Binge-r #84: The Handmaid's Tale + Lost in Space
THE HANDMAID’S TALE S2
Streaming Service: SBS on Demand
Availability: Two episodes now streaming, new one added every Thursday
The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was the best new series of 2017, picks up directly where the first left off: a pregnant June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), one of the women turned into a vessel of the extremist Christian regime that has seized control of the United States, finds herself locked in a van, uncertain of where she’s going. That’s the point where Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel – which gave Bruce Miller’s television adaptation its scorching vision of institutional misogyny so complete that women such as June no longer had control of their fate, their bodies, or even their names – essentially came to an end, but the heroine, and the show, soon reach a grim new destination.
A sustained burst of intimidation against June – or Offred as the state calls her, in honour of her master – and her fellow Handmaids for an act of defiance at the end of the first season reminds you of the stakes in this mediaeval realm. Scenes in the first two episodes are set against the remnants of a suddenly washed away society, whether they’re at a sporting arena turned kill site or an abandoned newspaper office where the walls are pockmarked with bullet holes. The second season can’t duplicate the shock of the first, tied to the initial appearance of Donald Trump in the White House, but persistence has its own strengths. The reach of Gilead, the new American theocracy, extends from thoughts to borders here, adding to the dread that permeates these scenes.
The directors are new (Mike Barker handles the initial episodes), but the visual aesthetic is locked: the camera pushes in for close-ups of June’s pallid face, measuring every threat and atrocity via her features, while tactile moments of human contact are contrasted by shots from above that capture the cardinal red-clad Handmaids as choreographed blood cells surrounded by guards in black uniforms. The show’s power remains in how every facet of June’s life has been corrupted – her pregnancy is just a duty, with the baby to be the child of her keepers, the highly ranked Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his embittered wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia, the Handmaids’ brutal guardian, reaches new heights of monstrousness, topped with her zealotry, but the focus is wider, with flashbacks to June’s former life and that of her comrade, Emily (Alexis Bledel), a university lecturer whose sexuality made her a criminal. Emily has been exiled to the labour camps in The Colonies, a toxic wasteland mentioned in Atwood’s book but here given nightmarish form. What’s been initially added for the second season doesn’t detract from the high pitch of terror that defines The Handmaid’s Tale, even if it sometimes slows the plotting. It also allows for scenes such as June in flashback being questioned by a nurse about her priorities as a working mother. You assume it’s just after the coup, but realise it’s actually before – a reminder that the misogyny unleashed in her world, and ours, was always there.
In Brief: Lost in Space (Netflix): The camp 1960s science-fiction adventure about a family and cohorts stranded on a distant world has been given the full Netflix treatment for this remake: exorbitant production values, an updated clan dynamic that promotes the fractures and failings, conspiracies lurking in the storylines, and periodic quest for survival solved by adolescent adventure. It’s a tidy, mostly accomplished show, but it hews to the conservative instead of breaking new ground. Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) may now be the family’s leader, with her estranged husband, John (Toby Stephens) on the outs with her and their three children, but the episodes eventually allow them to pull together. The tubby robot of the original show is now altogether more menacing – brand maintenance requires it to still say “Danger, Will Robinson!” – but the best element is Parker Posey as Dr Smith, a stowaway sociopath from a Patricia Highsmith novel whose duplicity manages to suggest cruel selfishness, hurtful self-neglect and vicarious melodrama without ever promoting one quality over another.
JUST ADDED MOVIES
New on Netflix: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, 104 minutes) is the Cloverfield franchise extension that works, an imprisonment thriller with the always great Mary Elizabeth Winstead looking to escape John Goodman; Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace has his life examined in the concise, illustrative End of the Tour (2015, 106 minutes), with Jason Segel as the subject and Jesse Eisenberg his journalistic interrogator.
New on SBS On Demand: The top of the world reveals deeply troubling disparities in Australian director Jennifer Peedom’s compelling Mount Everest documentary Sherpa (2015, 92 minutes); Werner Herzog again embraces the unexpected: Queen of the Desert (2015, 123 minutes) is a mostly conventional biopic, with Nicole Kidman as the British explorer Gertrude Bell, who helped create the very map of the Middle East.
New on Stan: It’s Die Hard in the Oval Office as Channing Tatum’s cop saves Jamie Foxx’s President in the derivative shenanigans of Roland Emmerich’s White House Down (2013, 127 minutes); one of the great coming of age movies, and now an integral influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner directs a young River Phoenix in Stand By Me (1986, 85 minutes).
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