When the first season of Handmaid’s Tale debuted last year, I itched to suck it all down. I’m an avid fan of Margaret Atwood’s work (dystopian and otherwise), and my copy of the novel was creased and greasy from the sandwiches and pastries I’d consumed over it the half-dozen or so times it had been reread since college. I was also a freshly minted mother with a 3-month-old baby at home, and one of the few pleasures of those early, exhausted days of parenthood is the free rein you afford yourself to indulge in episode after episode of prestige TV.
Instead, it took me nearly nine months to make it through the first season. It was too good for rapid consumption, its terrors too premonitory in those early, turbulent days of Trump’s presidency, when it felt like airport protests and the ACLU were the only forces standing between our former democracy and our future authoritarian state. I cried, often, wondering why I’d brought a baby into this flimsy world, and so a television show that depicted women forced to bring babies into an even flimsier world rubbed all my raw spots. I don’t think I was alone: “It’s so good, but it’s so hard to watch” was a frequent reaction. I hoped that feeling — with more parenting, a little less fear, and entire season under my belt — would abate the second time around after which I could enjoy the craftsmanship of Handmaid’s Tale more and relive it in my nightmares less.
But if you think, like I did, that you now have a handle on the dark emotional depths that Handmaid’s Tale can take you to, you are very wrong.
This masterful first episode begins exactly where season one left off: With Offred in the back of the Eyes’ van, unsure whether she’s being rescued, arrested, or carted off to her execution. Many shows starting off a much-anticipated second season would do so with a bang, but instead there is a full minute of complete silence from Offred, who sees only the flash of lights through the windows, but whose face does more than its share of heavy emotional lifting.
Dogs barking are the first clear thing we hear, just before the van doors slam open, and Offred is pushed out into a crowd of other handmaids who are fitted with muzzles and then sent running, like a herd of terrified gazelles, down a long corridor. Their eyes sweep across the space, desperate to determine just what is happening, and some woman briefly clutch at each other’s hands before being forced apart by Eyes. Unity or comfort of any kind will not be tolerated.
The handmaids come out of the tunnel like chastened gladiators, and it is indeed an arena they’re entering into — Fenway Park, in fact, formerly a site of leisurely afternoons in the sun and now the site of a giant gallows, the punishment for rebelling and refusing to stone Janine to death last season.
With a muzzle on her mouth and her hands tied behind her back, Offred’s searching, desperate eyes are pleading for salvation by an entity she must know is not be coming to save her. It’s got to be said here, that with her first, silent minutes of season two — Offred still hasn’t said a word — that Elisabeth Moss fully confirms that her wide-ranging mastery of the role is about to be repeated, and perhaps bested. In a scene that could be ripe for melodrama, Moss’s expression, in which terror and confusion are constantly interchanging, take us to a vulnerability seldom seen on TV, even in this golden age. Audiences in a post–Game of Thrones world have been trained to love and expect a death for shock’s sake, but that’s not put first here. Instead, the camera begs us to consider the human condition: not death itself, but the isolation of death. As a chilling rendition of “This Woman’s Work” plays, the camera pans over the handmaids, alike in their fear, but also desperately lonely in the moment before the ropes drop.
The only equivalent scene that I’ve encountered is in Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, where Anne Boleyn has reassured (or more accurately, deluded) herself into believing that her husband, King Henry VIII, will at any minute ride into the Tower of London to repeal the sentence of death he passed onto her. It isn’t until she must kneel and put her head into the actual block that Anne begins to call out to God, asking for mercy. She believed, until the blindfold went on, that the setup itself was the punishment. She stops performing the role of the aggrieved woman. Then she loses control, and that moment is far more chilling than the actual swing of the sword and thud of her head.
In this case, it is an elaborate ruse. The guards pull the lever, and the floor drops out, but only about an inch. Aunt Lydia, wielding that microphone as if she were born for fame, strolls out onto the field, spouting off scripture and letting the handmaids know that while she won’t kill them yet, their uteruses won’t save them if there is more insubordination.
Offred then offers her first words, irreverent and uncowed as ever: “Our Father, who art in Heaven. Seriously? What the actual fuck?”
In the first flashback of the episode, Hannah wakes up with a slight fever (as my mom would put it, “She’s not sick, she just doesn’t feel well”), but with some acetaminophen, June decides she’s fit for school. On her way out the door, however, June needs Luke to sign off on a form for the pharmacy — it’s now mandated by law that a husband sign a release waiver indicating that he approves of his wife’s decision to take birth control. But in a coy little moment, June and Luke go back and forth on whether or not she ought to pick up the birth control at all, i .e. whether or not they should have a baby. As she slips out the door — and Luke lovingly squeezes her butt — they decide to forgo the pills. It’s a good indicator of the state of America in that moment: Laws to control women’s bodies now have a stranglehold on people’s lives, and yet normalcy is maintained. Kids go to school, moms go to work, babies get made.
Back in the present, Aunt Lydia has the handmaids kneeling in the rain, holding out rocks — it’s a twisted punishment for the stones they dropped when they refused to murder Janine. Of course, no punishment is complete without Aunt Lydia’s loathsome misinterpretations of Scripture, in which she assures the women that she is doing the Lord’s work by brutally torturing them. “Girls,” she says, using a diminutive term to remind them of their powerlessness, “Don’t you remember what it was like before? There is more than one kind of freedom.” But she’s interrupted by a whispered message: Offred, she learns, is pregnant, and although it must shatter Aunt Lydia’s smugness to release the ringleader from her castigation and hustle her into warm clothes, the potential of new life overrules.
