Now in its second season, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is faced with a dilemma that nearly all TV series based on books inevitably confront: how to continue the story on screen when you’ve exhausted the source material. Most TV shows in this situation have struggled to continue justifying their own existences, but The Handmaid’s Tale is an exception. Its second season is vicious, essential viewing.
In an era when Hollywood’s primary mission is to find the next big franchise, executives at TV networks and streaming services are loath to cancel any show that’s a proven success—even when it long surpasses the material on which it’s based. HBO would have been certifiably insane to cancel ratings and awards juggernaut Game of Thrones after its fifth season, the point at which the cable drama moved beyond where George R.R. Martin’s novels had guided them.
The first season of Dexter on Showtime was largely based on a book, while subsequent seasons went off on their own. The show managed to stay interesting for awhile, but by its sixth season it was clear it had nothing interesting left to say. Showtime eventually put it out of its misery three seasons later, but not before many fans said the show’s legacy had been ruined by hanging around too long.
Hulu, likewise, would be crazy to pull the plug on The Handmaid’s Tale—winner of last year’s Emmy for best drama series—just because its first season used up all of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel. But the financial (and for Hulu, the brand-building) imperative to keep a series going doesn’t help its writers answer the existential questions confronting them: How do you proceed without a roadmap? More importantly, why should you proceed? What makes the show still necessary?
After the ambiguous cliffhanger of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s debut season (the same ending as Atwood’s novel), I didn’t think the Hulu series had made a convincing argument that it needed to continue. Offred, the titular handmaid played by Elisabeth Moss, was whisked away into an unmarked black van and driven off—either to her freedom, or to her doom. Despite this ambiguity, the end still felt like part of a season of television that told a complete story, with a satisfying emotional arc for Offred. Hulu’s tale could have ended right then and there, as Atwood’s did.
We’re glad it didn’t. The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale is as searing and beautifully acted as its first, and it’s added substantial narrative heft to the world Atwood built in ways only a television series could.
The show has managed this primarily by employing two strategies: making copious (and effective) use of flashbacks, and expanding the story outside Offred’s narrow world to cover the experiences of other, equally interesting, characters who didn’t get as much burn in season one. Particularly captivating is Emily (Alexis Bledel), a gay handmaid who’s been sent to the concentration camp-like “Colonies” for women who have committed unspeakable crimes, like being gay (called “gender traitors” in this fictional world) or cheating on your husband. In addition, Ann Dowd’s ruthless, mercurial handmaid-overseer Aunt Lydia, is smartly given a lot more to do in season two.
Several critics have deemed Emily’s harrowing story line among the show’s best. It’s enhanced by flashbacks of her life, as well as the lives of other characters, when the United States was quickly transforming from a (relatively) enlightened democracy to the totalitarian theocracy they’d find themselves in months later.
Flashbacks are a conceit that have been done, with varying degrees of success, by literally hundreds of shows in the years since Lost made them popular in the mid-to-late 2000s. Usually, they seem like a stalling tactic, but not in The Handmaid’s Tale. Season two is zapped with a kinetic energy that even the first season lacked at times—the story is definitely still moving forward, flashbacks be damned. Here, the flashbacks allow for a more textured story, coloring in characters’ inner lives in a way the first season couldn’t, since it had only so many episodes to tell the story of Atwood’s novel.
In fact, the flashbacks advance the story in ways that are compelling as narrative devices, and timely in the way they mirror real-life, present-day political realities. In her previous life, Emily was a well-liked university professor of cell biology on track for tenure. But as this tyrannical new government begins wrapping its tendrils around the country, life for LGBT people becomes horrifically—and familiarly—even more dangerous than it already was. One of her colleagues who’s also gay is hung from a pedestrian bridge on campus, the word “FAGGOT” spray-painted on the ground beneath his corpse.
Seeing the lives of women in the dystopia is one thing, but seeing how it got to be that way, in chilling, often unbearable detail, is another. Famed Boston institutions, like Fenway Park and the Boston Globe newsroom, have been reduced to kill zones—centerfield at Fenway is littered with nooses; the Globe’s printing press is a lifeless husk of its former self, its surrounding walls spattered with blood from firing squads.
Later on in Emily’s flashback, she’s shown attempting to flee to Canada with her wife and son, who get separated from her at the airport. In a moment painfully similar to a real-life debacle from 2015 in which a Kentucky county clerk refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples (despite a federal court order), an airport immigration officer simply decides that Emily and her legal wife are not actually married. “You are not married, it is forbidden,” he tells her. She never sees her family again.
Others have argued that without the book to use as a guide, the show’s second season become predictable and meandering to an uncertain fate, with a plot lacking the discipline of season one. The new season isn’t perfect. For example, one major narrative arc has Offred wind up exactly where she was two episodes prior. And some of the writing, particularly Offred’s voiceover narration—which has long felt stilted and unnecessary—is often provocative for the sake of provocation alone. The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t completely avoided the growing pains of a show in its second season, especially one that’s now blazing its own trail for the first time.
But by telling other vivid stories in addition to Offred’s and taking a step back to depict the creation of this wretched world (which could be a series unto itself), The Handmaid’s Tale justifies its continued existence. These innovations may only last a season before the show is forced to figure out new ways to prolong its lifespan, but that’s a problem for later. For now, the acclaimed Hulu series has cleared its first major hurdles to greatness.