TV Review: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is Timely, Brutal and Brilliant

Even three years ago, Hulu was best known for showcasing network TV and having Seth MacFarlane narrate its commercials. What a difference a few years makes. This becomes easy when you have an instant classic debut on your service. “The Handmaid‘s Tale” blew the doors off the Emmys last year and with good reason. The series featured a career performance from Elisabeth Moss, something quite impressive to say the least. The cast was deep and incredibly talented, resulting in a slew of supporting nominations. Expectations have been extremely high as the show geared up for its second season. Somewhat unsurprisingly,  the show not only meets those lofty expectations. It exceeds them.

Dystopian literature, like “The Handmaid’s Tale” seems like a genre that TV could tire of quickly. Yet the storytelling at the heart of “Handmaid’s” makes this series a different beast. The season begins with Joan Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), a.k.a. Offred, still fearing the effects of her protest last season. Her disobedience toward Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is met with fury, instantly forcing him to re-evaluate her next steps. She remains stuck in the clutches of Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski).

While Joan attempts to find her way in the oppressive world around her, the show expands its scope and worldview. Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and Moira (Samira Wiley) are working against Gilead from Canada. While interesting, The Colonies mark the grandest departure, where we reconnect with Emily (Alexis Bledel) and Janine (Madeline Brewer). The expansion of the world make the world far grander and indicates we’ve only scratched the surface of where the show may take us literally and figuratively.

The performance that Elisabeth Moss continues to deliver is one of the most captivating things on television today. She is giving a virtuosic performance as Joan and might be one of the best in TV history. This season, even more so than last season, Moss is left without words. You know it is a strong performance when the directors include additional scenes that require Moss to be silent, only place her adept use of negative space front and center. Moss is particularly great at conveying emotion from scene-to-scene. Her ability to emote is nearly unparalleled in TV. As she shifts from guilt to sadness to cold resilence, every feeling is obvious to the audience. Few actors may be as gifted as Moss is in this role.

However, she’s not alone in giving another career-best performance. Watch out for the trio of Dowd, Bledel, and Strahovski this season. Each is brilliant and have expanded their character’s immensely. Dowd is so intense, so evil, and so brilliant, you’ll wonder where she’s been hiding. Dowd clearly liked the taste of champagne after winning the Emmy last year. Expect a repeat on the horizon. More specialized attention on Offred means we get even more Dowd this season.

Bledel has brought a new intensity to many of her scenes as she begins to transition into the supporting actress race. She’s present more this season, even taking on the point-of-view in an early episode. Again, she turns in a better and more leveled performance than last year. Finally, Strahovski is given a real chance to shine. She was strong last season, but watch out for her this year. She has some of the most emotional scenes in some episodes. It almost makes you forget what a monster she’s actually playing. It’s a tough balancing act, and Strahovski deserves praise for her work.

Once again, the direction and craftwork make this show feel different than every other series on television. Colin Watkinson is back splitting DP duties with Zoe White. The two make the series one of the most visually appealing series on television. The way in which they shoot different locales this time around adds to the visual splendor of the series. Don’t get me wrong, what you watch is horrifying and grotesque at times. Yet the way in which Watkinson and White shoot the brutality, you can’t help but be amazed.

Excellent direction comes from Kari Skogland and Mike Barker, who simply make the most of every second on screen. There are almost no moments over the first six episodes that could possibly be considered wasted screentime. That feels impossible, yet the show is so captivating you believe every second is essential. This includes a ten-minute intro to Season 2 that will take your breath away. Skogland and Barker know they are delivering one of the very best shows on TV, and their confidence shines through the screen.

Simply put, “The Handmaid‘s Tale” remains one of the most astonishing shows on television. There is no show bleaker, yet no show more captivating all at once. It’s heavily recommended you do not binge this show in one sitting because it makes you feel depression in ways you never thought possible. Yet this season also gives you some incredible highs that make you believe in something bigger for these characters. This show is a classic, especially given it may have just concluded the strongest 16 episode start to a show in some time. The rest of television is going to have a tough time this Emmy season. “The Handmaid’s Tale” earns its “juggernaut” title in Season 2.

What do you think? Does “The Handmaid’s Tale” live up to the lofty expectations? Let us hear in the comments below! 

“The Handmaid’s Tale” streams on Hulu. The first three episodes are available, with new episodes releasing each week on Wednesday. 

GRADE: (★★★