(CNN)"The Handmaid's Tale" won last year's best-drama Emmy, a breakthrough for streaming services in general, and Hulu in particular. So it's saying something that the second season initially improves on the first -- a richer, deeper dive into this dystopian world and the paths followed by key players in getting there.
'The Handmaid's Tale' expands bleak vision in searing new season
In its debut, the series benefited from fortuitous timing, providing a nightmarish look at women forced to bear children for the rich and powerful that tapped into the ongoing battle over abortion rights while in ways anticipating the #MeToo movement. The series also capitalized on its arresting imagery, with memes about silent women in matching red cloaks seemingly sprouting up everywhere.
Still, "The Handmaid's Tale" had more than the zeitgeist going for it, with a stellar assortment of characters (led by Elisabeth Moss' Offred) and plenty of inherent drama. Season two impressively builds on those assets, fleshing out back stories in a manner that chillingly charts a society's descent into totalitarianism, and which in many ways feels even bleaker (if that's possible) than the first.
In one respect, the new episodes owe a debt to "Orange is the New Black," using flashbacks as a device to expand the view beyond the confining system in which the female characters are trapped.
As season one ended Offred's fate was left up in the air, which doesn't mean that we're done with Gilead, or charming figures like steward to the handmaids Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), who is told -- in a moment of disarming humor -- that "Friends don't stone their friends to death."
Perhaps the strongest early sequences, however, come through the glimpses of the past, which actually reveal moments of normalcy, happiness and even tenderness, in stark contrast with the hell through which they're living.
That's painful enough for Offred, a.k.a. June, but perhaps even more so with Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), whose experience as part of a lesbian couple during the turn toward this woefully oppressive environment is especially sobering.
Clearly cashing in on its status as a "hot" show (if not necessarily a widely seen one), the program has upped its guest-star game, featuring Marisa Tomei, Cherry Jones and John Carroll Lynch in the episodes previewed. Not all the parts are that substantial, but it's further evidence this is a franchise with which people want to be associated.
"There probably is no out," Offred muses at one point, an admission that merely makes her struggle and quiet defiance -- scenes Moss plays with searing intensity -- appear more heroic.
Showrunner Bruce Miller, who leads the team responsible for adapting Margaret Atwood's novel, said in a January interview that he has roughed out as many as 10 seasons. While the prospect of spending that much time in this disturbing reality is daunting -- perhaps even hard to fathom -- six episodes into "The Handmaid's Tale's" second season, so far, so very good. Praise be.
"The Handmaid's Tale" returns April 25 in Hulu.