We watched The Handmaid’s Tale last season partly because it depicted such unspeakable situations — the confiscation of liberty, the twisting of the United States into a reflection of our worst nightmare. We watched it because was dark. And judging by the first episode of season 2, it’s only going to get darker. Let's see if we can handle what we asked for.
June (Elisabeth Moss) and her brigade of handmaids are going to pay, bigtime, for their little act of bravery in sparing Janine (Madeline Brewer) from being stoned. At the start of the episode, June is trapped in the back of a moving van.The van door opens onto a scene of chaos. A guard affixes a brown mouthguard on her. Many other women wearing handmaid's uniforms pour out of the vans. They’re herded along by violent guards and German Shepherds. June reaches for another woman’s hand, and a guard separates them – clearly, the guards and people in power recognise that women banding together is a threat to this grand experiment.
The women are shepherded into a decrepit, overrun Fenway Park, where three massive gallows have been set up. What follows is an extremely disturbing scene. The terrified women are forced to take their places at their own noose. They are sure this is it. Some cry; others wet themselves. June takes the hand of her neighbour (successfully, this time), and awaits her death.
But then something unexpected happens. When the hangman pulls the lever, the platform only drops an inch. The women are fine. While the handmaids are still adjusting to the fact that they’re still breathing, the one and only Aunt Lydia (Ann O’Dowd) makes a typically dramatic entrance from the back of the stadium. She has a message for the ladies about god and obedience and learning lessons, blah blah blah. My theory: Even if the handmaids "deserved" death by Gileadean standards, they're too valuable an asset to eliminate in such quantity. Aunt Lydia's speech allows June, our trusty narrator, to make the best, best, best segue in the show: “Our father. Who art in heaven. Seriously? What the actual fuck.” Seriously, to all this! What the actual fuck?
I’m ready for the Aunt Lydia backstory, by the way. How did this woman become such a zealot? She probably would’ve made a great middle school principal; probably would’ve loved those kids and made them rise to their fullest potential. Why is she torturing women?
When the episode flashes back to June and Luke (OT Fanbagle): Domestic Bliss Edition, it’s all the more shocking given the previous scene. In this flashback, we see society surreptitiously become more conservative without anyone noticing. June offhandedly mentions she needs Luke to sign off on her birth control prescription, because that’s a thing that is happening now (the future trickles in slowly. Keep your eyes open, people). Or, June suggests, she doesn’t have to be on birth control. After thinking for a second, Luke says, “Don’t pick it up.” They make out in the doorway before June has to leave to take Hannah to school. Hannah’s (Jordana Blake) making that exaggerated gross-out noise kids do when they see their parents kissing, but really, it’s sweet that her parents love each other so much. They love each other so much, you guys.
In the present, the punishment continues. Part 2 consists of the handmaids stretching their right arms out while holding a heavy rock, and kneeling in the rain. Occasionally the Aunts walk by and taze them.
In the midst of Aunt Lydia’s rant, a lesser Aunt comes to inform Aunt Lydia that June is pregnant. Aunt Lydia, exuberant, tells June to get up – she no longer has to endure the same punishment as the other women. On her way to ring the bell in celebration, Aunt Lydia weeps. Clearly, she believes in this mission.
Aunt Lydia puts on “Nice Mom Mode” and tries to get June to eat a meal of soup and bread. June says she isn’t hungry. Aunt Lydia, who doesn’t have time for June’s trickery anymore, explains that while Offred won’t have to endure the punishment of her disobedience, because she’s pregnant, the other handmaids will. Aunt Lydia, back to Sour Mode, pulls her chair out from behind her and says they’re going to take a walk. She brings June to see a pregnant handmaid named Ofwyatt (Alana Pancyr), who’s chained to a pole in the middle of an eerily bare room, affixed with a weirdly homey carpet and bed (like if 25% of a New England bedroom were transported into the middle of a warehouse). Earlier, Ofwyatt had consumed drain cleaner and tried to harm the baby. So instead of having the relatively cushy existence of a pregnant handmaid, she’s trapped in a bare room until she gives birth.
After witnessing Ofwyatt’s specific form of torture, June is willing to eat and cooperate. While June’s having soup, the rest of the handmaids' punishment begins. They line up in three rows before June. Alma/Ofrobert (Nana Kiri), one of June’s friends, is the first to be pulled into the kitchen behind June. Alma’s hand is chained to a stovetop burner, and set atop an open flame The screams are piercing. June looks devastated – and then starts eating soup. She will not let the guilt break her or her appetite, I guess.
