Few television shows can match the commitment of The Handmaid’s Tale to withholding catharsis from audiences. The series is as bleak as ever in its second season, with moments of hope proving short-lived. In the season premiere’s exhilarating climax, Nick (Max Minghella) arranges for the now-pregnant June (Elisabeth Moss), or Offred as she’s called in handmaid circles, to escape Gilead and its oppressive regime, and the series eventually shifts its focus to June’s psychological attrition as she struggles to survive in Gilead.
Season two quickly reestablishes the show’s grim atmosphere by revealing the fate of the handmaids who rebelled against Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) in season one’s finale. They’re first made to stand in the gallows in Fenway Park and later brought to a kitchen that acts as a makeshift torture chamber. These brutal scenes implicate June in the punishment of her fellow handmaids: Though she led the others in disobedience, her pregnancy protects her from sharing their fate. The season crafts a beguiling ethical question, forcing June—and, by proxy, us—to wonder whether her misbehaviors are selfish or righteous. This is the paradoxical pathology of abuse victims.
The Handmaid’s Tale maintains a visual lyricism that both clashes with and magnifies the brutality on screen. During one of Aunt Lydia’s punishments, the handmaids are framed from above beneath a mesmeric spiral of falling rain. It’s a moment of melancholic beauty, underscoring the display of human viciousness below. The haunting Fenway Park sequence perversely repurposes a city landmark, enlisting the beloved stadium for medieval-style horror.
The show’s interior scenes are similarly sleek but more claustrophobic, from the staid Waterford mansion to the sterile lab where June undergoes her first ultrasound. It’s from the lab that she escapes, beginning her hopeful flight from Gilead. She resumes calling herself by her real name, and in one of many of the season’s grueling scenes, cuts off the red tag in her ear that denotes that she’s a handmaid. In these episodes, Moss portrays a bolder, more determined version of June as the character seeks to reassert her old, independent identity. It’s a brief glimpse of hope that provides reprieve after last season resolutely focused on the character’s persistent suffering.
The scope of the The Handmaid’s Tale widens in its second season, as June explores Gilead. During her escape, she’s brought to the bowels of a building later revealed to be the abandoned site of the Boston Globe. She’s told that the paper shuttered even before the takeover of the United States by the Gilead regime, an example of how the series is instructive in its outlining of how a dystopian world could come to be. Yet while the scene succeeds in providing a terrifying look at a country without a free press, it’s never more compelling than in shots of what remains at the Boston Globe offices. In a darkly moving, elegiac sequence, June collects detritus from abandoned cubicles—Red Sox hats, novelty mugs, pictures, and so on—and erects a shrine where executions had taken place during Gilead’s rise. And the series offers even more trenchant and unsettling commentary when June is seen arranging old newspaper clippings chronologically by subject, using such distinctions as “Militarization” and “Civil Rights Suppression.”
Occasionally, The Handmaid’s Tale reveals its didactic hand. Flashbacks featuring the Gilead founders during the nascent days of their movement, being booed at a university, feel like a strained attempt to reflect our present-day campus culture wars. Elsewhere, the series too often uses obvious voiceover to telegraph what’s made plain by its usually striking filmmaking. While on the run, June doubles over, rocked by the prospect of abandoning her child in Gilead. Her mindset is elucidated by wistful flashbacks of her old life, and a redundant monologue only detracts from an otherwise breathtaking shot of her running through an expansive corn field.
More often, however, The Handmaid’s Tale balances overt topicality with an intimate portrait of June’s determination. The flashbacks work to illuminate her resolution in the present-day scenes, while each of her brief, often fleeting victories hint at the enthralling prospect that her tormenters will eventually meet their downfall. Because the series commits fully to delaying that gratification, June’s small triumphs become inordinately satisfying—from the smirks she employs to provoke Aunt Lydia to more openly rebellious acts. (Rarely has vomit been a more welcome sight than when June pukes up the vitamin smoothie that Aunt Lydia forces her to drink.)
The season is most heartbreaking during moments of doubt, when June appears resigned to her fate. Yet The Handmaid’s Tale consistently obscures her true motivation, mining mystery from her submissiveness: Is it genuine, or another tactic? When she’s able to seize, however briefly, the upper hand from her tormentors, the series offers tantalizing glimpses of their chagrin. For a moment, we’re prompted to envision that chagrin morphing into sorrow, shame, maybe even fear. That would spell some kind of catharsis, but until it actually arrives, The Handmaid’s Tale remains intellectually nourishing, easy to admire, and difficult to endure. It’s a beautiful test of stamina, offering only small reprieves from June’s suffering. It embeds us alongside her, and remains dedicated to illustrating how exactly the villains can win.