Warning: This contains mild spoilers for the opening episode of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2. Not seen Season 1? Click here to see where you can watch it online.
“Our Father, who art in heaven. Seriously, what the actual fuck?”
The Handmaid’s Tale is the best and worst thing to happen to television. It’s a must-watch masterpiece that’s almost impossible to watch, a programme that demands to be talked about but is difficult to recommend. It’s hard to think of any of show that’s been so important, yet so brutal. It’s the only good show on TV where you look forward to the ad breaks, just so you have a few minutes to recover.
Season 1 of Hulu’s accomplished drama, based on Margaret Atwood’s disturbingly pertinent book, ended on a surprising note of hope, as Offred (Elisabeth Moss) was in the back of a van, heading out of Gilead, possibly to her freedom. Season 2, which picks up in the immediate aftermath of that finale, makes no fuss about stamping out any optimism.
The lack of fuss is really quite striking, given the way that many second seasons would ramp up the scale to build upon the first season’s foundations. Instead, The Handmaid’s Tale gives us a disquieting quiet, as we (and Offred) wait to find out what her fate is – only for her to be unleashed from said van and sent running down a long tunnel, with a muzzle on. Joined by a horde of other Handmaids, each muzzled, it’s a bizarre, unsettling sight, as we see humans treated like dogs and rounded up in a pen for punishment. Moss, who was the cornerstone of The Handmaid’s Tale’s powerful impact in Season 1, excels herself in this bleak introduction alone, with just her eyes and face to convey the maelstrom of hope, fear and desperation that’s running amok in her mind.
The result is something of a bait-and-switch, but that only reinforces the point of the set piece, which leaves Offred looking to the sky for a saviour – only for Aunt Lydia to turn up and offer something else entirely. If you were expecting a death or something similar to start off Season 2 with a shock, there’s good and bad news: The Handmaid’s Tale has something far worse in mind.
Ann O’Dowd remains remarkably terrifying in the role of the Handmaids’ self-appointed mother – a character who combines the taciturn authority of a headmistress with the zeal of a preacher. When she discovers Offred’s pregnancy, as was inevitable after Season 1’s revelation, she exalts the Commander’s Handmaid for her blessed fruit, leading a group chant of thanks, praise and mercy by a less than half-hearted crowd. For a brief moment, we wonder if we’re about to see that fanatical mask crack, but what’s beneath it is just more fanaticism; by the time Lydia’s ringing bells to herald the coming of a new child, we’re sure that she’s really quite mad, and scared by her sheer conviction.
Director Mike Barber remains an expert at judging what we don’t see, as a fiery punishment takes place off-screen and the camera lingers on Offred. Also attempting not to look at what’s happening, it’s a hugely effective choice of shot, placing both of us in the same position of passive compliance with the abuse.
As always, the show contrasts this grey, grim reality with the sun-dappled memories of America before Gilead – and it’s here that the series perhaps holds the most intrigue. We get another taste of June’s life when she was still with Luke, trying to take care of their sick daughter, or even deciding whether or not they should have a child in the first place. These are the kind of scenes that highlight the difference between Season 1 and 2, as The Handmaid’s Tale moves away from Atwood’s source material to come up with its own follow-up story. Atwood is still involved in the story, and the spirit of the book still feels very much present, but there’s a notable gap between writing something that’s topical 30 years later and writing something during the period the series is looking to criticise. In Season 1, The Handmaid’s Tale was horrifying in the way it normalised the mundanity of a misogynist regime, robbing women of their rights over their own bodies. In Season 2, we can see that normalisation of women’s gradually eroded rights was already in motion before the explosive shift towards Gilead’s rule.
In this alternate present, the show’s writer Bruce Miller seems to reminds us, things can only get worse. Or can they? The second run’s opener picks up the closing tone from Season 1 and deftly toys with the possibility of an improvement in Offred’s circumstances throughout its unpleasant 60 minutes, but without fully committing to it. There is potential for significant change, but there’s equal potential for things to drag along unaltered – when Offred is sat in a hospital (oppressively clinical white walls and pristine surfaces), what is she meant to do other than let the doctors inspect her?
There is more than one kind of freedom, Aunt Lydia argues in the best speech of the hour: freedom from, and freedom to. But whichever way you look at Gilead, whether it’s the freedom from humanity’s extinction (or the freedom from having to make decisions) or Offred’s freedom to eat better food, because she’s now eating for two, it’s clear that both options are really prisons of their own – each one a locked cage waiting for a key that will likely never come. And even if it did, what then?
Offred’s voiceover makes a welcome return for this new season, beginning the run with a declaration of freedom – and, moreover, a declaration of identity, from her age, hometown and height to the fact that she’s pregnant. And yet that’s precisely how Gilead wants her to define herself: not as an individual, but as a mother-in-waiting. Hope lingers in Season 2’s silent opening moments, but as soon as Offred opens her mouth, even the language she has become conditioned to use keeps her a prisoner. Welcome back, The Handmaid’s Tale – still the most unwelcome show on TV.
Episode 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale is available on All 4 until 19th June 2018. New episodes are broadcast on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9pm.