‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ earns praise with riveting season finale

(CNN) – “The Handmaid’s Tale” wrapped up a staggeringly good second season with this week’s episode, made all the more impressive by having moved beyond its source material, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel. The finish happens to coincide with the Emmy nominations, and after last year’s breakthrough win, this Hulu drama has earned another red-cloaked army’s worth of recognition.

Abused, subjugated and downtrodden, the female characters asserted themselves and even experienced a modicum of revenge in the finale, which followed an emotionally devastating penultimate episode, in which the teenage Eden was executed.

That death clearly played a key role in what has been the season-long exploration of the relationship between Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss, who has elevated the art of the hate-filled stare to new heights) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), to whom June pleaded to push back against the patriarchal system designed to oppress them, as well as their infant daughter.

“How are you going to keep her safe?” June asked, after Serena’s own act of defiance — leading a petition to allow Gilead’s daughters to read — triggered brutal punishment from the male council on which her husband, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), sits.

In some respects, Serena has become the show’s most fascinating personality — a mass of contradictions, capable of terrible cruelty and rigidness one moment, and signs of conscience and independence the next.

The episode, in fact, featured one jarring moment after another, with a cathartic aspect in some of its violence. There was Serena’s protest and subsequent arrest, June retaliating by slapping Waterford, and Ofglen/Emily (Alexis Bledel) stabbing Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), sending her tumbling down a flight of stairs.

While the series clearly tapped into a cultural moment when it premiered, the underlying spine of women being oppressed and turned into unwilling baby factories hasn’t unfolded in a vacuum, with the #MeToo movement and concerns about the future of legal abortion adding real-world undercurrents to its grim alternative vision.

Yet for all the remarkable work by the writers and cast, “The Handmaid’s Tale” does appear to be operating on a bit of a knife’s edge.

A generous helping of flashbacks fleshed out and enriched this season, adding depth to the characters and expanding its universe. As dark as the season was (which prompted debate in some quarters), there’s little here that doesn’t feel true to Atwood’s vision and organic to this world.

That said, the latest arc (which ran a few episodes longer) again built toward the prospect of an escape, which risks becoming its own sort of storytelling trap if the show keeps tiptoeing toward, then withdrawing from, that precipice.

Showrunner Bruce Miller has discussed the prospect of the show running as many as 10 seasons, but as good as it is, this might be one of those series that can’t be indefinitely prolonged. Sometimes the hotter a show burns, the harder it is to sustain, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” has practically smoldered from start to finish.

The finale — punctuated by June’s decision to return, and invigorated by the addition of Bradley Whitford’s character, Commander Lawrence — again leaves plenty of possibilities, capping a second season that in most ways managed to be more intense, disturbing and generally impressive than the first.

Along with that praise, however, comes a modest disclaimer — namely, however resilient Gilead’s tyrannized denizens might be, it’s difficult to imagine how much more of that even viewers as filled with admiration as this one can comfortably, as well as plausibly, take.

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