In season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, we find Offred (Elisabeth Moss) exactly where we left her: In the custody of the Eyes, riding in a sinister all-black truck to meet her fate for refusing to stone poor Janine in last summer’s finale. The first nine minutes of the second season premiere are a masterful overture of brutality, as Offred — whom we now know by her real name, June — and her fellow disobedient handmaids are herded into an abandoned Boston landmark for a punishment so exquisitely terrifying, it almost makes the freedom of death seem like a preferable option.
The specter of freedom — how we gain it, and more crucially, how we lose it — looms over Handmaid’s this season, as the writers move beyond the borders of Margaret Atwood’s source material. “There is more than one kind of freedom!” bellows Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, as magnificently Draconian as ever). “There is freedom to, and freedom from.” (I’ll let you guess which one she’s shilling.) It is not a spoiler to reveal that June spends much of the first three episodes grappling with her past: Through flashbacks, we learn more about the last days in America before the theocracy of Gilead took over — especially the insidious infringement of rights for women and homosexuals. It’s only through an extended period of solitude this season that June is able to piece together a timeline of the warning signs — and come to the grim realization that she and her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), like so many citizens, tried to live their lives as usual, irritated but taking no action. June’s retroactive guilt is exacerbated by memories of her feisty mother, Holly (Cherry Jones), a life-long social activist who was dismayed by her daughter’s choices: “This country is going down the f—ing tubes! It’s time to get out in the street and fight — not just play house.”
As June struggles to make peace with her regrets, this season of Handmaid’s also broadens the narrative canvas to show us the very unpleasant present for Ofglen/Ofsteven/Emily (Alexis Bledel), who has been sent with the other Unwomen to toil in the toxic waste mines of the Colonies. Episode two flashes back to Emily’s harrowing attempt to escape to Montreal with her wife and child, only to find that in the chaos of governmental overthrow, her rights as a citizen had changed for the worse in just a matter of hours. As a cautionary tale, Handmaid’s is never moralizing or hysterical, instead constructing a pervasive mood of dread through quiet, deliberate storytelling. Uncomfortable images linger — the camera watches, unflinchingly, for a full minute as a character performs a bloody act of self-mutilation in the premiere — and some of the most powerful scenes have no dialogue, yet swell with intense emotion: fear, hope, despair, desire. By the time I got through the painfully suspenseful action sequence at the end of episode three, I was grateful that Hulu releases new episodes weekly, rather than all at once. As excellent as The Handmaid’s Tale is, sometimes the freedom from binge-watching is the best kind of freedom to have. A-