Warning: Spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” below!
June (the handmaid formerly known as Offred) is back ... and she’s free. Maybe? Sort of?
The second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiered this week, and it was a stressful but fruitful (see what we did there?) viewing experience. In the first episode, June (Elisabeth Moss) experiences the consequences of her defiant Season 1 stand against Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). The handmaids are tortured back into submission, but by the end of the episode, June finds her way to freedom ― temporary as it might be ― thanks to Mayday and driver/lover Nick (Max Minghella).
In Episode 2, we head to the colonies, where Emily (Alexis Bledel), and eventually Janine (Madeline Brewer), are among the “Unwomen.” We also get more gut-wrenching glimpses into life pre-Gilead, reminding us that our own world isn’t too removed from the dystopian future laid out in the show.
This season, HuffPost reporters Emma Gray and Laura Bassett will be chatting about each episode, diving into the major themes and maybe even descending into full-blown panic attacks.
Emma Gray: So, Laura. For some reason, we have agreed to not only watch each episode of Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” once, but also watch it again and talk about it. As someone who is simultaneously obsessed with and horrified by this show, all I could think about while I was watching these premiere episodes was, why do we do this to ourselves? What is it about such a terrifying, theocratic vision of the future ― and a devastatingly prescient-feeling present ― that draws us in even as we recoil?
Laura Bassett: I think “The Handmaid’s Tale” is eminently watchable for the same reason a movie like “Get Out” had so much success ― because it takes a present-day situation to its logical extreme. For anyone who’s been paying close attention to things like the subtle rollback of birth control access in this country and the wave of anti-abortion laws in the states, it’s fascinating to see what it might look like for that very real situation to really escalate into this wild dystopian future.
Emma: Yes! That’s exactly it. It’s funny you mention “Get Out,” because I was thinking about that movie as I was watching the “Handmaid’s” premiere. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is essentially shot as one long horror film, complete with shaky camera work and a lot of devastating close-up shots on Offred/June’s eyes. “Get Out” was also the only horror film I’ve found watchable as someone who hates horror films ― so I guess “Handmaid’s” feels similar to me in that way as well.
As women, there’s something particularly unsettling and satisfying about the show. As you said, we’re living in a moment where very real legislative battles that center on women’s bodies are happening. In the same way that many women have a morbid fascination with true crime and murder shows ― they allow us to confront the worst possible scenarios of living in a society where women’s bodies are often violated in both small and large ways ― watching “Handmaid’s” lets us see what could happen if we sit back and become complacent.
Laura: I have to say, the parallels to the current news cycle are downright eerie. Let’s talk about the opening mock execution scene in the premiere episode, where the handmaids are forced to line up at Fenway Park and slip their heads into nooses. I was slack-jawed watching this scene in light of The Atlantic hiring ― and then quickly firing ― Kevin Williamson, a conservative writer who has said more than once that he thinks women should be hanged for having abortions.
There are people out there for whom this opening scene is not as unimaginable as it is to the rest of us, people who think women should be forced to have birth or tried as murderers, and those people are given platforms on major media outlets. I mean, that was just five minutes into the episode.
Emma: I had a full-body reaction watching that scene. And it was excruciatingly long. The beauty of this show is that it doesn’t allow the audience to glaze over the horrors of Gilead. It makes you linger with them, really sit back and imagine what it would be like to live in that kind of society.
I was particularly struck by the flashback scenes in Episode 1 ― they focused on June and Luke going about their normal lives in the days leading up to the complete overthrow of the U.S. government. We learn that June needs Luke’s signature just to refill her birth control prescription, and that school policies have changed to curtail sick children. (June is interrogated by a hospital social worker after she fails to immediately answer a phone call from the school nurse about her feverish child, prompting the school to call an ambulance in accordance with state law. What?)
The scene that shook me the most was when June is taking care of her sick daughter, Hannah, after they’ve returned from the hospital, and Luke sees on television that men have entered the Capitol with machine guns, and that there’s been an explosion at the White House. They are clearly shaken, but they also still have to take care of their kid. Luke sits watching the news and June crawls into bed with Hannah ― they just go through the motions of their lives as horror unfolds in the world around them.
We’re currently living in a political moment where things that might have been horrifying to us and may have caused weeks of discussion and debate a few years ago are now glazed over. We sit in a newsroom all day ― doing reporting and analysis, but also staring at TV news, and sometimes it feels like the headlines are just kind of washing over us. Those flashbacks were a really important reminder that while our world isn’t Gilead, it also isn’t that far off from it.
Laura: Exactly. The birth control signature scene points to actual legislation in Congress that would have allowed bosses to decide whether their female employees have contraception coverage. The scene where Emily’s (Alexis Bledel’s character, who is married to a woman) documents are denied by ICE agents at the airport in Episode 2 reminds us of Trump’s travel bans, which intercepted travelers at the airport and held them there for many hours. And the entire premise of Gilead feels unimaginable until you realize that we just had a sitting congressman ― Trent Franks of Arizona, an outspoken opponent of reproductive rights ― literally ask one of his female congressional aides if he could impregnate her because he and his wife were struggling to conceive.
This is why the show reminds me of “Get Out” ― in that movie, the scenes where the white girl’s parents are being “politely racist” feel as uncomfortable and horrifying as the unhinged lobotomy scenes at the end, because most people can actually relate to them.
In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the scene in which a university professor is quietly told to hide her sexuality feels almost as horrifying as watching that same woman be mutilated and tortured for her sexuality in Gilead, because it’s just so real.