Aunt Lydia’s special zeal has always marked her as a supervillain of sorts. It’s been difficult to determine whether it’s real zeal for the Lord “opening” that motivates her, or a particular taste for cruelty to young women that makes the poison joyfully slither out of her mouth. We’re certain now that it’s both. “There’s nothing like hot soup on a rainy day,” she cheerfully chimes to Offred, who has been changed and dried. To Aunt Lydia, the handmaids are just bodies — or “weaker vessels,” she would probably say, quoting Peter’s letters from the Bible. So she encourages Offred to be her “very good girl” and eat up that yummy soup. In return, she seems to promise, she’ll give her some basic human rights.
Recognizing her moment of privilege — Aunt Lydia can’t physically torture her, right? — Offred rebels and refuses her food. But Aunt Lydia knows how to play the game far better. “Do you think you’ve done her a kindness?” she asks about Janine, who has been sent to the Colonies, a toxic gulag-like hell on Earth that the handmaids have had described to them repeatedly. And then Offred is dragged off to see Ofwyatt, another pregnant handmaiden, who is chained up in a Room-like mockup of a bedroom — carpet, bedstead, and all — like a bed and breakfast run by the demon barber of Fleet Street.
Aunt Lydia isn’t done yet. Like any good authoritarian, she knows that the best way to torture an individual is to show her how easily she can destroy those closest to her. So Aunt Lydia lines up the handmaids, drags Ofrobert into the kitchen, and then chains her hand to the stove and lights it. Somehow, the scene is made even more ghastly by the fact that we hear the screams but don’t see the flames. Our imaginations, like those of the other handmaids, are forced to do brutal work.
Offred, in an act of either defiance or submission, spoons some soup into her mouth and stares straight ahead.
Returning to the flashback, Hannah’s school has called to let June know that she has a fever, and red tape forced them to send her to the ER. The emergency room nurse, appearing kind at first, take Junes into the hall and starts off with seemingly innocent questions about June’s job, who stays home with Hannah if she’s sick, and so on. But then she edges in an accusation: “Did you medicate your daughter to bypass the school’s fever policy, so you wouldn’t have to miss work today?”
The question is aimed at unearthing a particular type of negligence: To the nurse, women who work are abandoning their children for the sake of their own selfishness. And then comes the threat, lined with sugar to coat that nasty taste. “Children are so precious,” she says, “We have to make certain that they are in a safe home environment with fit parents.”
It wasn’t just a cabal of powerful men who enabled Gilead to come to power, we’re reminded. Democracy in America died by a thousand paper cuts.
In the present day, Offred lies on the exam table in an all-white room straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There isn’t an ounce of warmth to comfort or reassure patients. (One thing I’m blown away by is how quickly Gilead has laid the groundwork for the practical aspects of their society. The fences, the buildings, the borders: It’s all so structured and designed and complete.) Serena is now quite the lame duck, chastising Offred to put her back in her place. But once the fetus — still just a sack of cells at five weeks — shows up on the ultrasound screen, Serena suddenly turns back into the yearning mother-to-be, grateful for Offred’s uterus, offering a “God bless you.”
As the technician leaves the room, he too offers a blessing: “Godspeed, June.” Offred notices the unusual (and probably illegal) mention of her real name: Who would use it other than the resistance? And so when she finds a small key tucked inside her boot with a little scrap of red tape on it, she slides over towards a door in the back of the room, also marked with a bit of red tape. From there she’s down some stairs, through a dark hall, panting all the way, close to the first step towards freedom. She steps through a door and onto a flatbed truck. It isn’t until the engine starts that you notice she’s among swinging pig carcasses.
Returning to the flashback, we learn far more than we’d previously known about exactly how about the American government fell. As June is coming through the door with a sick Hannah in tow, Luke comes toward her with a panicked face. “Twenty or 30 guys just started shooting from the gallery seats,” in the Capitol building, he explains, his eyes pinned to the news. It’s inexplicable and yet completely imaginable at the same time, now that we’ve seen a man lean out a Las Vegas hotel window and mow people down in such a similar manner.
It’s only in the background, from the voice on the news, that we hear “martial law has been declared across the entire United States,” and realize that the terror isn’t an end but a means. The conductors of the Gilead rebellion are using the carnage in Congress — and then an explosion at the White House — to wipe out the government, scare the populace into submission, and then sweep in to offer aid and take control. Meanwhile, June is torn between her sick daughter beckoning from her bedroom, and the television spewing out a welcome to a new, dystopian reality.
In the present, Offred is dropped at what looks like some sort of garage or depot. “Stay inside and someone will come for you,” the driver tells her. June snatches him into her arms — remarkably, it’s most likely the first man, other than Nick, that she’s willingly touched in months, if not a year or more.
Nick is waiting there, a source of comfort and instruction. She removes all her clothes and once they’re on the floor, you can see the relief and anger on her face. These clothes — the crimson dress that marked June as a piece of property, the wings that kept her blind to the world around her — signaled that she is nothing but a set of operational fallopian tubes. So she takes a match to them.
In the only moment of improbability throughout an otherwise magnificent season opener, June also hacks off her hair — as if the loss of a few inches will make the most hunted woman in Gilead less recognizable — and then brutally, stoically carves the tracker out of her ear. She does it all without a sound, the blood trickling down her neck. Although you have to wonder: If those trackers do their jobs, doesn’t the government know exactly where she is?
But all of that is really no matter. The flames and hacking and carving were a ceremony, a rebirth. “My name is June Osborne,” she declares. “I’m from Brookline, Massachusetts. I’m 34 years old. I stand five-foot-three in bare feet. I weigh 120 pounds. I have viable ovaries. I’m five weeks pregnant. I am free.” This is all she knows about who she is anymore. Although it’s an assertion of her liberated identity, it’s remarkable, with its mention of her ovaries, and how tinged it is with what’s been indoctrinated into her. After all, as Aunt Lydia explained, Gilead isn’t just a place. She may have escaped, but it’s still inside her.