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The Diminishing Returns of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

The critically acclaimed Hulu show is even more difficult to watch in its second season. How long can a show about hopelessness keep its audience?

Elisabeth Moss Hulu/Ringer illustration

If there’s such a thing as critical whiplash, The Handmaid’s Tale is a textbook example. Over an uneven first season, Hulu’s Emmy-winning breakout was by turns exhilarating and frustrating, effortlessly of-the-moment and cringingly oblivious. With a largely faithful Margaret Atwood adaptation, creator Bruce Miller and his collaborators, including star Elisabeth Moss and director Reed Morano, anticipated Trump-era developments like the Women’s March and a renewed wariness of Pence-ian zealotry. But many of the show’s additions directly countered its effective despair: jarring pop-music cues; unearned notes of defiance; an added resistance-and-rebellion subplot centered on an underground organization called Mayday. These bumps were sometimes difficult to take stock of in the moment, drowned out as they were by the undeniable, if unplanned, parallels to real life. In the intervening months, however, Handmaid’s achieved a level of awards dominance that naturally invites some scrutiny. And while the offscreen political situation hasn’t exactly calmed, it has become depressingly routine to those not directly affected.

Today, the first two episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale’s second season premiere on Hulu; with them, the show moves past Atwood’s conclusion. As the follow-up effort to a zeitgeist-gripping phenomenon, the season faces the standard speculation as to whether it can measure up to the first without the accidental assistance of some uncanny timing. As the follow-up to this particular phenomenon, it also attempts to deliver on the implicit promise of its predecessor: that Miller and his team were choosing to expand The Handmaid’s Tale—and making the alterations that went along with that expansion—because they had something to add. Would Handmaid’s continue its disorienting tonal choices? Even if it didn’t, would the prolonged story they enabled justify them?

As it turns out, the six episodes of Season 2 that were provided to critics are a neat inverse of Season 1. Rather than hitting notes of triumph or inspiration that inevitably ring false, these latest chapters lean into the all-consuming anguish. In doing so, The Handmaid’s Tale follows through on the logical implications of its premise—but also raises a critical question about its overall direction. There’s little hope in Gilead, or for it. How long does it take to drive that home before the show goes inert?

Most of Season 1’s changes were made with an eye toward turning a finite literary classic into a TV show, which comes with the less-than-purely-artistic goal of extending itself as long as a network will have it. The novel is largely a static, limited snapshot describing the dystopia of Gilead—a theocratic state formed out of what was once the United States in response to environmental devastation and declining birth rates—as experienced by Offred (Moss), a “Handmaid” who endures ritual rape in the regime’s hopes she will conceive a child. The reader learns about Offred’s pre-Gilead past and a litany of horrific details about her present, but her future is left deliberately ambiguous. In the book’s final pages, Offred is loaded into an unmarked van, which could be taking her to either safety or an even more distressing form of punishment. She does survive, eventually escaping to write the account that makes up most of the book, but Atwood never explains when or how Offred’s captivity ends.

Miller’s version spreads point-of-view duties among multiple characters, maintaining Offred’s primacy while expanding the range of Gilead territory The Handmaid’s Tale can explore. Offred’s onetime husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), successfully escapes to Canada, where refugees have formed an enclave called Little America; Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the wife of the Gilead commander who gives Offred (née June Osbourne) her title, allows the viewer to observe some higher-level decision-making. But while adding perspectives went a long way toward expanding The Handmaid’s Tale from a medium-length book to a 10-hour season of TV, it wasn’t enough to lay the groundwork for seasons to come. To do that, Miller introduced optimism to an otherwise uniform sense of horror, a strategy that promised something to look forward to in the long term while producing some of the first season’s most regrettable moments—June seasoning her voice-over with an insouciant “... bitches,” Handmaids strutting in slow motion to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”—in the short.

While diminished, last season’s flaws have’t been left behind entirely. A Kate Bush cue in the Season 2 premiere is as cringeworthy as the infamous Tom Petty drop that closed out Season 1; a flashback clumsily adapts the look and language of current campus protests for the onset of Gilead. The elements of the (relatively) lighter version of Handmaid’s are still in place should the show ever see fit to revert to it.

