‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ premiere sets discomforting, promising standard for season 2

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When Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiered last year, it was a revelation. A televisual solvent to tame still-fresh election wounds and all the anti-everything rhetoric surrounding it — particularly that which described women as vessels for procreation or objects for male assailants’ violence.

The original season contained the entire narrative of its source material, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name. It took place in a dystopian, yet not entirely unfamiliar, future in which a Christian extremist elite rule over a militarized, mostly infertile society called Gilead — the new United States. Those elite enslave the working class, including a select few still-fertile women: “handmaids.”

Forced into living with upper-class families where they are regularly raped by the patriarchs until they become pregnant, the handmaids are essentially “hosts.” When the child arrives — a child that is biologically hers — the handmaid must ultimately give that child to the family that “owns” her.

Then she’s assigned to another family. The cycle begins again.

The first season reimagined the entire novel; now, the second season opens on uncharted territory.

Throughout both seasons, we follow one handmaid: June (Elisabeth Moss), or Offred — that’s right, Of-Fred. (Guess her patriarch’s name.)

June is defiant. At the end of the first season, she lead a revolt amongst the handmaids. The handmaids’ keeper, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), ordered them to kill a handmaid who tried to kill herself and, apparently more importantly, her newborn child. The handmaids collectively refused in a powerful demonstration of rebellion.

But rebellion doesn’t come without consequences — in Gilead, or perhaps anywhere.

This season opens with the handmaids suffering those consequences, being lead down a tunnel leading who-knows-where. It’s a frightening, yet symbolically rich, metaphor for both the season and the year to come.

At first, it appears the handmaids may pay with their lives. But who would believe that the oligarchs would kill off their only means of continuing their reign? Without the handmaids, future generations simply can’t exist. Strong as the metaphor is visually, the opening plot is a weak start because it’s clearly a setup.

The enforcers of “The Handmaid’s Tale” make it quite clear that they’ll do anything to maim and dehumanize these women, short of killing them.

That being said, the scene is emblematic of the series’ indelible cast. With their mouths covered by masks made for corralling animals, Moss and her female co-stars must rely on their eyes to express deep terror — to chilling effect.

However, the scene’s inclusion of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” is so obvious, it’s distracting. In the past, the series left its musical moments for the credits sequence. This fared much better, because it allowed the actors and the show’s strengths to come to the fore.

To that effect, the second season’s premiere keeps up the original’s strongest elements: its performances and its use of color, lighting and brilliant camera movement to foster identification with June and her comrades.While Moss truly shines in her defiant performance as June in this episode and Dowd’s hostile alliance to her religion is unnerving, many of the series’ other well-loved characters are missing from the premiere.

Where are Emily (Alexis Bledel), Moira (Samira Wiley) and Janine (Madeline Brewer)? Not that anyone’s particularly a fan of June’s husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), but when will he appear, besides in flashbacks?

Still, the premiere is as disturbingly gritty as we might expect, and it sets up several stimulating plots for the season to come.

After the revelation that June is pregnant at the end of the first season, we know she will start to receive protections that aren’t afforded to the other handmaids. How will she use this privilege? It’s hard to say, given where this first episode takes her — and it’s equally as challenging to tell whether she’s motivated by a pack mentality or a lone wolf one.

The second season has no concrete source material, and it’s often challenging for series based on novels or films to maintain the tightly focused narratives they began with.

Perhaps the first sign of this unraveling is the premiere’s reliance on excessive violence. While the first season depicted sexual violence and female genital mutilation, this episode visualizes violence in a much more explicit way that’s overwhelming, even impossible to watch at times.

In short, the season premiere of “The Handmaid’s Tale” promises originality, and hopefully, with high stakes and a set goal in mind, the rest of the season will deliver the kind of compelling tale that made the first such a game-changer.

Sophie-Marie Prime covers television. Contact her at [email protected].