Without Margaret Atwood’s novel to fall back on, season two of The Handmaid’s Tale takes audiences to new heights. Even if you have never watched the show or read the original text, you will know from people that have certainly told you to watch it that it’s just dark. It’s a show with no hope. Season two wastes no time in showing us the aftermath of season one’s mutiny, opening with a sequence in which viewers are tricked into what looked like a mass hanging. During that opening fifteen minutes or so, I was on the edge of my seat and this sets the tone for the twelve episodes that followed, much ado with the cruel trick orchestrated by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).
Episode one “June” opens up with lots of faces (eyes specifically). Nobody talks much for at least ten minutes. This makes it clear that our characters are scarred from what happened in the season one finale. We, along with June (Elisabeth Moss) are the butt of Aunt Lydia’s cruel, psychological joke. But, is The Handmaid’s Tale too dark? People call Game of Thrones dark, but it has its moments of lightheartedness. In The Handmaid’s Tale’s second outing, those moments are scarce. Despite season one being as grim as it was, especially with the arcs of Emily (Alexis Bledel) and Janine (Madeline Brewer). Season two is just grim from start to finish, with no room to breathe.
I called season two “hopeless”. I lied, there are moments. When Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) goes to Canada with Fred (Joseph Fiennes), she is approached by a journalist who offers her a lifeline. It’s in these moments that show how trapped these women are. “Someone once said men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them” says June (Moss). Even in positions of power there is still a slavery, and those who want to escape have to really want it enough to put their lives on the line like Moira (Samira Wiley). It’s do or die, and it’s in the moments of rebellion we see which characters are doers and which ones have grown to love their chains.
“I thought there were still secret places, hidden in the cracks and crevices of this world. Places we could make beautiful, peaceful, quiet, safe. Or at least bearable” narrates June. This really shows the “dystopianess” of their world. From George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to Huxley’s Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly up there in world-building in its ability to put audiences into environments. We see what these characters see. We feel what they feel. And again, Moss and Strahovski lead from the front with great performances. Especially the latter, as there were many times where her decision-making had me shaking my head with disappointment.
There are moments of hope that are foiled, making audiences cry harder, like June’s attempt to escape to Canada in episode three “Baggage”. This is “the hope.” It’s in the “maybe moments” and those moments are a hard slog, a chore in a show that nobody looks forward to watching but still loves (I use that term loosely).The Handmaid’s Tale is a politically relevant series and blood-soaked in misery, pain and sorrow. Whether we’re in the Colonies (a handmaids concentration camp) or following June – where she goes from grim encounter to grimmer encounter like trying to kill her unborn child, season two built upon the softer season one and now we’re into dystopian horror.
“This could be Air BnB. Three-star reviews maybe. Amazing house. Owners are super polite but creepy as fuck. Some ritualised rape required” says June. “I suppose I am one of the lucky ones. I still have circumstances: a chair, sunlight, I’m alive.” Every single episode is splattered in misery and despair, with every bit of light blacked out (literally, there are lots of dark scenes indoors, not much natural light). Even moments that are meant to be viewed as wins or victories for the handmaidens come at great cost, such as in the closing moments of episode six “First Blood” where thirty-one handmaids are killed / injured in a suicide bombing (in the name of the cause).
Season two is certainly a slow burn. It seldom changes pace but it’s certainly an improvement on its predecessor. It dips into the horror genre and I can’t wait to see where they take this show next, as it continues to run its social commentary against not just the US but the world.