If you thought the first season of the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale was dark, you are in for a wild ride with season two now airing on Channel 4 in the UK.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a masterful piece of television for the very reason that it seems both fantastical to a western audience and yet also exposes our very real fears for the future of our world. We’ve seen all these themes before in history. A coup, obsessive and evangelical religion, the breakdown of society, the persecution of women, forced labour and the crushing fist of a totalitarian state. The only remarkable feature of The Handmaid’s Tale is that the story is not being played out in some foreign country, it is happening in our own western society, in our own cities and homes. Season one explained this in devastating detail, now season two is going to hammer the idea home with a ferocity that will leave you thinking about the show for days afterwards.
Episode one – entitled ‘June’ after the show’s abused and now pregnant Handmaid – picks up directly after the end of the last season. June (Elisabeth Moss) is being driven away in the back of a van to an uncertain fate. This is a brave creative choice and surprisingly restrained on the part of the writers. Rather than leap straight into the action or be tempted to explain the van’s destination, the episode treats the audience to a full minute of dialogue-free screen time. The camera focuses closely on June’s (also known by her Gilead name Offred) face as she sits silently in the dark, the only sound in the scene being the engine of the van and the occasional clink of empty bullet casings rolling together on the floor, hinting at some unspeakable past violence. The audience should be grateful for this small moment of silence because not only does it effectively build tension, but also because after the van ride, the episode quickly picks up pace into a story of full blown horror.
June is pushed out of the van in to a large group of terrified Handmaids who so bravely rebelled in the last season. Each woman is forced to wear a leather gag across her mouth. We have seen these in previous episodes, they are eerily similar to a 16th century Scold’s bridle. Like so much of The Handmaid’s Tale, everything seems new and terrifying and yet also horrifyingly real and familiar. From this point Handmaids are forcibly propelled in to a giant abandoned sports stadium (the real life Fenway Park stadium in Boston) where they are confronted by rows upon rows of nooses on several large gallows. Large scale executions in a sports arena? We wonder where we have seen such a thing before, because yet again, it is somehow familiar. If you have ever watched world news, chances are you will have seen reports of these same types of events played out across your television screen.
Through well timed flashbacks we see the beginnings of Gilead. June is questioned by a social worker about her ability to be a working mother, she needs her husband’s signature to purchase birth control pills and watches scores of people walk out of office buildings after being laid off. June’s husband, Lucas (O. T. Fagbenle) stares open mouthed at news footage of the White House being attacked and very slowly the couple begin to realise that the life they are living is about to change and not for the better. It is a credit to the writers that these flashbacks are never intrusive and instead embellish the characters, adding richness and depth to June and her little family, making you grieve for what she has lost in the rise of Gilead’s power.
The characters in The Handmaid’s Tale have never been simple though. We may root for June and hate her abusers, but she is not a traditional heroine. It is true that she shows great bravery, but she is also terrified the majority of the time. June spent most of season 1 just struggling to survive and although she may have committed small acts of defiance, it is only in the later half of season 1 that she truly started to rebel in refusing to kill a fellow Handmaid, Janine (Madeline Brewer) and engaging in a sexual relationship with chauffeur and spy Nick (Max Minghella). It is Nick’s baby she is now carrying and although she knows this development will most likely save her life (at least for a little while), June seems understandably uninterested in having a baby in this dark and dangerous society.
Elisabeth Moss, in a performance so exceptionally natural that you can forget you are watching an actress at all, imbues June with a silent inner fury. After facing the prospect of immediate death in the stadium and hearing Aunt Lydia’s (Ann Dowd) chastising prayer, June’s inner voice incredulously and angrily exclaims: “Our Father, who art in heaven, seriously! What the actual fuck!” It is a laugh out loud moment for a relieved audience after the prolonged scene that has come just before in which dozens of Handmaids, gagged and bound, sob and soil themselves as they believe they are about to die. It is from this experience that June emerges as new version of herself. She is no longer silently living in fear, no longer quiet and dutiful. She is firm and steely and angry. She no longer makes an attempt to hide her hate of Aunt Lydia or of the regime that has made her a breeding cow. Moss delivers all of this emotion with just the flicker of her brow and the camera lingers lovingly on her sneers.
The cinematography in this episode is also exceptional. Each scene is filmed like a painting with special attention paid to the use of light. From the blinding lights of the stadium to the soft hazy daylight in June’s apartment in happier times before the rise of Gilead. In one scene the only light comes from June’s flashlight as she frantically runs in dark tunnels under a hospital in a bid to escape. The darkness of her route to freedom contrasts sharply with the overwhelming white light of the doctor’s surgery in which she has just been examined. June’s journey out of the city in a dimly lit refrigerated van of swinging animal carcasses is reminiscent of the many execution hangings hat Gilead has carried out.
Even more striking than the use of light in this episode, is the use of sound. The soundtrack of the episode is one of screeching strings that sound like sirens. The episode uses natural sounds such as the harsh barking of dogs, the clanging of metal and the bell that Aunt Lydia rings which ironically is both a sound of extreme joy (for Aunt Lydia) and a deep depressing warning knell (for June). Perhaps most disturbingly for the audience is that the episode is filled with the muffled shrieks, sobs, and whimpers of women. The female voice is everywhere in The Handmaid’s Tale and it is most often a sound of suffering.
This is a hard episode to watch. It is filled with pain, brutality and unspeakable horror, but we suspect the writers deliberately composed the events this way. Freedom from Gilead is hard-won. It has to be wrestled away from this patriarchal system, just like June bravely cuts the red tag used to mark her as Handmaid from her ear with a pair of scissors. The last scene shows her standing in her underwear, face and neck blood-soaked. She stands still and upright by her burning Handmaid’s uniform, a look of determined anger on her face. Hell hath no fury like a woman wronged. That woman is called June and she’s finally free. Watch out Gilead.