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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Review: Season 2 Showcases a Bigger and More Brutal Universe, But Lacks Momentum

The Emmy-winning drama returns with a roar, though meanders a bit too much.

The Handmaid's Tale Season 2

Hulu

“The Handmaid’s Tale” has never been an easy show to watch, or to write about. The further we go into its storytelling, the more we learn about this haunting world, the more that we find ourselves struggling with the harshness that June (Elisabeth Moss) wants to escape.

In the episodes of Season 2 made available to critics, a lot happens, especially as it relates to June attempting to find safety in this unsafe world. Much of the season is driven by the big reveal from the end of last season: In a nation starved for children, June is pregnant. But while her pregnancy gives her new power in Gilead, it also leaves her more vulnerable than ever, which plays out in fascinating ways over the first few episodes.

There are brutal moments that result not only from June’s pregnancy, but also her rebellion. That being said, some of Season 2’s most horrifying scenes are flashbacks beautifully anchored in mundanity that feels all-too-relatable, a reminder of just how easily the world can descend into madness. Gilead, we come to understand, goes well beyond physical borders. It’s a state of being, a way of looking at the world with limits.

Visuals continue to impress, though the bold primary colors of the show’s aesthetic are now tempered by a new location and new look. Season 2 keeps certain characters alive by transporting us to the Colonies, the brutal wasteland where non-compliant women are sent to serve out their limited lifetimes. While the look is bleak, the series’ directors, who include Mike Barker, Kari Skogland, and more, still manage to find beauty in it. Reed Morano is very much missed, her legacy remains an indelible part of the series, which continues to look like no other on television.

In many respects, the show remains consistent in tone with Season 1, but in the first six episodes there’s a notable decrease in the amount of voiceover used, which speaks to both the show’s departure from the original source material as well as well-earned confidence in its star. Driven by Moss’ always-striking performance, the writers seem to have greater trust in the narrative and allow June’s darkest moments play out silently. Once again, the Emmy winner finds nuance and elegance in rage and rebellion.

The Handmaid's Tale Season 2

However, while Moss is still very much the lead, Season 2 feels a bit more like an ensemble, with Yvonne Strahovski and Alexis Bledel at the forefront. Bledel was and compelling in Season 1, and remains a particularly strong presence here; an episode spotlighting Emily’s backstory is full of heartbreaking moments and horrifying images, as we see just how easily her life as she knew it was taken away from her.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” has always stood out for touches that make the world of the show feel truly alive and growing deeper with each episode. That said, Season 2 has a meandering feel, with a few major twists and the sense of growing expectation without payoff. There’s still a lot of Gilead to explore, and there’s a lot of backstory to be discovered. But the lack of a strong framework creates an odd sense of drift.

That said, there’s still plenty to be excited about, from the extraordinary cast to the chances it takes — “The Handmaid’s Tale” has never chosen the easy path and it heightens a sense of danger that permeates every scene. There are so many battles being waged, perhaps the fiercest of which is the assault on June’s sanity in an insane world that can feel an awful lot like today’s.

When the show was originally announced in 2016, it was a very different time — an era that now seems hopeful, even quaint and naive. Bad Hollywood Men who sexually harassed their employees were hiding in plain sight and “open secrets” were commonplace. Harsh truths awaited; we weren’t talking about the things that needed talking about.

Things are different now, and there’s something about the blunt injustice of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that offers a semblance of catharsis, the idea that “things are bad, but at least they’re not this bad.” At the same time, the action remains all too relatable, even recognizable — the chilling sense that this could really happen remains indelible. Showrunner Bruce Miller has established the stakes for this world, and while it’d be nice if there was more focus, the series remains as unforgiving and unforgettable as ever. June’s anger and rage are ours as well, screaming out for those kept silent.

Grade: B+

“The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2 premieres April 25 on Hulu.

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