‘Handmaid’s Tale’s’ even more chilling in season two

April 19, 2018

If you’re worried that the new season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” won’t live up to the exquisitely crafted nightmare that was season one, fear not.

On second thought, fear more.

This season’s chilling images and harrowing events of Margaret Atwood’s fictional Gilead — a place ruled by a merciless fundamentalist regime that forces fertile women into concubine and breeder roles — are bound to tighten the knot that formed in your stomach watching the first season of Hulu’s original series.

After watching three of the 13 new episodes, I was left even more disturbed and frightened, clutching the edge of my chair in anticipation of what might come next.

As its Emmy-winning star Elisabeth Moss put it at a recent press session, “it is a dark season … I would say arguably it’s darker than season one, if that’s possible.”

Hulu begins streaming “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Wednesday, rolling out two episodes, then following up with one a week through early July.

Right away, we see what happens to pregnant Offred (Moss), who was at the center of last season’s cliff-hanger of a finale that had our heroine being taken from the house of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) into a mysterious van amid assurances from lover Nick.

What she finds upon delivery is a scene that’s sheer torture to watch, making us fear that Offred and many of her fellow handmaids may be goners. (Balancing the tension all the while, of course, is the knowledge that it wouldn’t be a show without Moss’ central character.)

Without giving too much away, her subsequent journey — part-sad, part-triumphant and perennially dizzying and suspenseful — is accompanied by many of the faces we met previously: the relentlessly brutal Aunt Lydia (fellow Emmy winner Ann Dowd), the insufferable Mr. and Mrs. Waterford and concerned and caring Nick (Max Minghella).

There’s a moment of exhilaration — just a moment, mind you — in the first episode featuring a bloody, but joyful June (Offred’s real name from the old world) that’s sure to stay in your mind for days.

At the core of all this is June’s pregnancy, Moss said, which can be both uplifting and depressing.

“I definitely feel like we’ve locked into the idea of motherhood in season two in a whole new way,” she told TV critics. “Bruce and I always talked about the impending birth of the child, this child that’s growing inside her as a bit of a ticking time bomb, and the complications of that are really wonderful to explore.

“It’s a wonderful thing to have a baby, but she’s having it potentially in this world that she may not want to bring it into. And then, you know, if she does have the baby, the baby gets taken away from her and she can’t be its mother. So obviously it’s very complicated and makes for good drama.”

The season also takes us to new settings, outside the confines of the handmaids’ residences and daily routines, expanding on Atwood’s novel, which actually ended with the first season’s last episode, without being untrue to her voice and tone.

“I certainly don’t think we’re beyond the story that she was telling,” showrunner Bruce Miller said of Atwood, who remains a producer on the drama. “I think she’s very much the mother of the series. So we were noodling around in that world and just going further, but it’s not exiting that world at all.”

One place we see is the Colonies, which Atwood describes but never takes us to in the book.

In episode two, we discover it to be a stark and barbaric wasteland full of chemicals and toxic air, where even the horses wear gas masks. Such protection is off-limits to the exiled women, however, who cough and struggle through back-breaking work.

That’s where we’re reunited with Alex Bledel’s Emily, a lesbian who was savagely punished in season one with genital mutilation and later sent to the Colonies to suffer more. Guest star Marisa Tomei also pops up in these scenes, contributing to the raw emotions of this deadly place.

Just as in the first season, flashbacks to characters’ former lives are sprinkled throughout season two and continue to be heartbreaking as we watch their former worlds gradually crumble.

Particularly moving is Emily’s backstory as a college professor happily married to a woman and mother of a child. She’s separated from both when trying to flee the country.

As a longtime newspaper woman, I was particularly affected — at times reduced to tears — by scenes in episode two that show June exploring an abandoned building that once was The Boston Globe.

There, she finds personal and poignant remnants of journalists’ lives that appear to have ended via horrifying nooses lined up in the press room, execution-style.

Because the first season was so critically praised and showered with awards, the show got a bigger budget this season, and it shows.

Ramping up the series allowed the writers and producers to answer more questions about how Gilead came to be.

“How did it all happen?” said executive producer Warren Littlefield. “It became a bigger show.”

The resistance also is more present here. We meet some of the figures doing their part to fight this world.

“There’s so many forces hitting up against each other, rubbing up against each other, that you’re actually not sure what’s going to happen,” Miller said.

At the heart of “The Handmaid’s Tale” once again is Moss’ powerfully nuanced performance, helping the viewer travel with her through this dismal and continually horrifying world. .

“There’s a relationship that the camera has with Lizzy’s face and there’s an entire narrative that’s taking place when that camera’s on her face,” Littlefield said. “We have a show because of what Lizzy is able to communicate with the camera about this incredible journey for this character.”

Jeanne Jakle’s column appears Thursdays and Sundays in mySA. Read more of her columns here. | jjakle@express-news.net | @JakleJ