, Hulu’s TV adaptation of the novel debuted as the Moral Majority’s vision was realized in the form of a Trump-Pence administration eager to stoke the flames of bitter culture wars. And now, the show returns to Hulu following a national cultural reckoning with systems of power and the men who exploit them.
Dystopia at its best takes those elements of contemporary society to narrative extremes, unsettling us with their uneasy familiarity and leaving us wondering: Could it happen here? Mary McCarthy wrote in her New York Times review of the novel that “The Handmaid’s Tale” lacked the “shiver of recognition” necessary to shock and warn, but the power of the show’s second season — more vivid and horrifying than the first — lies precisely in its ability to offer us a world that resembles ours; the season’s timely arrival in this political moment gives it a renewed sense of urgency and importance.
The first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” ends where the novel did: The pregnant handmaid Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss, “Mad Men”) steps into the back of a van, neither she nor the audience certain of her fate. This forces Season 2 to advance beyond the pages of the book and it quickly finds its footing as it expands Margaret Atwood’s world, fleshing out the oppressive, theocratic Republic of Gilead and venturing outside its walls. Emily (Alexis Bledel, “Gilmore Girls”), who befriended June last season, has been banished to the Colonies, toxic concentration camps for failed handmaids and women who have sinned.
The introduction of the Colonies brings a new aesthetic dimension to an already visually sumptuous show. If the well-kept households of the Commanders and their wives recall the painterly elegance of Vermeer, the Colonies are brought on screen in the style of Andrew Wyeth, muted and wistful, washed in gorgeous browns and pastels. Like last season’s, the camerawork veers between portraitlike and Kubrickian, using claustrophobic shallow focus to evoke the devastating personal wreckage of Gilead and crisp, haunting tableaus to remind of the regime’s sheer might.
Most striking are this season’s flashbacks, tender impressionistic scenes of life before Gilead. In the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” these mostly served to establish relationships and motivations. Now, they seem a bit more pointed — acting as roadmaps or whispered warnings of how tyranny might slip into our world unnoticed. In one, June casually asks her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle, “Looking”) to sign a form so she can pick up her birth control prescription. In another, a stern nurse insists on calling June “Mrs. Bankole” despite June’s repeated reminders that she goes by her maiden name. This world on the brink of totalitarian takeover is, the show would like us to know, eerily similar to ours.
For all its quiet, poignant moments, though, “The Handmaid’s Tale” still suffers from a frustrating unwillingness to leave anything up to the imagination. The first two episodes of the second season almost seem to revel in female pain, leaning fully into the sort of horror that felt far more understated last season. What should we make of a show that subjects its women to such brutality while basking in feminist glory? Gendered violence is the defining feature of the lives of Gilead’s handmaids — maybe the gore is a necessary evil — but the restraint with which it was depicted in the first season is so lacking now it verges on unwatchable.
Luckily, the show is grounded in lucidity by Moss, whose every line and glance are charged with an intensity and rawness that make this easily one of TV’s best performances. Her fellow Emmy winners Alexis Bledel and Ann Dowd (“Good Behavior”) as Aunt Lydia are mesmerizing to watch. It’s largely thanks to these leading actresses that “The Handmaid’s Tale” remains the most beautiful, searing show on television. Praise be.