Dystopian sci-fi series The Handmaid’s Tale returns in a month for its second season, promising more “gut-wrenching” television as it moves beyond the events of Margaret Atwood’s foundational feminist novel.
The producers of the awards juggernaut, which became Hulu’s flagship show last year, are promising new locations, characters and plot twists — but the same old dread that permeates the nightmarish hellscape of Gilead.
“I have been saying about the opening scene of season two that, whatever you think it’s going to be, just throw it out,” the show’s award-winning star Elisabeth Moss told US cable network Bravo ahead of its April 25 release.
“It’s gone in a completely different way that I never would have expected.”
Published in 1985, Atwood’s bestseller is required reading in schools, often mentioned in the same breath as George Orwell’s “1984,” Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and other works of speculative fiction.
It has spawned a movie, a graphic novel, an opera and a ballet, not to mention the first season of Hulu’s hit show that has eight Emmys, three Critics Choice Awards and two Golden Globes.
The series stars Moss (Mad Men) in a near-future in which New England has been dismantled in a theocratic coup and replaced with Gilead, a tyrannical regime where men mete out brutal punishments and rape is mandated by the state.
Moss plays June/Offred, one of the few remaining fertile women who work as “handmaids,” given new names to reflect their “owners” and forced into sexual servitude in an attempt to repopulate the climate-ravaged world.
‘Part of the resistance’
When the first season launched, Atwood’s nightmarish vision had never felt more relevant in the US, amid religiously-inspired massacres, campus sex attacks and a proposed assault on reproductive health care.
Critics suggested that The Handmaid’s Tale was a logical conclusion of the uglier realities of Donald Trump’s America and sales of the novel surged after the president’s November 2016 election.
Its gender-equality message became more resonant still with the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and numerous other powerful Hollywood figures in the latter months of last year, amid allegations of sex abuse and harassment.
Executive producer Warren Littlefield said after the show won best television drama at the Golden Globes in January that he sometimes wished it was not as topical as it had turned out.
“We went into development and then into production, and the world was a very different-looking place — it was not a Trump world,” he told reporters at the Beverly Hills ceremony.
“Midway through the first season the reality changes, and each and every day we are reminded of what we carry forward — a responsibility to live up to Margaret Atwood’s vision, and also to be a part of the resistance.”
The second season, which adds Marisa Tomei (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Bradley Whitford (Get Out), shows viewers how the dictatorship came to be and introduces the Colonies, a contaminated zone where dissidents are held.
‘Gilead is within you’
Madeline Brewer, whose character Janine ends up there with fellow handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel), told Hollywood’s PaleyFest television festival she formed her mental images of the no-go zone from the book.
“I feel like it’s so aligned, when I read the book, what I picture and what I see in the show, which is just like this aesthetically really beautiful rolling hills and cornfields,” she said.
“And then you put a magnifying glass on it and it’s incredibly sinister and gut-wrenchingly terrible.”
The show’s creator Bruce Miller describes the Colonies as “an extrapolation of the way they think about women — as disposable,” likening the stoicism of the women there to the resolve of people in concentration camps and Chinese labour camps.
“How do you build an individual life, a community, even in a place like that, even in a place where you think, ‘This is my last stop — this is the last house I’m going to live in?’” he mused.
Samira Wiley plays Moira, Offred/June’s best friend since college who was seen escaping to Canada at the end of season one, where she discovers Luke Bankole (OT Fagbenle), June’s husband from before Gilead.
Wiley said Moira is relieved finally to have escaped “being raped repeatedly, every day, all those things” but struggles with being away from everything that is familiar.
“One of the thematics for this year, that Bruce really used for season two, is ‘Gilead is within you,’” added Littlefield.
“They both may be in Little America, up in Toronto, but they haven’t fully left Gilead and Gilead hasn’t fully left them. So we get to play with the trauma and the repercussions of all of that.”