Next, we travel back to June’s old life — a continuation of the same day as the earlier flashback. June sitting with a manuscript in her office, looking dreamily out of the window. Her colleague brings her her cellphone, which had been ringing nonstop. It was her daughter’s school saying that Hannah had a fever. But because June hadn’t answered, the school sent Hannah to the hospital.
The school seems weirdly angry at June. This shouldn’t be a big deal, right? Kids go to school with fevers all the time, then go home. At the hospital, June finds Hannah being taken care of by a woman in a Christmas sweater (ok, not officially, but it looks like it could be). The woman (Ericka Kreutz) takes June outside to bombard her a series of microaggressions: Is Hannah her biological daughter? Does she work full time? Is it true she gave her daughter Tylenol to reduce her fever? Was it so she could work? Gasp — she and her husband work full time? The woman is insinuating that June is not an adequate mother. She also keeps calling June by Luke’s last name, but June didn’t change her last name — she asserts herself as June Osborne.
The point of all these flashbacks to the pre-Handmaid Days is certainly to show that the regime crept in before it burst in. While June and Luke were living their coastal elite lives, people were being inculcated into a new school of thought.
Back in the present: June’s in that weirdly all-white hospital (how can hospitals be kept that clean? Maybe that’s the one good thing about the dystopian future. Truly exquisite medical facilities). Enter Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), high school mean girl who never experienced the falls of post-grad life. Trying to intimidate June, Serena says, “No more of that smart girl bullshit.” June, of course, is not giving up her beloved smart bullshit. “Don’t get upset, Serena. It’s bad for the baby,” she says, calmly, knowing that this will jab Serena where it hurts – her own infertility. The doctor shows an ultrasound. Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes) is overcome at “his baby” (though remember, it’s Nick’s). The doctor congratulates Serena, too — really rubbing it in.
Everyone shuffles out, leaving June to get ready and resume her demeaning life. The last person to leave is a male nurse. They exchange greetings. And then, curiously, he says, “Godspeed, June.” Could he be in on something? Then, June finds a key with a red mark on the top tucked within her boot. She finds a door with a matching red mark in the back of the room, and uses the key to open it. In the stairwell, she finds another red mark. This is a path out! Eventually the path leads her to a dark hallway, and finally into the back of a van carrying pig carcasses. The van door slams and June is outta there!!
Flashback to the moment we’ve been waiting for. The moment of the coup. The moment this tremendously terrible future takes hold. June and Hannah come home to the apartment from the hospital to find Luke, stunned, watching TV. June tucks Hannah into bed and then joins him at the TV. As Luke explains, 20-30 gunmen just stormed the Capitol and killed many, many people. There was also an explosion in the White House. Nothing is clear. But this Designated Survivor-esque scene was definitely carried out by some religious group.
Finally, June in the present day is taken to a safehouse. She hugs and kisses the man who drove her there. Nick is waiting for her. She’ll only have to wait a little while; she’ll travel soon, once it’s safer. In the meantime, she has to cut her hair and change her clothes.
June burns her horrible red uniform, that symbol of her forced identity, and burns her hair. She is reborn. And then, holding the scissors that she used to cut her hair, she remembers the last thing she has to do if she’s to be free. She cuts open her upper ear cartilage, and removes the geotag. Blood spools all over the left side of her body. She’s like a goddamn terminator phoenix. She throws that into the fire, too, and declares: “My name is June Osborn. I am free.”
This show could also be called June Looks Powerfully Into The Camera. Elisabeth Moss manages to convey so much in her piercing looks. This is a world in which women don’t have voices, and yet June is constantly communicating her strength. This glance should be trademarked.
In the background of the hanging scene, “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush plays. The song is sung from the perspective of a man whose wife is having birth complications and may not survive the delivery. “Pray God you can cope / I stand outside this woman's work / This woman's world," he sings, realising that this is a battle he can’t fight. It’s a song about empathy for a woman, sung by a man, and is brutally ironic at this moment. Further proof that the soundtrack in The Handmaid’s Tale deserves its own damn Emmy.
The Handmaid's Tale is currently on Hulu in the US and will be on Channel 4 in the UK later in the year.