Attention. Anything below this sentence could be construed as a spoiler and if you have not finished the second season, or you do not wish to learn about plot details, do not read on.
The Handmaid's Tale is one of the most traumatizing shows on television. The writers, producers, and directors take advantage of the grittier, more graphic nature of modern television to produce deep, personal horror and terror. The Handmaid's Tale creates an unsettling world that feels plausible and mirrors the darkest parts seen elsewhere and in other times and present in the culture today.
Season two picks up immediately from where season one ended. The defiance of the handmaids and their refusal to punish Janine cannot go unaddressed. This is not a world where meaningful defiance can be overlooked. The handmaids are mutilated, except for June who is pregnant. Soon thereafter June (or Offred) is on the run from the Eyes and the Guardians as she struggles to get to Canada with the help of her lover-accomplice Nick. June's family - Moira and Luke - wait, helpless, in Toronto. The Waterfords are thrown into chaos in the efforts to recover her, and other handmaids and citizens of Gilead struggle to live in the oppressive regime.
Astute watchers of the show would likely deduce that June's escape could only be temporary. The dynamic between Serena, Fred and June was too tempting to abandon and she acted as strong catalyst to keep that conflict rolling. It also demonstrated the futility of escape. The escapes of Moira and Luke might suggest that freedom is easily attainable and not fraught with difficulties and peril.
One of the greatest moves of the season was to expand the world of The Handmaid's Tale. Through new locations, characters and backstory as an audience the world of show feels far more concrete and disturbing. I think these one-off, or brief scenes from the man tale at the Waterford home does significant work to make the consequences and situation seem more dire. It also took pressure off the principals to let the Waterford dynamic carry the entire season. Now that the rules are in place we can expand beyond them.
I'd like to call out a few of the exceptional scenes in the second season. Emily, formerly Ofglen, has been banished to live (and die) in the colonies. The imagery of the women slaving away in the toxic environment brought to mind Soviet gulags for me. Janine is later also sent to the camp where she injects a bizarre level of hopefulness with her naiveté. The brutality of the colonies, a boogey man from the first season, is made real. Emily's backstory as a gay academic is brought into sharp focus and is quite touching.
While June is on the run she spends some time hiding at the Boston Globe offices, now shuttered. The set is rich in subtle messages and cues about what happened to the journalists who used to work there. Later she is forced to shelter with a 'normal' family, a man, woman and their child. Like in many similar regimes they want to keep their heads down and out of trouble, but also hate the regime for personal, likely spiritual, reasons. Sometimes I love these tangential scenes so much I wish the show would simply evolve into an anthology show to provide more of them.
In brief I will add that Serena's backstory, the various scenes showing the politics of the Commanders, the diplomatic mission to Canada, and the wives visiting the Council all stand out as strong scenes that made the show richer and bigger.
Despite its literal horrors and gut-wrenching content, The Handmaid's Tale remains a stunningly beautiful show. The colours and cinematography are often perfect at capturing the feeling and mood of the scene. As mentioned, the world feels to be growing in a measured, reasonable way and not into a sprawling mess. The more we as an audience learn about Gilead the more there seems to be to be discovered. The performances of returning cast and new players does a great deal to provide a human side to the suffering and villainy of the series.
Thematically I would say that the second season of The Handmaid's Tale looks more deeply at the place of children and protection of children, while the first was mostly concerned with various issues impacting women and their roles (primarily). With June's pregnancy, the return of Hannah, the introduction of Eden, Moira's story about her child, the health of Janine's baby, and various other scenes there is a strong undercurrent regarding the love and protection of children, or the failure there of. Gilead not only brutalizes, oppresses and enslaves women, it twists, injures and abuses children. The final episode and the final scene of the final episode hammers this point home concretely. In a moral society we sacrifice for the next generation.
I'd highly recommend The Handmaid's Tale with the caveat that the series is incredibly difficult viewing. I hope the show continues to grow and impress in the third season, which I eagerly anticipate.