Handmaid's Tale season 2 on Hulu a chilling must-watch

Review: Margaret Atwood's book is off the table now, so Gilead's disturbing world is expanding to even creepier areas in the next season on Hulu.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
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Gael Cooper
4 min read
George Kraychyk/Hulu

Warning: Possible minor Handmaid's Tale spoilers ahead.

There's a scene in one of the early episodes of The Handmaid's Tale's second season on Hulu that will stay with me for a very long time. 

In a flashback, June (Elisabeth Moss) is bringing her sick daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) home from school. Husband Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) is already there, and he's watching disaster unfold on the television news, likely the beginnings of the religious takeover that results in Gilead.

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Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is haunted by flashbacks from her past and hopes to reunite with her daughter in season 2.

George Kraychyk/Hulu

June can't believe what she's hearing and is irresistibly drawn to the TV, trying to comprehend how her world has changed. But her daughter is feverish and whiny and wants nothing more than her mama in her bed, holding her and telling her things will get better. "I hate this day," Hannah whines. 

Moss' character is well aware the world is burning around her, but in the end, she swallows her desire for news and goes to hold her child. Whatever is happening in the outer world, however much it will affect her later on, protecting her small family comes first. 

It's just one of many quiet yet swelling-with-meaning moments in the second season that convince me this Hulu hit has only gotten better.  It's clear why the show won so many Emmys, including best actress for Moss and outstanding drama series for the show at large.

Margaret Atwood created the world of Gilead, where proven fertile women, like June, are forced to bear children for those in power, for her 1985 novel. But the first season of the show pretty much used up Atwood's novel plot -- and like Game of Thrones over on HBO, the writers are now on their own. 

Yet Atwood's world is so complete, so well-thought-out, that nothing in the new season feels forced. The first 6 episodes of the promised 13 delve into areas that were only hinted at earlier, including the brutal Colonies, where those who have been dubbed "Unwomen" are forced to work themselves to death. 

Yes, you'll see German concentration camp parallels here, and North Korean labor camps, and Russian gulags. But no matter how much you've read in history books about the brutalities of history, seeing it unfold, to characters we know as college professors and mothers and friends, hits hard.

Ann Dowd won a supporting actress Emmy for her role as Aunt Lydia, who's in charge of the Handmaids' education, and it's easy to see why. Her Lydia switches rapid-fire between cruelty and kindness to the Handmaids, and between subservience and superiority with the Commander and his wife Serena Joy, never missing a note. Her voice is so wrapped in a genial-sounding false kindness, so always in control, you're almost sucked into the idea that she really cares about these women, until another grim torture is rolled out. She's prominent in the second season, and for good reason. Whenever she's speaking, something fascinating is happening.

The details in The Handmaid's Tale are heartbreakingly brilliant -- the gas masks worn by the horses (but not the Unwomen) in the poisoned Colonies, the bloodied shoe found at an office-turned-place of execution, a prayer rug hidden under a bed. Fleeting moments, maybe, but they color in the horrors of this land in a only-too-real way.

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Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is pregnant, which could save or doom her.

George Kraychyk/Hulu

And this season, it's hard not to notice how stunningly artistic the scenes have become. There's a scene, shot from above, where the Handmaids in their red cloaks and white wings are all standing in a circle holding stones as punishment. The camera whirls above them in an eerie aerial view, and the rain falls on the women like daggers. It's just one of many beautifully shot segments that could be paintings if they didn't depict such horrors.

There's another scene, too, that will stay with me. June/Offred has found someone who's helping her, but in this world she can never be sure where loyalties lie. So she tests him with one of the phrases the Handmaids are taught to say, waiting to see if he'll deliver the prescribed response. But instead he stares at her for a second and says, "After awhile, Crocodile." 

It's a gentle phrase from a land before time, an unexpected drop of water on a parched earth, almost too sweet to exist in this place. It's a reminder of what was, and that maybe, June can somehow get back there. After awhile.

The first two episodes of The Handmaid's Tale season 2 drop on April 25. 

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