The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Review

  • Series Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Season: 2
  • Episodes: 13
  • Discs: 4 (Blu-Ray)
  • Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Amanda Brugel, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, Joseph Fiennes, Madeline Brewer, Alexis Bledel
  • Original Network: Hulu
  • Original Production Company: MGM

Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. The second season begins where the first season left off. June is in a Gilead van, her mouth covered by a leather muzzle. She and all 30-40 handmaid’s who refused to stone Janine last season are also in vans. They arrive… someplace, and are herded through stone tunnels like cattle. They arrive in a sports arena where they see scaffolding and hangman’s nooses. All the women are led to the nooses, and their heads put inside them. A hangman pulls a lever, but nothing happens. Aunt Lydia then lectures them on what Gilead expects of its handmaidens. This is, of course, psychological torture and terrorism. June is then threatened, she is shown a heavily pregnant handmaid dressed in white and chained by the foot to a post in a room with a bed and chair. June is forced to eat, while the rest of the handmaids who refused to stone Janine have their hands burned on a stove.

But once June is returned to the Waterfords… she tries to escape. Or rather, others try and help her to escape. Escape, and an underground railroad in Gilead will be themes touched on throughout the season. The first four episodes have Nick helping the pregnant June, and she is taken from place to place, passed from person to person as sympathetic good people try to get her out. That is what it is always referred to – getting out. Nothing more specific, just out. June ends up spending two months at the Boston Globe newspaper, now abandoned, and finds a wall, stained red, where the reporters were executed by Gilead. She’s horrified and saddened, but eventually does the only thing she can do – she builds a memorial from the items left on people’s desks in the newspaper office. June is passed along, finally reaching a small airstrip, where she is joined by Nick. Unfortunately, the forces of Gilead catch up to them. The pilot of the plane is shot, and June is dragged, screaming, from the plane.

June is returned to the Waterfords’ house, where things return to normal until Aunt Lydia, who has been spending a lot of time “checking” on June and her pregnancy, takes her on a walk. She takes her to the wall and shows her an executed man, who “used to drive a bread truck”. Then tells her the son was given to a good family for a proper upbringing and the wife made a handmaid. The “econowife” had said to June when her husband brought her to his house to hide that being a handmaid is “what they threaten us with”. The family was also secretly Muslim – a crime in Christian Gilead. This breaks June. It breaks her. She had been so strong, but knowing someone was executed because he tried to help her because he was kind – she blames herself (after Aunt Lydia insists it’s her fault). June can only repeat, “We’ve been sent good weather.”

It takes a while for June to come out of her funk (it’s an understandable one, but still – she is broken). Meanwhile, we follow Emily and Janine who have been sent to the Colonies. They are there to work until they die – digging up poisoned, radioactive soil, and breathing poisoned air and washing with poisoned, contaminated water. A Wife is there, sent to the colonies for “having an affair”. Emily at first shows her kindness but then poisons her – for helping her husband rape defenseless women. Emily, we learn, was a biology instructor at university – tops in her field, and brilliant. She is also a lesbian and was married with a child. She and her wife had tried to escape after her gay and partnered boss is executed on campus. Her wife and child are able to get on a plane to Montreal, but Emily is taken – because she is fertile.

Getting back to Gilead. Waterford is instrumental in opening the new “Leah and Rachel Center” – an expanded Red Center. Everyone is forced to be there, including handmaids. Ofglen, who spoke out against stoning Janine, walks into the center “early” before Waterford is ready for the presentation of Handmaids – and she blows the place up. Commanders and some handmaids are killed. But one clearly knows why Ofglen did it – her tongue was cut out after she stood up for Janine. This is her way of speaking out. Since some of the handmaids begin to move away from the glass wall of the building, the second Ofglen enters, it’s clear they in some way knew what was going to happen. And someone supplied her with the explosives. After the bombing, Janine and Emily are brought back to the district as Handmaids.

The commanders arrange a ceremony for Nick and the other Eyes/Guardians. First, Nick is given a box, which seems to hold an award pin, but then women are led into the ceremony. Each is in white and covered by a veil. They are each lined up before the Guardians. A marriage ceremony begins. After the ceremony is over, the veils are raised. These are very young girls. Nick returns to the Waterford household with his new wife, Eden. She is 15 and very pious, trying to please Nick. She even has a somewhat frank conversation with June because Nick won’t touch her and Eden is concerned he may be a “gender traitor”. June later convinces Nick he must sleep with Eden or she will report him. When Nick points out she’s only 15, June counters with “she’s your wife”. Nick tries to do the best he can.

