Film & Television

The Handmaid’s Tale: Women Shine Brightest in Hulu’s Dark Series

In these days of streaming television content on demand, I’m a hopeless binger, for better or worse. Whether it’s Grace and Frankie, Mozart in the Jungle, House of Cards, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or even revisiting series I’ve seen before in real time, like Downton Abbey, I definitely live by a “more is more” principle. Armed with Diet Coke and an enormous bowl of popcorn, I can sit through episode after episode . . . after episode.

Hulu, in launching the second season of its much-acclaimed original series The Handmaid’s Tale, has thwarted my tendency to binge. They have released just two episodes to date, and will continue to introduce a new one each week through mid-July.

All I can say is, thank goodness! Because as much as I admire the series, it is terribly difficult to watch. In fact, the second season seems even darker than the first.

When Hulu premiered the first season last spring, the country’s liberals, and particularly its feminists, were still reeling over the presidential election. With a conservative (and some would say misogynist) administration, decades-old reproductive rights were suddenly in jeopardy. And Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel seemed an especially prescient warning.

The first season followed Atwood’s book fairly closely, and the author herself was an active consultant. Set in the near future, the story takes place after religious radicals have taken over the U.S. government. In the new state of Gilead, mass infertility (due to disease, pollution, and nuclear fallout) has made it necessary to enslave young women capable of bearing children. These “handmaids” are assigned to the regime’s leaders and raped once a month in a ritual that includes not only the leader but also his wife and a passage from Genesis, which seems to sanctify the arrangement. Handmaids who don’t conceive — or, worse, dare to resist — face brutal punishment. As do other undesirables, like professors, clergy, and “gender traitors” (homosexuals). The gripping season ended as Atwood’s book did: the pregnant handmaid Offred is loaded into a van; whether it’s taking her to freedom or to her death is never answered.

The Handmaid’s Tale, coproduced by Hulu and MGM, earned rave reviews and made television history as the first title from a streaming service to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. In fact, it won a total of eight Emmys, as well as two Golden Globes, and numerous other honors.

The new season picks up precisely where the last season left off. Offred, the incredibly talented and multi-award winner Elisabeth Moss, is in the back of the van. Her journey is neither as rewarding nor as punishing as it might have been. The first sequence, which involves Offred and the other handmaids who, in an act of courageous sisterhood, refused to stone a fellow handmaid to death last season, is truly terrifying. With no dialogue for several minutes — the handmaids have been forced to wear leather muzzles — it’s set to Kate Bush’s 1989 “This Woman’s Work,” a haunting song about the pain and potential danger of childbirth. Like so many elements of The Handmaid’s Tale, the musical choice is deliberate and powerful. As is the setting. Red Sox fans may want to rethink their devotion to Fenway Park.

Because Offred is pregnant, she’s afforded some safety that the other handmaids can’t count on. The greatest threat leveled at them at any time is that they’ll be sent “to the colonies,” a nuclear wasteland where they will quite literally be worked to death. Merely mentioned in Atwood’s novel, the colonies are featured prominently in the new season’s second episode. Ofglen (the tremendous and also award-winning Alexis Bledel) serves as de facto nurse and leader to the other women who have been sent there. If life in Gilead is brutal, life in the colonies is utterly hopeless.

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  • Andrea May 3, 2018 at 7:48 am

    Thanks Alex for this review. I re watched season 1 and now am deep into season 2. Disturbing, thought provoking and touching all at once!