Timeliness was “The Handmaid’s Tale” big draw last year, premiering a few months after President Trump took office while he quickly showed an affinity for those working from a neo-nationalist playbook. With half the country hyped up from hourly outrages and all too eager to envision a dark descent into American-style fascism, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel hit just the right note between caution and paranoia.
A raft of Emmys later (including one for best drama series and awards for the show’s star, Elisabeth Moss, and supporting players Ann Dowd and Alexis Bledel), the much-awaited and worthy new season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” begins streaming Wednesday, and it’s a relief to see creator Bruce Miller and his writers are letting the show build on its merits, instead of turning its more relevant notes into an Emergency Broadcast System.
Watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” still won’t be anyone’s idea of a restful experience (one or two episodes per sitting will suffice, thanks), but some of the sickening, panicked feelings have worn off. That may stir another realization for the viewer: We’ve grown accustomed to Gilead, a brutal theocracy that has replaced the United States.
Moss resumes her unerring portrayal of June Osborne (known to her enslavers as Offred), who at the end of Season 1 stepped bravely into a black police van that was either taking her to her doom or toward a chance for escape.
That’s also where Atwood’s novel left off, so from here onward, it’s an all-new story. To reveal what happens next to June involves a minefield of spoilers; suffice to say that her hope of reuniting in Canada with her husband, Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), and best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley), runs counter to the story arc’s best interests.
June’s story, after all, is an unfinished tale of resistance, first in subverting Gilead’s system of forcing fertile women (referred to as handmaids) to bear the children of the ruling class, and now as a woman on the lam, pursued by the nation’s Orwellian, all-seeing police force.
On this round, “The Handmaid’s Tale” trades some of its socio-psychological heebie-jeebies for a straight-up, more adventuresome tale of a heroic fugitive entering an underground railroad of co-conspirators — details of which are sure to fascinate fans of the show. For instance, June spends a while hiding alone in what appears to be the Boston Globe’s abandoned newsroom, where journalists were slaughtered on the job.
At the same time, the series veers necessarily back toward the hopeless, following Gilead’s “Unwomen” (a derisive term for the infertile and criminal), who are sent to forced labor camps at a smoldering toxic-waste site where they work until they get sick and die. Among the Unwomen we find Emily (Bledel), a former college professor who briefly served as the handmaid Ofglen. That Emily still has fight in her and provides care to other women in the camp is a tender mercy; the purpose here is to remind viewers just how cruel this government can be.
Of course, the bigger and more constant theme (which seems as obvious as the handmaids' red robes) is the almost manic attention to the afflictions of motherhood.
Gilead gained its revolutionary foothold just as the nation’s birthrate drastically plummeted, and the fact that June is now carrying the child of Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), one of the chief architects of the new order, all but guarantees her safety. If caught, she won’t be shot on sight; instead she’ll be made to return to the Waterford residence and produce the prize of a healthy newborn.
Death would almost be preferable. The prim and pious wives of Gilead’s commanders, including Fred’s wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), obsess over extravagant baby showers, conception/birth rituals and the fake news of motherhood brought to them via their handmaids’ tentative fertility. Serena happens to be the uncredited visionary who helped design Gilead’s strict family edicts and was then forced to live under them in subservience to her husband. Having declared motherhood to be the height of womanly purpose, she grew so desperate for a baby that she arranged for June to have sex with Fred’s full-time chauffeur, Nick (Max Minghella), without Fred’s knowledge.
What Serena didn’t know (and still doesn’t) is that Nick’s connections to the underground helped June escape. Is Nick in love with June? Is Nick an important part of this story? The writers keep a cloud over his motivations, while Minghella’s shortcomings in the role (especially when he’s in scenes with Moss) expose the show’s lone misstep in casting. Strahovski, meanwhile, delivers another masterfully icy performance that is more complex than before — built from resentment, longing and a sadistic instinct for the punitive.