There is a funeral for the handmaids, who are only identified by their Gilead name (Of… their commander’s name). Once Commander Waterford recovers, he, his wife, and Nick go to Canada on a trip to convince the Canadians to ease up on sanctions and “border security”, and even send refugees back to Gilead. An American spy, from the government in exile in Anchorage, tries to get Serena to defect, but it falls flat. Nick, though sees June’s husband during a protest of the Gilead diplomatic mission. After a rough start to their conversation, Nick hands him the letters from last season. These are letters written by women in Gilead, asking for help, wanting to know what happened to their children, taken by Gilead. Moira and Nick upload the letters to the Internet. This starts a huge wave of protest and the Canadians literally throw the leaders of Gilead out. They aren’t even allowed to pack up their hotel rooms, which is done by others but are taken directly to the airport.

While Nick’s away in Canada, Eden develops an infatuation with Isaac the substitute Guardian (Eye) at the Waterford house. Later Eden and Isaac try to escape. They are caught, and both are executed by Gilead, with metal cannon balls clamped to their legs and their hands tied, they are dropped from a diving board into a swimming pool full of water. Eden’s mother screams as she’s forced to watcher her daughter’s death. Later a man comes to Waterford’s house. June learns he was Eden’s father and he turned her in.

June’s pregnancy grows closer to full term. She and Serena have problems, then they seem to get closer. After Waterford is injured in the bombing at the Rachel and Leah Center, Serena begins to write up orders, even getting an accusation made to Gilead’s Ecclesiastical Court against Cummings – a Commander with a grudge against June, Nick, and Serena. When Waterford returns he says nothing about Serena’s “transgression” of reading, writing, and having June edit her work. But later Baby Angela, Janine’s child, now being raised by the Putnams, gets sick. The child is very sick and everything thinks she will die. Serena knows of a doctor, an expert, the best in the field of pediatric neuro-medicine. Waterford asks who “he” is. Serena says “she” is now serving as a Martha. Waterford flat out refuses to have a Martha be transferred so she can treat a sick child. Serena writes the orders anyway. This doctor is also stumped by what is wrong with the child. Meanwhile, Janine has learned her daughter is sick and begs to see her. There is a lot of objections to this, especially by Aunt Lydia, but eventually, Gilead relents. It looks like the child is going to die and the doctors take her off the machines. Janine is allowed to touch and hold her child. The next day, Janine is sitting in the window, with her child, who is fine. The child is returned to the Putnams. When Serena and June return to their house, Waterford is waiting. He orders them to his office, reads Serena the riot act, then beats her with a belt – making June watch. Later, June tries to offer Serena kindness, but Serena refuses.

June is shopping with other Handmaids when she goes into labor. The ceremony we had seen before begins, with the Handmaid who is about to give birth on a bed at home, an Aunt as a coach, and surrounded by Handmaids to encourage her. The wives also begin a ceremony, with Serena in white surrounded by wives in blue, and Marthas in grey arranging flowers and food. It turns out to be false labor. Serena has a fit, and tells June she will leave their house the minute her child is born. June probably knows this may be a death sentence – she is known to be a “troublemaker” and the only thing saving her so far is her pregnancy.

Nick vowes to get June out, again. Waterford also promises June a visit with Hannah. She’s loaded into a van but no one tells her what is going on. June gets to see Hannah but only for a few minutes. They talk. June tries to reverse her daughter’s feelings of abandonment. Hannah is taken away, but before Nick or June can do anything else, a van of Guardians arrive. There is a shot and both vans speed off. June is left alone. She should have left but June is also heavily pregnant and it’s Winter. She finds keys and is able to get into the garage and into a car. She hears “Radio Free America” broadcasting from Canada, including news that India and China are offering help to the American government in exile, and the UK is allowing more refugees in from Canada. June goes back in the house, gathers food, water and blankets and throws it in the trunk of the car. But she still does not leave and returns to the house. While inside a car arrives. June hides. She hears Commander Waterford and Serena arrive and argue. Serena yells at Waterford that having a handmaid run away twice – “They’ll think we are part of the resistance”. June hides, again, but also manages to find a rifle. She has a chance to kill Waterford, to even kill Waterford and Serena, but June doesn’t take it. When they leave, she goes to the garage but finds the power has now been cut off. She tries to force open the garage door but it doesn’t work. She tries to bust down the door with the car – but it also doesn’t work. In the end, she returns to the house and gives birth. Now having baby Holly in her arms, she fires the gun four times in the air.

