The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Reviewed: Worldbuilding At Its Finest
The Handmaid’s Tale returns to Hulu. The good news is it stopped punching us in the face.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1 was a shock to the system when it debuted last year. Coming on the heels of Trump’s inauguration, and right in the middle of the Obamacare repeal fight, there wasn’t a show on TV that could say it was so accidentally timely. (Though many tried.) The result was award hardware galore, with Hulu taking home the first Best Drama Emmy for a streaming series ever.
The question was, coming into Season 2 was, can they keep it up? The answer, thank god, is no.
The first season was, in a word, relentless. The first three episodes were traumatizing, akin to being punched in the face over and over. It was ballsy, it was effective, and it won a ton of awards. But it was also a hard, hard watch. In fact, a lot of people I knew said thanks but no thanks to the show. “I know it’s probably great, but I just can’t, not with the world like this, you know?” was often to the comment when the subject came up. And could anyone really blame them?
Things have changed substantially in the year since the show first debuted. Trump and Pence are still a fascist threat, but Trump’s buffoonery, and the ridiculousness of those he’s surrounded by often cloud the news, along with the sheer scale of the scandals. Paul Ryan has announced he’s quitting, assuring that no legislation will go anywhere until 2019. The political climate is no longer as terrifying.
And Handmaid’s Tale has responded. The first ten minutes or so of the opening episode attempt to return to face punching, but the show’s heart isn’t in it. Also, the series has finished the book’s main story material, so in terms of plot, they’re off on their own. This means the series tone is more in line with last season’s episode featuring “Luke’s Canadian Adventures.” Interesting, and great for worldbuilding, but nothing in comparison to say, the episode where Janine gives birth.
This is a good thing. Season 1 was great and broke barriers in television drama, but it was also exhausting. Hulu cannot afford to have a flagship show that no one wants to watch because it’s just too much. They need their show to be both a critical *and* ratings success. So far they only have one of the two.
Also, now that Handmaid’s Tale isn’t busy punching us in the face, they have time to explore this horror show world, in a way Atwood didn’t on the page. Most of what they dive into is fascinating stuff. We meet the Econo-people, those not quite middle-class caste who are neither servant nor master in this world, and are mostly trying not to get noticed by their neighbors. We travel out to “The Colonies” and get a look at the different types who wind up out there, and the crimes they committed to be so condemned. We spend more time in Canada, and Moira’s new job of helping people who have escaped to “Little America.”
We get a vision of what happened to the free press and how it was taken down. (Since Gilead is set in New England, this is extra effective, since it’s set at The Boston Globe, a newsroom recently familiar to viewers from the Oscar-winning Spotlight.) We also consider what it was like as the rights of people rolled back. This is most vividly presented in Emily’s flashbacks as she experiences the rollback of LGBT rights, while some of the older gay friends around her are horrified to watch everything they fought for disappear in an instant. This subplot couldn’t have existed when Atwood wrote the novel back in 1985, because “gay rights” were barely a blip on the radar. (The book was released in 1985, the gay rights movement didn’t get national visibility until around 1987 when the AIDS crisis really began to peak.)
But most of all, we spend time with June Osborne, known as Offred, and get to really know her in a way we never had time to when she was following her book mandated story. Sure, she’s still living in a horror show of a repressive regime, but now that we’re not being assaulted with her situation from all sides, we are able to take a breath and consider the smaller injustices that she lives with every day.
Most importantly though, we flashback to the world before and witness the small everyday injustices she put up with that slowly let the world of America slide into the world of Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 may not arrive at a time that has the same urgent call to action that Season 1 did, but it’s still a good reminder not to allow ourselves to slide into normality. Always seize the day, take the initiative, and push back. The life you save may be your own.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 debuts on Wednesday, April 25, 20,18 with the first two episodes. Hulu will then switch to a one-episode-a-week release format for the rest of the run.