Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” picks up with Offred’s fight to save her future baby from the horrors of Gilead. The show’s focus on the politics of reproduction when women are considered objects has shifted to a thought provoking depiction of motherhood. Elisabeth Moss continues to deliver an exceptional performance as Offred/June, a woman trapped in a dystopian nightmare who must now fight for more than her survival.
The story begins with Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) overseeing the punishment given to June and her fellow handmaids after their season 1 ending act of disobedience. Aunt Lydia reads scripture while the handmaids are forced to endure a physically grueling task in the pouring rain. The cruelty of the act juxtaposed with Aunt Lydia’s religious fervor is stark and continues the show’s impactful commentary on how faith can be twisted to justify dark purposes.
Lydia is not a one-dimensional villain and Dowd plays her with the passion of a true believer who sees her role as necessary and noble. When she learns about June’s pregnancy, which gives her a privileged position, she accuses her of leading a rebellion she knew would not include personal sacrifice. It’s a caustic but painful truth. In one final act of malice, she makes June sit in front of a small meal as the handmaids file past her waiting their turn for one last punishment. As they scream, June defiantly raises her spoon and begins to eat.
Combining devastating moments with character backstory is a technique the series uses effectively and season 2 continues this as we learn more about June’s life before Gilead. She starts to think about her mother and we see their complicated but caring relationship. She remembers moments with her daughter and we feel the pain of her loss.
The flashbacks make it easy to invest in June’s struggle, to put yourself in her place. It’s impossible not to root for her. They also serve a larger purpose this season by highlighting her identity as a daughter and a mother. Expressing her thoughts through narration, June contemplates the admiration and the small stinging criticisms shared between a mother and a daughter. She forgives her mother’s limitations, knowing that she did the best she could, and in a deeply sad realization, emotionally lets her own daughter go and forgives herself. Moss portrays all of these complex emotions with authenticity. She also maintains June’s wry sense of humor, which adds lightness to a heavy storyline.
The remaining action moves between June’s storyline, Emily’s (Alexis Bledel) bleak existence in the colonies and Moira’s (Samira Wiley) freedom in Canada. June’s narrative reveals the horrors that brought Gilead into existence while Emily’s story shows her finding some purpose in a life of forced labor. Moira however, can’t shake the past. Maybe Aunt Lydia is right when she says, “Gilead is within you.”
The first two episodes of the season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” launch on April 25 on Hulu.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.