Monday, April 16, 2018

TV REVIEW: Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' - Season 2

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale returns for its second season on Wednesday, April 25. The drama stars Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strakovski, Samira Wiley, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer, O-T Fagbenle and Amanda Brugel.

Read on for my thoughts on the new season after screening its first six episodes.

Last September, Hulu surprised the entire television industry by becoming the first streaming service to win in one of the prestigious series categories at the Emmy Awards. Netflix and Amazon have gotten multiple contenders in the top races for best drama and comedy series. But they never managed to pull off a victory in those categories. Both have won on numerous occasions when it comes to acting, writing and directing. But the series prize remained elusive. Streaming has always been billed as the future of this industry. It was the new threat coming to replace cable just as cable overtook broadcast at these awards. It seemed like the inevitability of change from this new outlet was always pushed off until the next year. Things were allowed to maintain their current trajectory because HBO always had a Veep or Game of Thrones that could win in those fields. But the moment The Handmaid's Tale debuted, it became a serious contender in this race. It was so distinctive right away. It was such a gripping start to a very important and timely series. It became so prescient because the timing of the series launch coincided with the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. That was a narrative that Hulu was able to build an awards campaign around. Heading into the nominations announcement, it was unclear if Hulu could successfully mount a campaign because it never had in the past. But that can no longer be said after the drama received 13 nominations and walked away with 8 victories. It was a win that delivered a rousing declaration to the rest of the industry. Streaming is the future and Hulu is a resounding force in that medium.

As such, anticipation is quite high heading into the second season. As the reigning champion for best drama series, the stakes are much higher for success. It was always daunting to adapt the Margaret Atwood novel as a series. But the first season managed to do so in an extraordinary way that was able to mine so many raw emotions out of this brutal world and the characters trapped within it. The second season had its own obstacles to hurdle as well. There is the anticipation that the new episodes will be able to maintain that quality while further compromising this world and peeling back the curtain of so many powerful and uncomfortable emotions. But it's also moving beyond the scope of the original novel. The first season exhausted the plot of the book. There were some aspects of the story that weren't touched on last year - like the lower class portion of Gilead where the families are faithful but aren't the leaders of the new society. But it was also a little worrisome because the aspects of the first season that changed the story of the novel in order to adapt it into a multi-season television show were some of the more problematic elements. Over the course of those ten episodes, death lost meaning because so many characters were believed to die only to eventually be revealed as still alive. That happened with Luke, Moira and Janine. They are all still very important characters in the narrative. But the broadening of the scope was a significant issue last season. The show was always at its most powerful when it focused so intensely on Offred's life in Gilead and whether or not she could ever resist enough to return to being June Osborne once more.

The world of The Handmaid's Tale continues to broaden in the new season. Last year the action was mostly confined to Gilead and Offred's immediate environment. The show incorporated flashbacks to flesh out the various characters of this world. It painted a stark picture of how their actions during the lead up to Gilead's creation ultimately led to their current fates. Those were often the only breaks from this bleak and destructive world. Even then, it was clear what was coming and just how maddening the fear actually was with some of the characters simply not acting fast enough. In the second season, the characters are much more spread out. That seemed inevitable based on where several of their stories ended last season. Offred is still in Gilead with the resolution to the big cliffhanger of her being taken by the soldiers being very intense and traumatizing despite her news that she is now pregnant. Meanwhile, Luke and Moira are up in the Canadian settlement now known as Little America. They are trying to adjust to their new lives while helping others with the transition. Plus, the show sends a pair of characters to the Colonies. That was a destination that received so many ominous references last year but was never seen. Now, the show actually depicts that vicious world where noncompliant women are sent to work until they die. It all remains so completely bleak and terrifying. But the show's mastery of emotions is still proudly on display in a way that is able to tie everything together even though the characters are now officially on different journeys. It's not abundantly clear if the show can handle this expanded scope in a way that makes everything feel connected and earned in the end. After watching six episodes of the new season, it feels like some of the stories start and stop in some awkward positions. The main story is allowed to build and develop. But the world on the periphery could become problematic if the show isn't too careful.

And yet, it's still important to note that all of the things that worked last season are still mesmerizing to watch here. The storytelling still crafts these moments that reveal new layers of Gilead and the twisted ceremonies involved to great effect. Everything remains just as twisted as before even though some are played as celebrations while always are sinister intimidation tactics. The directing is still remarkably stellar. This season is led by Mike Barker who directs four of the opening episodes with the other two being helmed by Kari Skogland. And the acting remains tremendous and stunning. Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel and Ann Dowd won Emmys for their performances. They continue to be excellent. In fact, it seems like the show is leaning on its award-winning performers even more so in the early going of the new season. Moss' Offred remains the main focus. She is terrific in every episode so far. She is able to convey such a wide range of emotions from silent fear and anger to outright depression. These episodes take Offred on quite a remarkable journey. A huge twist in the premiere sets things up in a surprising way for her. It's empowering while still being twisted because of the imagery involved. And then, Moss digs into some really dark and haunting material around the fourth and fifth episodes. It's mesmerizing to watch her work. But it's still just as compelling to see Bledel, Dowd, Samira Wiley and Yvonne Strahovski perform as well. This continues to be a story led by nuanced and complicated women. The men are noticeably less active in the first half of the year - with the sole exception of Nick who is rationalizing his feelings for June and her carrying their child with his position in Gilead. But everything is bound to grow even more complicated the further into this tale the story goes to show that nothing is ever truly stable in the world of Gilead.

Freedom proves to be the big theme and central drive of the story this year. The show ponders if anyone is ever truly free once they've been in Gilead? Are people in Gilead actually free? The Waterfords and Aunt Lydia certainly believe so. Early on, Aunt Lydia tells the handmaids that there is a difference from "freedom to" and "freedom from." In the old world, everyone had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. That led to the rise of immorality that produced the crisis that threatened to wipe out humanity. In Gilead, the people have the freedom from having to make all of the agonizing choices by themselves. They have the freedom to just be who they were meant to be. They walk around in this world proudly showing off their colors that represent their place in society. Everyone knows exactly who they are. To people like Aunt Lydia, that is freeing and comforting. For others though, it's traumatic and oppressive. And yet, it seems impossible to ever physically escape from Gilead. Moira managed to do it last season. She stole a car and was able to make it across the Canadian border. But she's still dealing with the psychological ramifications of what she had to endure both as a handmaid and an escort. The people sent to the Colonies have escaped from Gilead as well. They've escaped to their deaths. But they also have the freedom to do whatever they want because the guards only care if they are working in the fields. That's freeing from a certain perspective as well. And then, there is June. The split between her identity of June and Offred is more profound than ever before. Can she be free if she devotes herself fully to the idea of Offred and her role within this world? Can she ever escape and just be June again? Can she ever be truly free if she knows that her daughter, Hannah, is trapped within this horrifying system? These are the questions being asked this year. They are reflected well throughout the story. The show put a lot of thought into these various aspects of life under this new society. The payoff is very emotional and intense. But it also makes The Handmaid's Tale a thrilling and agonizing series to watch once more.