June is returned, again, to the Waterford house. She is kept hostage by the aunts and forced to pump her milk. Without access to her child, her milk begins to dry up. Waterford gets her a visit with Holly. June asks Aunt Lydia if she can return to the Waterford house to be “nearby”. Lydia, surprisingly, agrees it would be best for the child. June returns. Serena is of course, angry. But slowly, Serena begins to change her mind. We find out Baby Angela is well. Emily is sent to the weirdest posting ever. Waterford makes overtures to June, telling her that as a high-ranking commander he can see that she stays at his house and they can try again – for a boy.

After Eden’s execution, June and Rita (the Martha for the Waterfords) pack up her things. June finds a Bible. Since it is forbidden for women to read, even the Bible, she knows this is incredible. The Bible has handwritten notes in it. June shows it to Serena in her greenhouse and tells her Eden was trying to understand it. Serena is at first angry, but later has a guarded conversation with Mrs. Putnam Angela’s mother. They also conclude that other mother’s feel the same. Serena addresses the men who run Gilead. In her first sentence, she says, “we”. When a man challenges her, all the wives walk in and stand behind Serena. She then proposes that all of Gilead’s children be taught to read, boys and girls. Then men erupt in outrage. Later she’s with her husband, and Serena is dragged away, screaming. Later she returns home, her finger has been cut off – her crime, reading the opening chapter of Genesis (the one about the Word of God) to the men in chambers. June is appalled.

Meanwhile, the weirdness continues at Emily’s posting and her Commander refuses to sleep with her during “The Ceremony”. When Aunt Lydia arrives the next morning to check on Emily, Emily attacks her. Emily’s commander takes her for a ride. Meanwhile, the empty house across the street from the Waterford residence catches fire. Rita tells June, “we can get you out, you and the baby but you have to go now”. June slips out the back door to the greenhouse and garden. Serena catches her. June convinces her that as a mother if she truly loves her child, she doesn’t want to let her grow up in Gilead. Serena eventually agrees and says goodbye to her child. June leaves. She is passed from Martha to Martha and then waits, in the reeds, by a road. A car comes. It signals. She runs out and it’s Emily’s Commander. He tells them to enjoy their new life, their freedom and when a car stops in the tunnel opposite, he leaves. Emily runs to the car. June hands her Holly and tells Emily her name is Nichole (the name Serena chose). June had also put a picture of Hannah in the bassinet. June stays, standing in the rain.

Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale is intense. It’s brilliant, heartbreaking, and painful – yet it’s also full of hope and strong, strong women. After Ofglen’s bombing of the Rachel and Leah Center when the Handmaids are shopping and June sees Emily and Janine and she finds out they were brought back from The Colonies, June tells a new Handmaid her name – her real name, noting she never knew Ofglen’s real name. All the other Handmaids do the same, introducing themselves, by name – real first name. It is a moment of defiance. The bombing as well is a moment of defiance. June nearly escapes three times – but chooses to stay. We don’t know her plan (she does want to find Hannah but that’s all we know) but hopefully, June will also organize a resistance, and an underground railroad to get women out. We find out her mother was a feminist and an outspoken women’s rights activist.

The Handmaid’s Tale is addictive, intense, and incredibly, incredibly well done. The first four episodes are full of silence, because with June basically by herself as she’s passed from safe place to safe place, she has no one to talk to. The filming and cinematography are incredibly well done. Everyone in Gilead wears uniforms: Handmaids in red and white, Wives in blue, Marthas and “econowives” in grey, Aunts in brown. The majority of the show is filmed in Winter, so there is snow, and grey, oppressive skies. The ambient sound mix is also incredible – Gilead’s skies are full of helicopters, it’s streets full of sirens – these sounds are menacing. Yet The Handmaid’s Tale is about hope too. Even in the direst circumstances, the women of The Handmaid’s Tale are survivors, and sometimes merely surviving another day and not giving up is all they can do, but they do, they survive, they go on, and whenever anyone has the slightest chance to defy Gilead – they do.

Read my Review of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1.