The book doesn’t take us to the Colonies, for instance, but they do loom large in its consciousness, in much the same way as Room 101 hovered in the mind of Winston Smith in Orwell’s1984 long before it became real for him. A place where the very worst thing you could imagine happens.
In season one the Colonies were a mere whisper, but this time around we are there, and they are as promised: a toxic, post-envirogeddon wasteland worked over by grey-smocked women whose every swing of a hoe brings them closer to the painful end. As one-eyed former handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer) says to Emily/Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), “we come here, we work, we die”. Or as Ofglen herself says, “this place is Hell … we’re cows, being worked to death”. Gulag, labour camp, prison – call it what you will, the Colonies are where the State exercises its control with the heaviest of hands.
The mind is where it does its work with a little more subtlety, and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) – a frightful hybrid of Stalinist apparatchik and Catholic nun – is feverishly chipping away at Offred (Elisabeth Moss), whose failed escape has terrible consequences. She, of course, is untouchable because of the precious cargo she is carrying, a child the Waterfords will claim as their own, though it was in fact fathered by their driver Nick (Max Minghella). But those around her are less safe.
Aunt Lydia offers a way out of the all-consuming guilt that flows from this conundrum: renounce the recently reclaimed pre-Gilead identity of rebellious (ie, independent) June Osborn and reside instead in the bosom of the State as the dutiful Offred. It’s a bargain with the devil she has little choice but to accept.
This season throws back, too, to an often-overlooked aspect of Atwood’s novel: its interrogation of the unintended consequences of a hardline strand of feminism that demonises the sexualisation of women. It’s not a huge leap from there, the book suggests, to the demonisation of women’s sexuality.
“You wanted a women’s culture,” the book’s Offred said in an imaginary conversation with her activist mother, another who’d been sent to the Colonies. “Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.”
No question, showrunner Bruce Miller and his team – which includes Atwood as consulting producer – took a risk in expanding things, but they’ve succeeded brilliantly. Season two is a triumph, and that’s no small mercy.
Let us be thankful, and pray they keep it up.