Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 10, 2018)
Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale takes us to a dark vision of the future. Set after the Second US Civil War, the states become torn into different realms, and “Gilead” takes form as a totalitarian government with a fundamentalist orientation.
Birth rates plummet and the government forces the few remaining fertile women to serve as virtual sex slaves. The series focuses on Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a “handmaid” under Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes).
With this four-disc Blu-ray set, we get all 13 episodes from Tale’s second season. The plot synopses come from IMDB.
June: “Offred reckons with the consequences of a dangerous decision while haunted by memories from her past and the violent beginnings of Gilead.”
With “June”, we get a decidedly dark start to Season Two, as the show launches on a foreboding note. That’s not a shock, as Tale doesn’t exactly offer a laugh a minute, but even for this series, the first act feels brutal.
The best parts of “June” look back at Offred’s life before the War, as we get a compelling taste of how matters evolved. Add to that some developments in Offred’s current existence and we find a solid start to the season.
Unwoman: “Offred adjusts to a new way of life. The arrival of an unexpected person disrupts the Colonies. A family is torn apart by the rise of Gilead.”
While the Offred/June elements work fine, the moments with Ofglen/Emily prove most interesting. We get a taste of her “old life” and see the miserable fate of the “unwomen”, females who can’t or won’t reproduce. These components mix to create a satisfying show.
Baggage: “June reflects on her relationship with her mother as she navigates her way through Gilead. In Little America, Moira (Samira Wiley) tries to cope with the trauma she endured.”
After two strong episodes, “Baggage” feels a little more like a placeholder. Not that it lacks value, as it comes with good moments like flashbacks to June and her mother (Cherry Jones), but it doesn’t boast quite the impact of the first two programs.
Other Women: “A baby shower provokes a troubling shift in Offred's relationship with Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Offred reckons with the choice she made that led her to become a Handmaid.”
Given the implications of that synopsis, it doesn’t act as a spoiler to indicate that June’s attempts to flee fail. This shouldn’t be a surprise anyway, as the series goes kerplunk if June escapes her Handmaid status.
Predictable developments aside, it’s good to get June back into the Handmaiden status for dramatic reasons, and “Women” pursues these plot threads well. It gives us a bounce back episode after the less engaging “Baggage”.
Seeds: “Offred spirals as a Gilead ceremony disrupts her relationship with Nick (Max Minghella). Janine (Madeline Brewer) tries to adjust to life in the Colonies, jeopardizing her friendship with Emily.”
After the fairly dramatic events of “Women”, “Seeds” creates something more subdued. We get more of a subtle development of character areas, and it does fine in that regard, even if it feels a bit restrained.
A Woman’s Place: “Offred finds unexpected allies and obstacles in her search for a way to protect Hannah. The Commander prepares for the dedication of a new Red Center. Nick struggles with his new assignment.”
While prior S2 flashbacks focused on women who became Handmaidens, “Place” gives us a glimpse of the Waterfords, and that makes it interesting. The rest of the episode proceeds along paths set up in “Seeds”, and those bits progress in a reasonable manner, even if they continue to lack much drama – until the explosive ending, that is.
After: “An attack sends shockwaves through both Gilead and Little America. Serena makes a dangerous choice. Moira searches for someone from her past.”
As it lives up to its title, “After” inevitably deals with the repercussions of the aforementioned major event that concluded “Place”. This adds an air of tension to the episode and allows it to advance various narrative threads in a taut manner.
Women’s Work: “A sick baby tests Offred and Serena. Janine finally faces Naomi (Ever Carradine).”
A theme of S2 relates to increased relations between Wives and Handmaids, and hat turns into a factor here, as it focuses on this tenuous but vital connection. “Work” uses the infant’s illness to good emotional effect.
Smart Power: “On a diplomatic trip abroad, Serena faces the temptation of life outside Gilead. Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and Moira grapple with survivor's guilt. Offred seeks support from allies.”
Just as I enjoy the flashbacks to pre-war characters, I also value the glimpses of domains outside of Gilead. The series concentrates a vast amount of running time to the main setting, so I find the shots of other areas fascinating, and these elements add dimensionality to the show.
The Last Ceremony: “A frustrated Serena becomes desperate. The Commander tries to make amends with Offred. Nick pushes Eden (Sydney Sweeney) farther away. Offred is faced with an unexpected reunion.”
As that summary implies, “Ceremony” focuses more on interpersonal relationships than the more global “Power”, and that contrast works well. Offred’s “reunion” won’t surprise viewers, but it comes with emotional impact and the episode advances characters and themes well.
Holly: “Offred faces a grueling challenge alone as she recalls her life as a mother. Serena and the Commander deal with the fallout of their actions towards Offred.”
As we speed toward the end of Season Two, various matters heat up, and the issues related to Offred and the Waterfords comes to the fore. That’s a valuable thread to follow and the episode takes us through some pivotal events in a compelling manner.
Postpartum: “Offred is sent to a familiar place. Nick is rocked by Gilead's brutal response to a crime. Emily is assigned to a mysterious new house.”
Though the Offred moments deliver good character development, Emily’s side becomes the most interesting aspect of the episode. Much of that stems from Bradley Whitford’s creepy performance as her new “master”. All these factors combine to make “Postpartum” a positive lead-in to the season finale.
The Word: “Serena and the other Wives strive to make change. Emily learns more about her new Commander (Whitford). Offred faces a difficult decision.”
S2 comes to a close with a dramatic series of twists. Obviously I won’t toss out spoilers, but the episode embraces various forms of resistance/rebellion – albeit largely in the subdued manner of Tale, but they still add up to a powerful episode. “Word” completes the year in a vivid way that also pushes toward Season Three well.