Can The Handmaid's Tale season 2 live up to the incredible first season?
The brilliance of a TV show like The Handmaid’s Tale leaves fans caught in a classic double bind: we want more, while also feeling incredibly fearful that season two, which airs on RTE2 tonight, will pale in comparison to the first offering, writes Pat Stacey
Second seasons can be tricky. Most series sail through them without a blip. Some, like the sorely under-appreciated The Americans, which has been kicked around the schedules here and in Britain like a football, improve on the first and just keep on improving.
But the bigger the series, the higher the stakes, and the more painful the crash to earth if things go horribly wrong the second time around. We know this from Homeland, which went haywire, losing the plot and losing viewers too. Broadchurch simply fell off a cliff. Appropriate, I suppose, for a drama set right beside one.
Westworld, on the other hand, which returned to Sky Atlantic on Monday, doesn’t look like it’s going to hit the rocks. Reviewers were given the first five episodes in advance. Trust me: they’re fantastic, not just continuing the story, but extending and expanding it in a variety of thrilling ways.
Everyone is hoping we’ll be saying the same about season two of The Handmaid’s Tale, which — in a genuine coup for our national broadcaster worthy of huge praise — starts on RTE2 tonight, less than 24 hours after its US screening on Hulu and before any other European TV audience gets to see it.
If expectations for season two of The Handmaid’s Tale are high, trepidation is even higher. Readers of Margaret Atwood’s superb 1985 novel, a work of speculative feminist fiction (Atwood has always been sniffy about the term “science fiction”, even though the book won several SF awards) set in a dystopian near-future United States, now renamed the Republic of Gilead, where a totalitarian Christian theocracy has taken over and women have been stripped of their rights and the fertile ones turned into concubines for the ruling elite, will know the 311-page volume ends on an uncertain note.
Now-pregnant handmaid Offred (real name June), played in the series by Elizabeth Moss, is taken away in a black van. We don’t know whether she’s being rescued by the underground resistance organisation Mayday, posing as the dreaded security police known as “Eyes”, or being carted off by the real Eyes to face either execution or a short, brutal life in the harsh colonies where Gilead sends transgressive women.
A metafictional epilogue, in the form of an academic report written in 2195, long after the events of the book, we learn that Offred recorded her story onto cassette tapes and that what we’ve been reading is a transcription.
We’re told the repressive Republic of Gilead eventually fell and was replaced by a more equal society where women’s rights and religious freedoms were restored. But we never learn Offred’s fate, because she was never traced and her story is impossible to authenticate. Season one of The Handmaid’s Tale has exactly the same ending as the novel, minus the epilogue.
The book, one of the greatest dystopian stories as well as one of the greatest works of feminist fiction, was never designed to have a sequel. If it had been, I imagine Atwood would have written one in the 33 years since its publication.
It’s such a perfectly formed work, it doesn’t need one. The ambiguity, the uncertainty, is part of its enduring brilliance. The horrors that were only hinted at in the novel were as important as the ones that were explicitly stated.
If the first season hadn’t been such a huge success, winning eight Emmys and captivating viewers around the world, maybe there wouldn’t even be a second one. Don’t forget that the adaptation was originally announced as a miniseries; a second season was commissioned only after the first had ended.
As someone who loves both the book and the series, I’d question whether we need a second season at all, let alone a third, fourth or fifth. Yes, it’s true that the series left out some things that were in the novel and introduced original elements of its own.
Offred’s recollections of her activist mother, for example, were excised. In a departure from the book, the character of her husband Luke, played by OT Fagbenle, was greatly expanded. A whole episode was devoted to his successful escape to Canada, the only remaining free, safe place left in North America.
Personally, I thought this was The Handmaid’s Tale’s single misstep. By showing us what was beyond the nightmare, it broke the claustrophobic spell, the sense of a world upended and gone completely insane, that made both novel and TV series so effective in the first place.
Otherwise, it was one of the best and most faithful adaptations of a book I’ve ever seen. The Gilead on screen was, from the Handmaids’ red uniforms to the dark, wood-panelled interiors of the Waterford household to the cruelties perpetrated on the Handmaids by the “Aunts”, exactly the one I’d seen in my head when first reading the novel years ago.
Had The Handmaid’s Tale ended with that closing scene of Offred, pregnant by the Waterford family’s chauffeur Nick (Max Minghella), who could be a good guy or a bad guy, being led out of the house and into an uncertain future, it would have been perfect. But modern television doesn’t work like that.
This is why the aforementioned Homeland — which would also have been perfect if it had ended with Brody blowing himself and everyone else to smithereens — is still rattling along to an eighth and final season, long after a lot of us stopped caring or watching.
Once The Handmaid’s Tale hit as big as it did, there was never any chance its makers would do a Sopranos and leave us dangling with an ambiguous ending. Modern audiences, for all their supposed sophistication, can be surprisingly old-fashioned sometimes. They tend to demand some sort of closure somewhere down the line.
The series is about to head into new, potentially choppy waters. Despite showrunner Bruce Miller emphasising that Margaret Atwood, who had a brief, blurry cameo as one of the Aunts in the first season, is still on board as a consultant and has contributed ideas for the second season, whatever happens next is entirely up to him and his team.
So what can we expect from season two? Unfortunately, Hulu, which isn’t available in Ireland, provided the first six episodes to critics in the US only. Even RTE didn’t receive its copy of tonight’s first episode until a few hours after the American broadcast. Some reviews have already hit the internet.
I’ve avoided reading the more spoiler-heavy ones — I don’t want my enjoyment of tonight’s first episode ruined, no more than you do — although it’s giving nothing way to reveal that season two picks up exactly where the first one left off, with Offred/June entering that sinister black van.
Apparently, the episode focuses mainly on the tense minutes and hours following her departure from the Waterford household, when neither she nor the viewers know whether she’s about to find salvation or damnation.
Atwood’s novel was deliberately vague, as was the first season, about the rise of the new regime. Aside from telling us that US president and most of the members of congress were slaughtered in an armed coup and the US Constitution immediately suspended, the details of how and why the country arrived at this extreme situation were left sketchy.
We got a few glimpses, in first-season flashbacks, of the gradual change in the social climate — the key scene, for instance, where June and her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) are called “sluts” by a guy behind a coffee shop counter — and we can expect more of this in season two.
June’s relationship with Luke, and the guilt she harbours at breaking up his marriage, will also be explored in greater detail.
The first season was shot before Donald Trump was elected, but the new one is apparently coloured by the ongoing turmoil of his presidency. It seems the America of the days immediately before Gilead looks an awful lot like the America of 2018.
Beyond that, we know there will be expanded roles for the other key characters, including Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), as we learn about their pre-Gilead lives, and that we’ll finally get to see the Colonies, which is where Emily (Alexis Bledel, who’s been upgraded from a recurring cast member to a main) is now toiling. There are also additions to the cast, including five-time Tony Award nominee Cherry Jones, who plays June’s mother.
In every way, The Handmaid’s Tale is going to be bigger and more expansive this time. For one thing, it runs for 13 episodes rather than 10.
But there’s no guarantee that bigger automatically means better. The anticipation is as keenly felt as ever. So, though, is the trepidation.