Traces of motherhood dominate the flashbacks that form “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” backstories this season. Cherry Jones (“Transparent”) turns up as June’s vibrantly feminist mother, as June recalls her warnings to wake up and smell the misogynistic fascism brewing in their midst. Another flashback, perhaps too on-the-nose, shows Serena in her former guise as a rising voice of the alt-right, shouted down and called a Nazi and the C-word at a campus appearance to promote her book, “A Woman’s Place,” which argued that women needed to be freed from the burdens of equality to focus on their real purpose: reproduction.
The baby in her womb is June’s one and only bargaining chip, but motherhood is also June’s greatest weakness, as she determinedly fixates on the condition and whereabouts of Hannah, the young daughter who was taken from her when she and Luke made a last-ditch effort to escape Gilead.
As her tormentors have learned, the only way to effectively manipulate June is to dangle before her any hope or hint of Hannah — a photograph, the possibility of a visit. The theme begins to work at all sorts of cross-purposes and contradictions: Is motherhood the surest source of strength and security? Or is it a woman’s undoing, the key to the cage that keeps her compliant?
Watching the women of Gilead cope with the sanctity of motherhood, I kept thinking of poor Carrie Mathison, the beleaguered, bipolar protagonist (and now failed single mom) of Showtime's "Homeland," which heads this Sunday into the finale of what's become its penultimate season. Last week, Claire Danes, whose performance as Carrie has never wavered in seven years, confirmed that next season would be the show's last.
As “Homeland” fans well know, the show tends to follow a pattern: A premise is launched that is almost eerily in sync with actual, current events in the intelligence war on terror. The show then pushes plausibility to a laughable degree, ramping up the adrenaline dose as it predictably comes apart on the sharper turns.
Then, several episodes along (just as you’re reconsidering the cost of a Showtime subscription), darned if “Homeland” doesn’t swerve in a surprising direction that redeems the whole season. By the time it’s over, you’re again riveted.
Everything “Homeland” dealt with this season clanged and clunked too loudly with topicality, particularly a scheme by Russian operatives to undermine the American government by manipulating Twitter bots and a co-opting of an Alex Jones-like conspiracy theorist (Jake Weber) to spread lies and propaganda across the red states via his daily streaming rants.
More casual viewers might think “Homeland” erred last season by inaugurating a female president, as if the show had incorrectly presumed a Hillary Clinton victory. But President Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) turned out to be more notable for an unhappy combo of naivete and paranoia in her first 100 days, playing right into the Russians’ trap. Things got so bad that Keane’s cabinet and vice president (Beau Bridges) invoked the 25th Amendment in the most recent episode, removing her from office.
Both the president and Carrie are, in a sense, grieving mothers. Keane lost her son to war and Carrie, at long last, surrendered custody of her school-age daughter, Frannie (the baby she had with the late hero-turned-traitor-turned-hero Marine sergeant, Nicholas Brody), to her far more capable sister and brother-in-law.
Fans can’t possibly be surprised that Carrie painted herself into such a corner — already in her young life, Frannie (played by twins Claire and McKenna Keane) has been dragged hither and yon (Berlin, New York, Washington), held hostage at gunpoint and most recently awakened by a midnight raid to arrest a suspected spy (who was, at that particular moment, having cable-style sex with Carrie on the couch).
Shows with strong female protagonists routinely fall back on motherhood as the character’s prime motivator as well as her most vulnerable flaw. Starting with the usual guilt trip (Mommy works too much) and escalating to something as horrific as June having Hannah ripped from her arms by Gilead’s enforcers, the message is remarkably the same, and, when you think about it, depressingly trite. Even Maeve, the rogue cyborg played by Thandie Newton in HBO’s “Westworld” fixates on a previous narrative in which she had a daughter — and now she must, must find the daughter. It’s her whole reason for being, even in a show where the definition of being-ness is up for grabs.
“Homeland” took an extraordinarily brave step when Carrie decided, before a family court judge, that she in fact could not save the world and be a suitable mom. For the good of the country (and the urgency of her current mission), she let Frannie go. There’s a message somewhere in here that may yet transmit back to Gilead: Motherhood is many things, but it is not everything.
The Handmaid’s Tale (one hour) returns Wednesday on Hulu with two episodes; new episodes follow weekly.
Homeland (one hour) season finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.