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'The Handmaid's Tale' review: Excellence continues in season 2

Offred (Elisabeth Moss) reckons with the consequences of

Offred (Elisabeth Moss) reckons with the consequences of a dangerous decision while haunted by memories from her past and the violent beginnings of Gilead in "The Handmaid's Tale." Credit: Hulu/George Kraychyk

THE SERIES “The Handmaid’s Tale”

WHEN | WHERE Season 2 begins streaming Wednesday on Hulu

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) promised there would be consequences after the handmaids refused to stone Janine (Madeline Brewer), and Lydia always keeps her word. The first season of the Emmy-winning drama ended with June Osborne/Offred (Elisabeth Moss) — thrown into the back of a van. The second begins just as its doors are opened. Meanwhile, Moira (Samira Wiley) makes herself comfortable in Canada, where she meets up with Luke (O-T Fagbenle). Emily (Alexis Bledel) is in one of those dreaded Gilead work camps called a “Colony.” And until that forced ride in a van, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) were happily (sort of) awaiting Offred’s baby. The real father, Nick (Max Minghella), has different plans for the expectant mother — an escape.

This second season — which goes beyond where Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel about enslaved childbearing women leaves off — will run 13 episodes.

MY SAY You’ll probably want to know first about the “Colonies,” those blighted wastelands where the unpeopled are sent to wait out their days. As promised (or warned), they are nasty little patches of hell, where the ground steams from the toxic offal that lies just beneath the surface. The “unwomen” — with a prominent zero drawn on their ragged tunics — hack endlessly at the dirt with pick and shovel, while under the crust is a black gelatinous stew.

Along with Moss’ peerless performance, one of the best elements of “The Handmaid’s Tale” remains its apocalyptic aesthetic — the degraded colors, the blowing snowflakes in an icy wind, the enveloping gloom, the shadows. Dust motes are suspended in a sunbeam, creating the illusion that even light has been imprisoned. There’s a terrifying morbidity to this world, where life was first interrupted, then obliterated. There are papers strewn on an office floor, a briefcase rudely dumped on stairs. Weeds are growing in the outfield of Fenway Park, where the Green Monster is no longer green. The Red Sox, along with the Fenway maintenance crew, were apparently deemed redundant by the Gilead authorities.

There’s an early scene that distantly recalls the famous one in the original “Planet of the Apes,” when the camera draws back to reveal the Statue of Liberty buried up to her neck in sand. As June pauses by a wall pocked with holes, the camera pulls back while she and viewers realize in the same instant that this is where people were slaughtered. She’s deep in the bowels of the gutted Boston Globe headquarters, where reporters and editors had been herded. The newspaper business has had a hard enough time in 2018, but just imagine how hard — as “Handmaid’s” does — during the endless Gilead winter.

This second season is packed, but without getting too far into spoiler territory, fans can be assured that what’s here feels exactly right. Atwood’s novel ended at the van, essentially leaving readers to guess what happened after its doors opened. The new season wastes no time in filling in the blanks, which include back stories (June and Luke’s) plus a brief chilling snapshot of the coup’s opening salvos. New characters are also introduced — Cherry Jones, as June’s mother, Clea DuVall as Emily’s wife, Bradley Whitford as Emily's “commander,” and in an especially memorable cameo, Marisa Tomei as a “fallen” wife.

Meanwhile, season 2 deepens its exploration of a subject few other series dare to: God. The season opens with a line calculated to raise the hackles of Christians, leading to an impression — an erroneous one — that “Tale” is a jeremiad against faith. It’s really a study of faith, asking that oldest of riddles: Where is God when most urgently needed? God’s silence is deafening in “Tale,” with the sounds of this particular silence in every frame. When Aunt Lydia invokes God’s grace, her words are like a crude epithet, but she does hold the real key to “Tale.” This is about the perversion of faith and how easily — or wantonly — it can be used to serve evil.

BOTTOM LINE Still excellent, still a desperately bleak downer.

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