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eason 2, Episodes 1 and 2: ‘June’ and ‘Unwomen’
“Such a brave girl, aren’t you?”
One of the most painful things about the first two episodes of the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is how they play with what we’re willing to take. There’s already some background anxiety simply because the show has gone quite literally off-book. The first season traced most of the major events of the source novel by Margaret Atwood, including the limbo of its final moments. But from here on out, anything can happen, and in Gilead, it’s almost always going to be terrible.
Because of that uncertainty, Episodes 1 and 2, both of which debuted Wednesday on Hulu, feel nightmarishly long. (Later episodes will arrive one at a time, Wednesdays through mid-July.) They aren’t boring, of course — there are plenty of viscerally harrowing scenes, including one in which the handmaids are dragged to the gallows en masse, and another in which Offred escapes into the Gilead Underground. But with 13 episodes and a blank canvas to play with this season, there’s room to slow down and linger in the agony if the writers choose.
This season, they seem less content simply to shock us with Gilead’s draining — and ultimately fictional — cruelty. We’re familiar with that by now. With these two episodes, it feels as if their writer, Bruce Miller, wants to make us just as afraid of the world as it was before Gilead, which feels awfully close to home. The flashbacks so far point to the ways in which a slightly uncomfortable present can snowball into a horrifying future, lingering on moments just before the fall when things seemed ridiculous, frustrating, unacceptable, but not yet too late. And yet it was too late, even then, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” wants us to know what that looks like.
It isn’t hard to imagine why. As June (formerly Offred, formerly June) tries to escape by degrees with the help of an underground resistance, she takes shelter inside the empty offices of the Boston Globe, where multiple signs (bullet holes, nooses, messy desks abandoned in a hurry) bear testament to a bloody massacre of its staff. The scene of wordless horror when she discovers what happened has the feel of someone’s unearthing an ancient artifact. But the massacre wasn’t long before at all. It doesn’t take long for everyday life to become unrecognizable.
Occasionally this message gets muddled, as the show demonstrates some of the same blind spots it had about race and class last season. Back then, June chastised herself: “I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen.” And yet, “it” is already happening for many women today. Being questioned about one’s fitness to parent, as June is in a flashback, is presented as a sign of encroaching fascism, but it is also nothing new for many less-privileged mothers. Having one’s documents rejected by customs officials, as Emily and her wife do, is offered as a reminder of how quickly one’s human rights can be taken, but it also echoes the experiences of many refugees currently coming to the United States. No single series can be or say all things at once, but there’s a sense that the writers imagine viewers will be as shocked by these experiences as June and Emily are — consciously or not, the audience is assumed to share the same privilege.
Taken together, scenes like these suggest that however angry you are right now, there’s a good chance it isn’t angry enough.
Still, those flashbacks are tense and poignant suggestions of an uneasy present on this side of the TV screen. Emily bristles at being asked to hide her family life, but before she knows it, the bigots’ prejudices have become law. Even June and Luke’s conversation about trying for another child has sinister undertones: If Luke wanted another child, he could force the situation by simply withholding his signature from the birth control form (echoes of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). It’s already his decision, not June’s, which hardly seems to bother Luke — their home is already a smaller version of Gilead. Those red cloaks didn’t happen overnight. Everyone, in increments, had to agree to them.
Given how hard “The Handmaid’s Tale” can be to watch, it’s amazing how beautiful it is. While it doesn’t avoid some truly gruesome and upsetting images, the show is stunning even in its most horrifying moments. The rich visual aesthetic established by Reed Morano, who directed the first three episodes of Season 1, is still felt, as in the stark, terrifying, Francis Bacon-like surreality of the scene at Fenway Park, where Aunt Lydia takes the handmaids for their mock execution. In contrast, we later get a first look at the Colonies, where Gilead sends its female transgressors — called Unwomen by their oppressors — to do punishing environmental cleanup until the radiation kills them. The women there, almost too exhausted for despair, are like drab dots in an Andrew Wyeth landscape, bathed in a dusky light that further deadens everything it touches.
