Deep in the heart of Gilead, a dystopian hellhole that used to be known as the United States of America, Elisabeth Moss offers a prayer. Like all the women in The Handmaid's Tale, her character, Offred, a prisoner and a slave. She remembers a few years ago, when she was a librarian in Boston with a husband and daughter, until the country got taken over by a militaristic and religious coup. Now it's a Christian totalitarian state where women are no longer allowed to read – they're forced into servitude or killed for "gender treachery." So she sits, in her red robe and white bonnet, and poses a question for the Lord: "Our Father who art in Heaven: Seriously? What the actual fuck?" It's a timely prayer, considering the circumstances – both hers and ours.
The Handmaid's Tale felt almost freakishly timely as soon as it debuted last summer – not the kind of timeliness a TV drama can achieve on purpose, but the kind of zeitgeist bullseye that just happens to it. When Hulu's adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel went into production a couple years ago, there was no way of knowing how ugly the country was about to get, or how recognizable Gilead would feel by the time it hit the airwaves. Moss remains excellent as the heroine Offred – after all those years shining as Peggy Olson on Mad Men, she's struggling just to keep her brain alive amid the constant brutality and degradation. As she says, summing up her life during wartime: "Wear the red dress. Wear the wings. Shut your mouth. Be a good girl. Roll over and spread your legs. Yes, ma'am. May the Lord open."
Part of what makes the show so frightening is that the change happened so fast, right after an environmental catastrophe made the fertility rate collapse. In the Republic of Gilead, women get herded into different groups: the Wives dress in blue, meekly serving their husbands; the Handmaids are in red, sex slaves chosen for child-bearing; the Marthas in green, forced into domestic labor. And then there are Jezebels, secret prostitutes for the elite. But there's another shadowy group – the resistance movement known only as Mayday. Offred has been passed a stash of letters written by other Handmaids, telling their stories, so she knows there are other rebellious women out there. Can she make contact with them? Can they find each other – or maybe even a way to fight back?
The Handmaid's Tale didn't necessarily seem like a drama that required, or even permitted, a second chapter. But it's almost as though the times demanded more of this story. The first season ended in the same place as Atwood's original novel, as a pregnant Offred steps into a mysterious black van. We don't know where the driver is taking her – and neither does she. "Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing," she says in the back of the van. "And so I step up, into the darkness within, or else the light."
If you were expecting anything but darkness, you must have slept through most of Season One. The Handmaid's Tale remains an agonizing horror show to witness, with relentless scenes of women getting tortured. The new season ventures beyond the book, with Atwood involved in the writing with showrunner Bruce Miller, as she was all through the first season (even making a cameo in one episode). Offred's pregnancy makes it a different story – she's both more vulnerable and more dangerous. She wants her child born into a better place to live. We finally see the Colonies, the ominous wasteland often mentioned in Season One, where disobedient women and other misfits get shipped to work as slaves until they drop. It's also now home to some faces we've seen before.
Ann Dowd is back as the horrifying Aunt Lydia, the sadistic mistress who torments her handmaids, like a dystopian vision of the principal from Rock and Roll High School. Lydia is fond of thundering, "There are two kinds of freedom: freedom to and freedom from." Gilead promises lots of freedom from, at the price of any conceivable freedom to. But nobody here gets to make the choice. Samira Wiley (Poussey from Orange Is The New Black) returns as Moira, reunited in Canada with Offred's husband (O.T. Fabenle). Bradley Whitford joins as a powerful Commander, along with Marisa Tomei, Cherry Jones and Clea Duvall, adding to the already packed cast of Alexis Bledel, Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes.
This dystopian drama couldn't exactly be called a thriller – the violence is grueling in its
sheer repetition, as the female characters keep getting brutalized to the
constant soundtrack of sobbing and whimpering. The first season kept hinting at
the possibility of resistance, dangling the hope of the Handmaids banding
together or rising up. But every time it feinted at a "let's go, ladies" twist,
the bootheel came crashing down. The challenge for Season Two will be whether the series can build up some
sense of suspense, as it takes the story further than Atwood took it before. The Handmaid's Tale keeps going, just
because nobody knows where this story is headed – neither in Gilead or right
here, right now.