But for now, Handmaid’s veers in the opposite direction, a strategy that creates as many problems as it solves. One of the first season’s most dramatic departures from the novel was the stakes-raising revelation of June’s pregnancy, the result of an affair with chauffeur and undercover spy Nick (Max Minghella). A baby on the way does change the status quo of the Waterford home, ratcheting up the tension between June and Serena while straining the already fragile, fraught bond between June and Nick. June also loses some of her few connections to the outside world—contact with Mayday, alliances with fellow Handmaids—at an especially vulnerable time.

Often, though, June’s circumstances feel like an intensified version of what they were before: a woman coerced into a perverse kind of intimacy with her oppressor. To be fair, intensity is what The Handmaid’s Tale does best. While I won’t detail the ins and outs of the plot, the prospect of freedom is tantalizingly floated in front of June only to be ruthlessly yanked away, a broad outline that’s less a spoiler than a description of the character’s baseline state of being. Elisabeth Moss continues to make the audience feel every twinge of anger, fear, confusion, and determination that washes over June’s face, typically framed in extreme close-up by directors who continue to find stark, powerful imagery in a confined space, like June’s mouth muzzled like an animal or her reflection in a bathtub full of blood.

It’s still hard to shed the feeling that The Handmaid’s Tale is, at its core, an alarmist political allegory that’s long since sounded the alarm. There’s a fine line between driving home the harrowing reality of repression and getting mired in its depths. Handmaid’s continues to find ways to keep the actual experience of Gilead freshly chilling, yet the underlying concept is beginning to feel a little too firmly established. June is still a person treated like property, forced to draw on deep reserves of strength in the absence of any meaningful connection or trust. Her story sees some change, as the nonstop degradation gets to her and the bastards at long last start to grind her down, but most of it is internal.

The most promising elements of The Handmaid’s Tale’s sophomore season are also its newest. When the news broke that Alexis Bledel would be returning as a series regular, it was greeted with a decent amount of skepticism. Her character, Emily, a lesbian college professor enlisted as a Handmaid and branded a “gender traitor” in Gilead, exited Season 1 by hijacking a car and mowing down several soldiers, an act of insurrection that seemed to guarantee a swift and painful death. How could the writers plausibly keep her around?

They send her to the Colonies, the previously unseen toxic wasteland wielded as a threat against Handmaids who might misbehave. By following her there, The Handmaid’s Tale unlocks an unseen dimension of Gilead’s large-scale cruelty. The landscape offers the Handmaid’s visual team a whole new iconography to supplement the color-coded surveillance state where June spends her days. (Morano retains her executive producer credit, but cedes directing duties to directors like Mike Barker and Kari Skogland.) Clouds of noxious gas drift across the frame; disciplinarian Aunts wear gas masks, adding a frightening anonymity to their already imposing authority. Promoting Emily helps Handmaid’s to broaden its portrait of Gilead; another interlude brings June into contact with the so-called “Econo-people,” the workers who make up Gilead’s middle class. By shading in more details of how Gilead functions as a society, Handmaid’s makes its not-too-distant future more concrete, and therefore more convincing. Meanwhile, June’s best friend Moira has successfully fled to Canada. Until now, Handmaid’s has largely been preoccupied with how totalitarianism creeps into place and perpetuates itself once there. With Moira’s readjustment, Handmaid’s allows itself a new avenue for insight: how trauma lingers for survivors long after they’re technically past it, and how internalizing the belief systems of their persecutors, even subconsciously, contributes to that staying power. Moira may be free to hook up in gay bars and return to the workplace, but she can’t shrug off her time as a prostitute for misbehaving Commanders so easily. Or, as June puts it: “Gilead is in you.”

Neither of these story lines are uplifting, nor do they make any disingenuous effort to be so. But they are novel in the context of The Handmaid’s Tale, where even a slightly different source of emotional distress can come as a relief to the invested viewer. They nonetheless fail to offset the comparative stasis of June’s arc. The Handmaid’s Tale may be pivoting away from the fist-pumping that felt so at odds with its basic premise, yet in the process, the show inadvertently reveals why it was necessary in the first place. When Handmaid’s isn’t forecasting a brighter outcome that doesn’t make sense, it’s mired in a dire situation that’s increasingly difficult to watch. Hope wasn’t a viable roadmap for a multiyear series, but neither is hopelessness.