Finally out from under the shadow of its filmic inspiration, the Amazon series treads new ground in its second season.
It is a familiar situation for every high school senior: you’ve got the whole world in front of you. There are so many choices, it can be overwhelming. What really makes it hard, though, is that everyone thinks they know who you are and what you should do. And then there’s that final in Current Events. You know, the one where you have to kill a revolutionary to “save freedom.” Who among us hasn’t been there, amirite? Or perhaps this is an “only teen girl assassins will get this one” kinda thing?
Those teen girl assassins are the thing that pushes Hanna season 2 above and beyond its inaugural effort. Season 1 spent seven of its eight episodes living in the shadow of the original 2011 film, a stylish, dark fairy tale directed by Joe Wright and written by Seth Lochhead and David Farr. It suffered in comparison. But in episode 8 of the show’s first season, Farr — the series creator and writer of the majority of episodes in both seasons — finally guided the show towards fresh ground. Not only had the UTRAX program that “created” Hanna (Esme Creed-Miles) produced several more super-efficient adolescent killers, one of them chose to join up with our protagonist in escaping the group.
Season 2 begins shortly thereafter. Clara (Yasmin Monet Prince), Hanna’s new ally, has made a go of life on the run. However, she longs for more. Unlike the protagonist who long ago accepted her mother’s death and watched the only father she knew die, Clara’s parents remain a question mark. In particular, she’s convinced her mother is alive and waiting for her. The need to know, the need to be a part of a family, is too strong a siren song for Clara. UTRAX plays upon it and manages to pull the erstwhile assassin-in-training back into their fold. And so the season’s central conflicts are established. Hanna must fight UTRAX once more, not for her freedom, but for her only friend’s right to self-determination.
The shift is a smart choice in many ways. Creed-Miles’ depiction of Hanna remains intriguing, but the dead-eyed determination and stillness that make her a compelling on-screen presence also limits her dramatic potential. She is who she is, and there’s not much of an arc to take her on. Attempts to imply some kind of PTSD via flashbacks mostly fall flat, dropping them in our lap and running away. Farr can’t hold focus enough to make us feel these symptoms’ effect on Hanna.
Prince’s Clara, on the other hand, is all dramatic potential for change. Not trained for evasion like Hanna, she struggles to be content on her own. When she is drawn back to UTRAX, she finds that world confusing as well. Gone are the barracks and military structure, replaced by a boarding school environment and classic secondary school social groupings. The world she ran from was at least familiar, but even that has been stripped away.
The problem is the show is still obligated to go through the motions of an action series, which leaves the characters at short shrift. Prince is left to portray miles of change with little screen time. Instead of giving her space to undergo a pretty significant shift in personality, we’re only given short episodes that hint at more significant psychological turmoil. Prince is good in the part, but the plot never gives her the connective tissue to really dig into the character. As a result, Clara’s struggle to give in to UTRAX (where she is offered a chance to belong) or go with Hanna (where she can be free) lacks zest.
The problem is the show is still obligated to go through the motions of an action series, which leaves the characters at short shrift.
Prince is often upstaged not just by Hanna, but by her more than happy to be future murderers for America classmates. Taking the usual adolescent struggles for tribalism and individuation and blowing them up to the point that the fate of the free world literally depends on what happens is a wonderful literalization of the emotional experience of moving toward adulthood. It can often feel like your entire future depends on this grade or that relationship or choosing between college or a job. Now imagine you are trained in counterterrorism, espionage, and told that if you screw up, America will fall.
It’s amongst these girls we get the most interesting reflections on how people adapt to society. Jules (Gianna Kiehl) is a counter-culture “down with the patriarchy” rebel right until the moment she is given orders and then she immediately falls in line. Sandy (Áine Rose Daly) is a sweet, naïve Christian girl who turns foul-mouthed and brutal with her first taste of power. It’s not hard to see them as representations of iconic hypocrisy in our world: the false Christian, the privileged leftist, the pro-lifer until the moment of birth, and so on.
Both actors are very good in the parts as well. Kiehl makes great hay out of being the rebel while Daly builds and builds all season taking bland Sandy to absolute terrifying force of nature by the final episode. Again, though, script and plot let them down. Kiehl disappears entirely in the last two episodes at the moment she becomes most interesting. Earlier, a storyline involving her sexuality is built up to be “something big”, only to be deflated an episode later. One moment, it feels like a secret she’s hiding; the next she states it outright, everybody nods along, and that’s it. God knows we don’t need yet another anguished coming-out story, even from teen girl assassins, but why lay the framework for a significant revelation, only to toss it off in three lines of dialogue?
It may just be a matter of too much goings-on squeezed into the episodes. Even series regulars Mireille Enos and Dermot Mulroney end up sidelined for the most part. There are fewer characters this time out and more catalysts to action, so some get lost int he shuffle.
Still, the series has an undeniable pull. The show’s cadre of directors and cinematographers dutifully establish a world totally familiar but suffused with a disconcerting undercurrent of energy. Like the cohort of hit girls, the look of Hanna season 2’s world is just unsettling enough to elevate its grounded spycraft.
The real MVP of tone goes to the music. The score, courtesy of Bob Locke and Tim Norfolk (known collectively as The Insects) has a menacing trance vibe that drips dread over every moment, be it a gunfight or a conversation between colleagues. Music supervisor Iain Cooke ably assists with a selection of dream-pop and spaced out rock songs that seem the musical equivalent of the UTRAX students. They portray a kind of gentle sweetness fitting the film’s fairytale origins, but it’s an illusion wrapped around a seething, dangerous core.
The real MVP of tone goes to the music.
The show also has a lot to say about sex, gender, and race. It just doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to say. In some ways, this fumbling feels apiece with the protagonist and her peer group of developing killers. Still, the muddled perspectives don’t intrigue so much as frustrate. It is good Hanna has something more to say, but it would be beneficial if it was a little clearer on exactly what that is.
Nonetheless, even with its flaws, Hanna Season 2 stands head and shoulders above last year. For those who were let down by how similar season 1 was to the film, it’s worth giving the show another look. Like the genetically engineered girls of UTRAX, the show seems to be finding an identity of its own.