Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes
The odds are always against an adaptation surpassing its source material. The Handmaid’s Tale’s award-winning debut season reached the end of the Margaret Atwood novel from which it drew a horrifying future in which religious extremists have turned America upside down, into a theocratic dystopia. How could it retain Atwood’s sharp commentary and nuance in an ongoing story without devolving into a rebellion narrative more akin to YA fiction—especially when some of that nuance was starting to wane by the time Season 1 reached the finish line?
The good news: The Handmaid’s Tale is still as exquisitely made and excruciating to watch. Elisabeth Moss is still more destined to get the trophy than the Warriors; the visual palette is still stunning; Max Minghella is still woefully miscast. Season 2 doesn’t lack for overwhelming tragedy or complex characterizations—Yvonne Strahovski’s complicit victim Serena Joy is still here, after all. What it lacks—besides subtle music supervision—is narrative propulsion. After an early twist in the first quarter, it’s hard to say where this story is headed, and not in a fun way. These are just 50 minutes of cinematically crafted misery, expounding on characters we already know but doing little to illuminate how this cracked-mirror version of contemporary America became this nightmare. One of the season’s most grotesque highlights is the flashbacks showing how Alexis Bledel’s Emily found herself in the middle of hell without realizing she was on fire, but it took a Wikipedia session to remind myself we’ve never gotten the full, straight story on how the country was coup’d in the first place. And sometimes, when you’re wondering when we’re gonna learn something new about these people, it’ll skip interesting character detail and go straight to “Oh, she had a whole-ass wife we’ve never mentioned until now.”
Subtlety has never been this show’s charm, but it’s still as effective as ever at viscerally forcing us to face our country’s darkest timeline. —Frazier Tharpe