Emma: The flashbacks are almost more terrifying than the more violent present in Gilead, for exactly the reason you just articulated. We have a vice president who supported conversion therapy. We have a president who has been accused of sexually assaulting more than a dozen women. Congress recently passed FOSTA-SESTA, which sex workers’ advocates argue curtails the ability of sex workers to earn a living in a safe way under the guise of targeting sex traffickers. The slow encroaching on rights ― especially when that effort begins with the targeting of marginalized communities ― is deeply sinister, because it allows people to acclimate in a way that can be deeply dangerous. And we see that play out in “Handmaid’s” flashbacks. By the time people flock to the airports in droves, it’s too late for many of them to get out. (Also, seeing the many ICE agents in those airport scenes was really jarring and felt very real.)
To switch tracks a little… can we talk about Marisa Tomei?!
Laura: Yes, I had no idea she was going to pop up in that episode. I think the scenes between her and Emily were so striking in their juxtaposition of religion versus science. Tomei’s character is so earnestly holy and seems entirely unaware of the fact that she is sleeping amongst a group of women whom she helped to oppress and rape. She is the ultimate enabler, and her feeble attempt to relate to Emily by mentioning her MFA in interior design just reeked of that clueless Ivanka Trump “I’m just like you! I take baths” sensibility.
I honestly thought the pills Emily gave her were going to be antibiotics, and that the show was about to explore themes of mercy and forgiveness ― but what happened was so much more darkly satisfying.
Emma: Agreed. Even though I was sad to see Tomei dispatched so quickly ― she’s a goddess! ― the arc was perfect. Her character is the ultimate example of “complicit.” And I appreciate that while the show explores the humanity of characters like Tomei’s and Serena Joy’s, it doesn’t let women off the hook just because the wives experience some forms of oppression as well.
The women who are in the upper echelons of Gilead consciously decided that tying themselves to traditional gender structures and toxic male power was more important than showing basic humanity toward other people ― especially other women. As Emily says, “Some things can’t be forgiven.”
Laura: Yes! I thought that scene almost served as a warning shot to that certain kind of privileged woman who consistently votes against other women’s interests because she thinks she is untouchable by these laws and policies. If you’re a rich woman in Texas and you decide to have an abortion, for instance, you can just easily drive to Austin or New Mexico and find a provider, so the thought of all these women’s health clinics shutting down may not be as scary to you.
But the message from Gilead is that no woman is completely safe from oppression. You can still get sent to the colonies for offending a man, even if you’re one of the rich married ones. I had started to sympathize with Tomei’s character, as you said because the show did such a good job exploring her humanity, which is why that line from Emily was so powerful and jarring ― “You held a woman down every month while your husband raped her.” It’s a reminder that you don’t have to be the one writing the law, or committing the violence, to be culpable.
Emma: “Handmaid’s” resists simple moral classifications, which the show is better for. I also felt empathy for Tomei’s character! As the viewers, we were able to get inside both of these women’s heads and understand their motivations. They have both suffered, but only one of them fully bought into the structure ― before it screwed her over, too. It’s an important lesson: White supremacy and toxic masculinity will not save you, ladies.
Also, this is the first time we’ve seen the colonies! They are described in Margaret Atwood’s novel, but we only heard them alluded to in Season 1 of the show. And they look just as bleak on screen as I imagined they would: muted tones, toxic earth, death everywhere. The only moment of lightness in the episode was toward the end when Janine arrives in the colonies. You can see on Emily’s face both a deep sadness that this is where Janine has ended up, but also relief and joy that her friend is going to be by her side.
Laura: Yes, the one consistent source of joy for me in “The Handmaid’s Tale” ― aside from June’s very hot love affair with Nick ― is the female friendships! I love how they light up around each other, find random moments to grab each other’s hands in solidarity, stand up for each other and feel each other’s pain.
One of the hardest scenes for me to watch was the one in which June is forced to eat her meal in front of all her friends who are starving and about to be tortured, because one of the worst things they can do to her is separate her into a class above her friends and sow those seeds of resentment. One handmaid’s torture is having her hand burned on the stove, while June’s torture is the idea that the other handmaids might feel betrayed by her.
Emma: I think one of the things we’re going to see explored in this season is that resistance is a messy business. June did the righteous thing at the end of Season 1, and yet the consequences still aren’t wholly righteous. People are harmed ― not directly because of what she did, but in reaction. Because ultimately, as you said, the thing that keeps these women human is their connection with each other. That is what their oppressors want to break in order to fully break them.
That also feels true to our world. It sounds trite, but when women come together in solidarity, we are powerful. We’ve seen that play out over the last two years with Me Too and with the women’s marches. And yet, movement-building ― especially within an oppressive society ― involves real, tangible risk. And often it’s one step forward, 10 steps back.
I also really want to talk about June camping out at The Boston Globe office-turned-execution-den. As a journalist, that hit extremely close to home in a really uncomfortable way. I kept thinking that as working women who use birth control and report on the news, we would have been some of the first to go in Gilead. What could be more threatening to a society that thrives on controlling an overarching narrative than good journalism?
Laura: And once again, this hits close to home because the current administration is consistently attacking and undermining public faith in the media. We are already under seige, in a way. So you’re right, to see the bloodstains on the wall at the Boston Globe and a fully imagined world in which religion takes the place of knowledge and science and truth and equality feels like a worst-case scenario escalation of what’s already starting to happen. I don’t know what happens in the rest of the season, but I would like to see an army of journalists overthrow this fascist regime armed with nothing but pens.
Emma: That sounds like a great fantasy, but given how bleak this show is, I’m not holding out hope. As June says: “Gilead is within you. Like the spirit of the lord. Or the commander’s cock. Or cancer.”
Laura: Thanks Emma, I think that’s a great place to end.
Emma: On cocks. And cancer. Until next time … Under his eye? Blessed be the fruit?
Laura: May the lord open.
To read more of HuffPost’s “Handmaid’s Tale” coverage, head here.