The Handmaid’s Tale’s second season begins midnightmare. The series’ first season ended with the handmaid Offred (Elisabeth Moss) being escorted into a van by security forces, heading who knows where. The where, revealed in the new season’s opening minutes, is sickening. It’s remarkable how quickly the show, about a dystopic theocracy built on state-controlled fertility and ritualized rape, forced me to break glass in case of emergency, to crack the fourth wall in my mind and grab for some soothing extra-textual facts: It’s not possible that this show is going to kill its star in the opening minutes of its second season, right?
If making an audience feel dread were the measure of a good television show, The Handmaid’s Tale might be the best show of all time. The series arrived soon after Donald Trump’s election and captured the zeitgeist not only thanks to the ascension of a brazenly sexist head of state but because of the show’s panicked, nauseating mood, so evocative of the panicked, nauseating moment. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I found watching The Handmaid’s Tale to feel almost virtuous: There was something about burrowing into its horrifying make-believe, about averting my eyes from reality, but only to gaze on something even worse, that felt appropriately penitent and somber. Escaping into The Handmaid’s Tale was like diving into a winter ocean—yes, it made the subzero beach feel momentarily balmy, but you had still braved the frigid, frightening sea.
The new season begins at the gallows and visits a slaughterhouse, a gulag, and various torture chambers before the second episode is through. In its first few episodes it transforms itself into a thriller, and the ratcheting tension makes it more difficult to watch than ever. And yet as the horrors mount and mount, as I felt sicker and sicker, I kept thinking of This Is Us, NBC’s hit family drama and cathartic cryfest about the essential decency and OK-ness of multicultural, liberal America in the age of Trump. Like This Is Us, though milking anxiety instead of tears, The Handmaid’s Tale deftly makes you feel sad, at a time when feeling sad feels kind of good, or at least right. Moreover, The Handmaid’s Tale suggests all this suffering has an end date: It won’t go on forever, just for as long as The Handmaid’s Tale is on the air. Revolution is just three, or four, or five seasons away.
Margaret Atwood’s novel, on which the series is based, ended ambiguously, as did the first season of the show, with Offred being led to that unknown fate. The book’s epilogue, set hundreds of years in the future, informed readers that its totalitarian government would fall, but it didn’t say how or exactly when or what that meant for the characters in the novel. In the book, Offred was not a revolutionary but a regular woman, a formerly free woman, trying to survive a dehumanizing, misogynist regime. But TV, especially on multiseason shows, has difficulty with regular people: Every protagonist, after all, is the star of their own TV show. After the world building is done, plot inevitably sneaks in. The depressing, ambiguous, horrifying end may arrive eventually, but before it does, there will be a narrative arc.
The world building in those early episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale immersed viewers in terror, in the corpses hanging over the Charles River, in the monthly rape, the brainwashing, the literal eye for an eye. But then it broadened its scope, going off book, following one character as she escaped to Canada, giving Offred a quest—she would get her daughter and she would get out—and tapping directly into the #resistance, suggesting that the Handmaids might find empowerment in their collective. In a climatic scene, they refused orders, led by Offred’s example.
The new season sprints further past Atwood’s plot, her discipline, and her words. The first sign that things might be amiss arrives with Offred’s opening narration: “Our father who art in heaven, seriously, what the actual fuck.” I have nothing but sympathy for anyone trying to write like Margaret Atwood, but—what the actual fuck? The solution can’t be not to try. Instead of words, the show relies on silence, on montages, and, above all, on Elisabeth Moss’ face, leaning even more heavily on the extended close-ups that were praised in Season 1. Moss is a spectacular actress, limpid and moving, but her talent further distinguishes Offred. To clock everything, to allow oneself to feel everything, to resist everything, as Moss’ Offred does, is a special quality in a Handmaid, for whom hiding inside of oneself would be safer.
The first six episodes, all that was made available to critics, grapple with the question of Offred’s singularity, whether she is just a handmaid or a handmaid superhero, whether she can be the one who gets away, or whether she too will be broken. But even as Offred traces a path from spectacular to shattered to somewhere in between, the plot churns. By the sixth episode, the handmaids are once again a locus of resistance.
The Handmaid’s Tale is powerful and propulsive. After the first three episodes, when the horrors become more predictable, it’s even pretty watchable. And, even so, it should have ended after the first season. (This makes it kin to another show, Homeland, which also chose more episodes, more plot over a perfect and gutting solo season.) In the new episodes, the show takes viewers to the oft-mentioned colonies, work camps where lesbians and other rule breakers shovel radioactive waste until they die. Emily (Alexis Bledel), the handmaid whose clitoris was cut off last season, insists on this multiple times: We’re here, we work, we die. But it’s hard to believe that the show will really sacrifice many of its full-time cast members to the awful fictional world it’s built, where horror is all around, but freedom is just a few seasons away.