But this show’s greatest strength is still its cast, and the best thing the series does is give them all room to breathe, even in the smaller moments. Yvonne Strahovski is consistently gripping as Serena, who stews in the very pot she filled to boil other women in, but never becomes two-dimensional. Alexis Bledel is a revelation as Emily, and being part of the makeshift community inside the Colonies has only made her brittleness more interesting.
Marisa Tomei, a guest star in Episode 2, is likewise incredible as a Gilead mistress who’s sent the Colonies for adultery, a true believer who suddenly finds herself surrounded by the women she helped oppress. (“I had an M.F.A. before the law changed, in interior design,” she tells Emily in a tone-deaf attempt to relate, one of the funniest beats this show has ever had.) She’s so earnestly faithful, and yet so deeply poisonable, that it’s both surprising and cathartic when Emily slips her a deadly dose.
There are hints that the show wants to make more of Ann Dowd, as any show would. Her Aunt Lydia is a fascinating amalgam of contradictions — glimpses of sympathy and true belief amid blatant hypocrisy, sadism and condescension. (“You’ll just have to be my very good girl,” she coos at June while forcing her to eat under threat of solitary confinement.) But what makes Dowd’s standoff with Elisabeth Moss in the premiere so electric is the sincerity of Lydia’s anger.
No doubt some of that rage is just frustrated power — now that June is pregnant and can’t be harmed too badly, Lydia has been robbed of an object lesson. But there’s something genuine when she sneers to June: “Such a brave girl, aren’t you? Standing in defiance but risking nothing.” I both wonder and dread what more we have to learn about Aunt Lydia, in the same way that I can only imagine what June will do if she ever has Aunt Lydia even momentarily in her power.
The decisive moment of the Season 1 finale was the handmaids’ refusal to stone Janine: an act of mercy and a passive exercise of power. Episode 1 focuses on the emotional and physical torture Lydia puts the handmaids through in order to discourage any more rebellion, although her sadism at the gallows and her smugness as she handcuffs Alma (Nina Kiri) to a burning stovetop underscore how little the handmaids have to lose by fighting back — if it’s pain either way, you might as well fight. This montage of agony is a reminder that violent revolution will be the only way out of Gilead, and that we can expect a lot of blood if it comes. Crucial to this season, it seems, will be the question: What are the limits of mercy?
In the novel, Offred was an observer of a world that stripped her of humanity and largely directed her narrative. Her complexity drew you inward, while the story carried her forward in its wake. Moss, a riveting screen presence, answered every call the character made of her in the first season. Her monologues grounded Offred’s periods of hopeless stasis, her gaze pierced the camera, and her despair and determination were the center of the series.
But the core of her performance is her ability to make silence staggeringly important — observation as an action rather than as a passive state. Her quiet, incandescent anger powers the bulk of Episode 1 this season. And that rage is so powerful that, once June is removed from immediate danger in Episode 2 and left to her own devices, the uncertainty of her situation consumes her. While sitting helplessly in the Commander’s house last season, she dreamed of doing something, and this new limbo begins to make her desperate.
It’s no wonder she considers a suicide mission to rescue her daughter and drive for the Canadian border. At this point, anything, even certain death, seems better than more waiting.
• I’m excited that this season seems to be scaling back June’s voice-over. The writers last season understandably wanted to incorporate the book’s narrative voice, and the monologues still make good grace notes. But at this point, Elisabeth Moss has the emotional immediacy well in hand.
• A vital undercurrent in the relationship between June and Nick is that we’ve seen her suffer so much that his drop-ins this season to express concern and guilt feel somewhere between facile and insulting. We understand why she needs him, but by the end of “Unwomen” it’s clear that she’s beginning to resent it.
• Serena sitting in June’s window seat, helplessly waiting, is a rewarding shot.
• Interesting to see sincere expressions of faith from June, even in Gilead, in her solo vigil for the Boston Globe staff.
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