June Osborne is angry.
What comes through clearly in the opening episode of the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is June’s silent, burning rage. We now know, of course, that her name is not Offred, but June. Chin up, defiant, she declares her first and last name quietly but fiercely several times as the Hulu drama gets underway in a year in which it is, somehow, even more relevant.
What it does to June to switch between names — and each adjustment costs part of her soul — is apparent in every close-up of Elisabeth Moss in this handsome, excellent, morally dextrous series. Moss’ face is, of course, one of the world’s most transfixing transmitters of emotion. The drama’s creative team knew that when they made the Emmy-winning first season, but “The Handmaid’s Tale” takes even more advantage of her bountiful skills this time out.
The show’s writers know that a page of dialogue can be replaced by a sequence in which Moss’ June experiences blank panic, sarcastic defiance and grief within a space of a few seconds. Though the show has lost former executive producer/director Reed Morano, who won an Emmy for her exceptional work on the Hulu drama, the directors in the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” keep their cameras trained on the faces of their expressive stars, especially Moss. Now and then, June narrates voiceovers, but the transparency of the actress’ mesmerizing work means that viewers don’t often need them.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” has a fine extended cast, of course. But in its first five hours, it wisely focuses on a few of its strongest performers, all of them female. By doing so, it easily accomplishes the second season’s main goal, which was the expansion of the world around June. New storylines and scenarios are gracefully introduced, and those that were barely hinted at in Margaret Atwood’s novel are integrated organically with what came before. If some storylines — or the transitions among them — seem a bit disjointed at times, that almost feels appropriate, given that the lives of most characters have been turned upside down. Canada, where refugees like Moira (the phenomenal Samira Wiley) have settled into uneasy and unsatisfying lives, might as well be Mars when one compares it to the regimented, fascistic regime of Gilead.
By anchoring each location with a series of beautifully calibrated performances, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has become more expansive without sacrificing its hypnotic atmosphere. The characters, like Gilead itself, are repressed but contain restless multitudes, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” remains drenched in an unearthly combination of creeping dread, gorgeous aesthetic restraint and furious aspiration.
Ann Dowd remains a miracle worker: Her Aunt Lydia could very easily be the villain of the piece, but Dowd makes her much more than a simple antagonist. Aunt Lydia does terrible things, and it’s not clear if she is a Gilead true believer or just a woman trying to prepare her Handmaid charges for the abuse and psychological deprivation they will face. Perhaps her philosophy is a canny, strong-willed mixture of both.
In any event, the show’s creative team made another wise decision in giving viewers lots of Aunt Lydia in Season 2. June — or Offred, depending on the situation — is pregnant, and at various times, Aunt Lydia acts as a spiritual advisor, a jailor, a visiting nurse and an important community leader. All things considered, Aunt Lydia might be the most powerful woman viewers spend time with; she arguably has even more influence than Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), the Commander’s dutiful wife. Aunt Lydia, you see, has a job, something women are allowed to have in Gilead as long as it is in service of the repressive regime’s quest to get its Handmaids to produce children. And the brisk, observant Aunt Lydia is good at her job.
The “worst” of Gilead’s rebellious women are not employed but enslaved: Those not turned into Handmaids are shipped off to the Colonies to be with the “Unwomen,” and June’s friend Emily (Alexis Bledel) is among them. Season 2’s Colonial outpost is depicted, with unsentimental specificity, as a concentration camp, and hanging over these episodes is the question of whether viewers already pummeled by 2018 are ready to watch enormous punishments being inflicted on groups that are being marginalized and harmed in real life. In Emily’s story, as is the case elsewhere, the quest to retain one’s humanity gives “The Handmaid’s Tale” a complicated throughline that is far from uniformly dark. But there is darkness and yet more rage in the women’s responses to this death sentence, as one would expect.
In this season, as was the case last year, even allegedly powerless women like the Colonial exiles find ways to take back a few shreds of autonomy — and enjoy moments of revenge — and those scenes reflect the increased toughness of those who have survived the bloody transition between the United States and Gilead. June and Emily haven’t forgotten their loved ones or their past lives, but they’ve adjusted to a more grim, subversive and rebellious way of life. What the architects of Gilead keep forgetting is that when people have nothing to lose, they’re willing to do just about anything.
There are moments of heart-piercing beauty amid the horror; this season’s directors are skilled at finding color-saturated or windswept tableaus that recall classic paintings of rural worlds and faithful congregants. And thanks in part to Bledel’s wise, subtle and charismatic performance, the Colony scenes are often outstanding. One sequence in Episode 5 brought me to tears, not because it was brutal, but because of the way that some characters responded to a tragedy with fellowship and grace.
They get less screen time at first than some other returning characters, but Wiley’s Moira, whose process of recovery is clearly still beginning, and Strahovski’s Serena are just as praiseworthy as their castmates. “The Handmaid’s Tale” depicts women who are set against each other in a series of rigged contests, though of course, Serena has more advantages and experiences less deprivation than most. Still, she is within her own pressure-cooker — the world of the Gilead elites is not a friendly place — and Strahovski depicts her spiky, calculating will with empathic precision.
Like June, Serena does not underestimate herself in a world that was created in large part to smother her desires and minimize her individuality. Both women sometimes miscalculate when it comes to just how much room they have to maneuver, and June in particular is made to reckon with her many mistakes, some of which are brought to life in flashbacks. Yet neither June or Emily are judged by the narrative for their lack of foresight in the past. Now and then, though, it’s hard not to wonder, as the tougher or more terrifying storylines play out, why both don’t just curl up into a ball and give up.
They don’t, in part because, as showrunner Bruce Miller told Variety last year, almost everyone whom June encountered in Season 1 helped her. That’s not necessarily the case this year, but there are many instances of characters displaying compassion, altruism and a relatable desire to go down swinging in the midst of a seemingly unwinnable fight.
June’s fear and rage may eat her soul — or perhaps those emotions, and her desire to connect, are the very things keeping her alive. That ambiguity is explored in a new set of prickly situations, and though “The Handmaid’s Tale” occasionally goes a little too slack — much of June’s life consists of waiting, and those sequences can feel indulgent — it’s still quite interesting to ponder the show’s core question. For June, her loved ones, and her unborn child, what does survival — let alone triumph — even look like?