There’s still nothing redeeming or remotely serene about Gilead, the authoritarian republic formerly doing business as the United States. In season two of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it remains a living hell where women are property, where religious devotion is toxic, and where a row of gallows in Fenway Park awaits those who resist. If you thought the show, created by Bruce Miller based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, was going to soften or make life somewhat tolerable for our dystopian heroine, Elisabeth Moss’s June, you’d be sorely mistaken. This show is as relentless as they come.
I was blown away by the first hours of the new season, which are so gripping that my blood pressure rose right along with my admiration for everyone behind this series. Despite having won eight Emmys, including best drama, best actress for Moss, and best supporting actress for Ann Dowd, “The Handmaid’s Tale” isn’t easing up to attract more viewers. It’s one of the most uncompromising stories I’ve ever seen on TV, with sustained scenes of terror, torture, and grief. You won’t easily shake the opening sequence of the season premiere, on Wednesday, especially if you’re a Red Sox fan.
Does this all sound like a warning? I suppose it is, for viewers who shy away from challenging, dark material. But for those fascinated by how a society such as ours can devolve relatively quickly into a misogynist nightmare, and by how fragile our moral balance is, there’s nothing better out there, even the miraculous “Black Mirror.” And “The Handmaid’s Tale” isn’t intriguing on a conceptual level only; it’s a deeply personal story about a few women who’ve been abducted, most notably June, and a few who’ve been co-opted, including Dowd’s tormented Aunt Lydia, who turns the maternal into the infernal. Some future-shock stories forget to fully humanize their characters in service of the big idea; not this one.
The show enters season two with the same cool, precise aesthetic that made the first season such a visual gem, including a masterful use of the color red — for blood, for martyrdom — and sets that are simultaneously old and sterile. The camerawork remains chillingly effective, as it tightly frames the characters’ faces so we can see every flinch and deflection — and the acting continues to bear up beautifully under that scrutiny. At this point, most of the story line has moved beyond the book, but you nonetheless feel a great sense of momentum as June, known in Gilead as Offred, fights to escape and to retrieve her daughter. She is pregnant by driver Nick (Max Minghella), but their baby will go to the couple to whom she is enslaved, Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski).
I can’t say enough about Moss, who delivers a seamless, beautifully modulated performance as a woman in extremis. In the flashbacks — and there are many this season — we see a gentle mother and wife who can’t quite believe she’s encountering an increase in systemic sexism until it’s too late. Now, we see her in weary survival mode, hiding her true feelings even from those, like Nick, whom she trusts, her cold stares a front for despair. We can always see the resistance lurking somewhere in her eyes, offering the only sense of hope in the entire story. She personifies the horrors of Gilead while her stubborn defiance provides most of grace points we encounter on the show.
Like so many dystopian dramas, “The Handmaid’s Tale” strikes parallels to today’s news. That’s one of the points of creating a dystopia — to take our current reality and stretch it into frightening possibilities. The nightmare world of Gilead speaks to present-tense fears about authoritarian leadership, about men in power making laws about women’s bodies, about the crossover between religion and government, and the list goes on. But, while those parallels continue to add resonance, they don’t overwhelm “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is TV storytelling at its boldest.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Ann Dowd, Yvonne Strahovski, Joseph Fiennes, Max Minghella, Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley, O.T. Fagbenle
On: Hulu, premieres April 25
An earlier version misstated the name of the show “Black Mirror.”