The Handmaid's Tale: how season two expands the drama - a spoiler-free review

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*The Handmaid's Tale season two starts on Channel 4 on May 20. This is a spoiler-free article based on the first two episodes. There will however be spoilers for season one*

Brace yourselves for more stark drama, tense survival, and surprising use of rock and pop standards. The Handmaid's Tale is back.

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In the award-winning hands of Elisabeth Moss, the plight of Offred/June in the dystopian theocracy of Gilead retains its compulsive pull, even as its events continue to disturb and haunt.

And as the story moves beyond the confines of Margaret Atwood's original source novel, so too does its setting and focus - with a far more expansive view.

More than one protagonist

The first season occasionally showed things from another perspective, such as Luke's flashback episode and the brief diversions into Serena Joy's past, which provided some much-needed insight.

For the most part however, it was an intentionally claustrophobic drama that homed in on Offred's plight as a prisoner; the camera consistently pressed up against Moss's expressive, agonised or defiant face as despair and abuse reigned around her.

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Here, the shift is notable. From a cinematography aspect, as well as a story one.

We still get plenty of extreme close-ups of Offred's intense reactions, and shots of her isolated in the frame. But now, there are far more wide views of crowds witnessed from the side or the heavens; of entire scenes and environments that we can process and take in in their entirety. Some of these, such as a sequence in the rain, look strikingly beautiful - even though the things they depict could not be more ugly.

For those wondering if pop culture references still play the occasional part, they do. From a Kate Bush song to a classic sitcom.

The camera also frequently follows people as they walk away from Offred, and captures their own private feelings more keenly. And while there are plenty of scenes focused on Moss and her character, this now feels like a drama with multiple protagonists, rather than just one.

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This is quite fitting, as the May Day package in last season's finale cast a light on the stories of countless subjugated women. As an early riveting scene reminds Offred - quite literally - suffering and consequences exist far beyond her own experience.

Let's just say that at least one other character well and truly takes the spotlight too.

Dread and anxiety

One crucial expansion of the drama's world is that it finally takes us to the feared 'colonies'; bleak, toxic labour camps that have an almost post-apocalyptic aspect. While mask-wearing supervisors look on, gangs of women hack at smouldering rocks with cracked, bleeding hands.

There are uncomfortable parallels to screen depictions of concentration camps or slave plantations, as well as prison chain-gangs. Here, as befits the supposedly Biblical dictatorship of Gilead, the vision is explicitly Hellish, in the genuine sense of the word. Smoke rises from sulphurous ash; the air thick with toxic fumes.

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Tears in the rain: even the show's cinematography reflects its widening scope (Photo: Hulu/Channel 4/MGM)

How this all came about remains as integral to the show as the present day.

There are still copious flashbacks focusing on the rise of Gilead, from a number of points of view, exploring the gradual drip-drip of oppression and eroding of rights that unfolded over time. More than ever, it feels like a cautionary tale.

Despite - and perhaps, because of - the fact we know where this is all going, these sequences are thick with seeping dread and anxiety, as the people at their centre gradually realise just how nightmarish their previously comfortable realities are set to become.

Glimmers of hope

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The end of the acclaimed first season raised numerous tantalising questions. Some are swiftly answered as season two gets underway. Others are not - leaving plenty of possibilities.

As before, there are moments of twisted, stomach-turning cruelty, and signs of terror everywhere. Once again we see the painful aftermaths of massacres; bullet holes in walls and nooses hanging from the rafters.

June AKA Offred faces even greater danger in season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale (Photo: Hulu)

At times, you may question just why you are subjecting yourself to all this misery. Yet crucially, there are still glimmers of hope among the horror. And the odd bit of wry humour remains, even when things are at their darkest.

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Moss, meanwhile, remains riveting - conveying so much with minimal dialogue - while the cast around her continue to command our attention too, whether they are sympathetic survivors, or warped oppressors fighting to justify their own vicious interpretations of scripture.

Perhaps due to the fact that Atwood's book has been exhausted, season two is much heavier on character and situation than it is on plot. But The Handmaid's Tale was always a slow-burn - and it doesn't suffer from it.

That's more than can be said for the people under the thumb of the Gilead regime. This drama remains a harrowing watch. But it is also, thankfully, still a compelling one.

The Handmaid's Tale season 2 starts on Channel 4 on Sunday May 20 at 9pm.

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[Main image: Channel 4/Hulu/MGM]