The Handmaid’s Tale is back to burn everything to the ground

Alex Casey reviews the return of The Handmaid’s Tale, available exclusively on Lightbox with new episodes every Thursday.

Sweaty palm on heaving heart, there is simply no other television show that elicits such a violent, physical reaction in me like The Handmaid’s Tale. You should know the story by now, because it’s one that may sound quite familiar. Set in the dystopian hellscape of Gilead, Handmaid’s takes place in a not-so-distant society that has been torn apart by ecological disaster and civil unrest, where the remaining fertile women have been enslaved to make babies for the ruling class.

If you thought season one was rough going (full disclosure: it took me nine months to finish), then you should take the first 10 minutes of season two for a spin. In fact, here is some exclusive footage of me enjoying the opening sequence of the premiere in the office.

Before we go any further, I now call upon the mighty Rainbow’s End log flume frog to warn you that spoilers will follow for season two, so please click here to watch it or go back, I tell you. Otherwise, let’s all get together with the gals in matching uniforms and hit Fenway Park, shall we? Sheesh, what an opener that was. Hordes of handmaidens bound, gagged and shepherded into the bright lights of a desolate sports stadium, nooses hanging where there once were hot dogs and foam fingers.

And then there’s June (Offred), lacing her fingers behind her back, clinging to her own hand for comfort. All the while, Kate Bush quietly crooning. “I know you have a little life in you left.” Here I was thinking the saddest use of ‘This Woman’s Work’ was over that scene in Extras where Maggie gets a night job as a cleaner. Time and time again, Handmaid’s serves up the toothiest soundtrack choices that gnaw straight through the old chest and chew me heart into a fine pulp. See also: this and this and this.

Kate Bush fades out, the masked man pulls the lever. It’s about here my concerned colleague starts to film me in a state of silent distress at my desk. The floor of the gallows remains firmly beneath the handmaids. Be it a classic Aunt Lydia prank or not, the excruciating tension, the lingering, intrusive close-ups, the peed-pants (mine) remind us of both the Gilead’s unrelenting power and the way the show itself can deftly lure you in to state of completely unmatched despair. 

Where season one was tethered to the events in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic novel, season two seems to relish in the opportunity to step into the unknown, taking things even darker and broadening the world of Gilead beyond the locked gates and stone walls. In episode two we see the reality of “the colonies” – the wasteland where infertile “unwomen” are sent to work – for the very first time. Just another thing to keep us awake at night as the ice caps melt, the polar bears die, and fingers hover over nuke buttons.

As always, the acute feelings of both hope and misery hinge on the incredible talents of Elisabeth Moss. June is our anchor in hell, every wince and facial flinch a precious clue of life beyond servitude. At the end of episode one we see those insides (literally) come pouring out, as a mad dash for freedom manifests in her savagely slicing at her own ear, desperate to remove any trace of her oppressors. Moss unleashes in a way that she hasn’t yet been allowed, releasing some primal groans before collapsing in a puddle of her own blood.

Where the season one finale ended with snow, the season two premiere closed in flames. Sincere apologies to Game of Thrones, but The Handmaid’s Tale is the real song of fire and ice. Robes have been burned, ponytails hacked off, ears sliced. It’s time for a new harrowing chapter in this crushing cautionary tale. “All of that smart girl bullshit is finished,” Serena, wife of Commander Fred, barks at June. “Do you understand me?”

Au contraire, Serena. She’s just getting started.


Click below to watch all new episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, exclusively on Lightbox:

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