Last season, The Handmaid’s Tale felt like both a revelation and a version of our reality taken to its most hellish natural conclusion. As an alleged sexual predator sat in the White House, presiding over a rollback of countless women’s issue wins while denying any past misconduct, the series’ insurrectionist government of Gilead took that entire ethos to an even greater extreme every single episode in the country formerly known as America. While swaths of the population started to wave the banner of resistance, few series were better positioned itself to remind viewers why it was so necessary fight back in the first place.
All together, the Margaret Atwood adaptation created the kind of anxiety that chilled you to your core, but kept viewers clicking “Next episode.” But, if you thought Handmaid’s season 1 was intense, Handmaid’s season 2 is here to to tell you that you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Hulu drama, returning Wednesday, April 25, will grab control of your very breath and refuse to let it go for roughly 55 minutes per episode.
The story of June Osbourne (Emmy-winner Elisabeth Moss), who will not be called by her Gilead abductee name of “Offred” at any point, picks up exactly where we left her in the season 1 finale: trapped, unblinking, in the back of a mysterious truck. June finds herself in such an awful position for one of two reasons. Either, she is heading towards her punishment for refusing to murder fellow handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer), or June's secret boyfriend Nick Blaine (Max Minghella) is helping the mother of his unborn child escape to safety. The answer to this mystery is revealed almost immediately in episode 1 of season 2, and it is horrifying.
It says something about the consistent looming terror of Handmaid’s that this haunting outcome can truly arise from either explanation for June sitting in the back of that van. Because in Gilead, it’s likely that running away from your captors won’t lead to some fairytale ending. Here, absolutely no one and nothing feels safe.
That feeling pervades the first six dazzling, stomach-churning episodes of the season that were made available to critics. Things do not improve once we find out where June is going and what kind of fresh hell is waiting for her there. Things get bloody, things get dark. Even the moments you dare to hope for, well, hope in the bleak, blue-toned powder keg that is Gilead, it’s impossible to shake the feeling one wrong move, one wrong breath, might incite catastrophic doom. It’s both terrifying and riveting.
That’s why, although Handmaid’s Tale season 2 cultivates a strong physical effect — one that pulls your shoulders to your ears as if by magic and brings hands blessed with copious amounts of melanin to white knuckling — you keep watching. There is something ridiculously compelling about waiting to see how June will overcome her latest life-threatening, sanity-testing obstacle and trying to breathe your way through her journey. Sometimes the key to June's survival is deploying an unstoppable grit, sometimes it’s emotional manipulation, and sometimes it’s learning to accept the chaos (and have mind-blowing sex despite it). As previously mentioned, in a time of resistance, June can serve as our ultimate avatar against fascist misogyny.
Season 2 heightens these stakes by adding one more block to the already wobbly Jenga tower that is June’s life. In season 1 finale “Night,” we find out the handmaid is pregnant with Nick’s baby. But, with all the Mayday-related subterfuge, Waterford family drama, and Gilead-sponsored demands for Janine’s death-by-stoning, we don’t really get to dig into what that kind of watershed news means for our heroine. Thankfully, the upcoming episodes are given more than enough time to explore all the ways this new pregnancy changes the game for June, who now has to worry about her new child and the one Gilead has already stolen from her, Hannah (Jordana Blake), whose father is June’s first husband Luke Bankole (O-T Fagbenle).
If you think Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) convincing themselves they were the ones bringing life into the world, not June, was infuriating last year, it will be near-impossible not to scream “The audacity!” in coming episodes.
Given how stressful all of this seems, Handmaid’s does manage to offer some breathing room in the form of June’s best friend Moira (a fantastic Samira Wiley). The former Gilead captive has fled the dangerous republic for Toronto, Canada’s Little America refugee neighborhood, where she now lives with the aforementioned Luke, and a new acquaintance, escaped handmaid Erin (Erin Way). While June fights the world’s most oppressive system, Moira, who was forced into prostitution, deals with the effects of what happens when you leave that system. Who are you after such an indelible trauma? How can you even be touched again?
Although Moira’s experiences are still laced with ceaseless emotional turmoil, they lack the claustrophobic feeling of abject, brutal menace lurking in every corner. That’s why they evoke a feeling similar to the single appearance of Al (Brian Tyree Henry) in Atlanta’s “Teddy Perkins,” which is the episode’s sole emotional respite. Yes, Handmaid's Tale is mostly dealing in the twisting house of horrors that is June’s saga, like Darius’ (Lakeith Stanfield) excursion to the nightmarish Perkins (Hope?) manor, yet there is a whole world out there waiting for her. Moira is the proof.
Bridging the gap between June’s constant hell and Moira’s whisper of possibilities are our first glimpses at the oft-spoken about Colonies, which are radioactive Gilead work camps. The new piece of world-building, anchored by season 1 breakout Emily (Alexis Bledel), shows both the darkest depths of man, considering the heinous futures Gilead has condemned the women of the Colonies to, and the best parts of ourselves, as out there, near-death and seemingly at the edge of the nation, the inhabitants are able to show each other real care and affection (amid cattle prods, barked orders, and gruesome biological corruptions). It is a place of both true desolation and love.
In fact, desolation and love might just be the pillars of this season.
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