Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale
In case you’d somehow forgotten, season one of The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t always an easy hang. It was visually stunning, narratively captivating, and one of the best book-to-TV adaptations ever done, but it was soul crushing and heartbreaking. The rays of hope were as faint as the diffused sunlight that occasionally peeked through the window in Offred’s bedroom. So far, season two is no different, blending beauty with horror right out of the gate.
Both “June” and “Unwomen” were quick to remind us this is a show that will make you feel things, deeply. These first two episodes had me cringing, gasping, gagging, laughing nervously, clasping my hands over my mouth as my jaw dropped, clenching my fists in anger, and just downright weeping. They were simultaneously everything I expected and nothing I could have anticipated for our welcome back to the world of Gilead.
Despite how emotionally taxing The Handmaid’s Tale can be, there are plenty of reasons to feel excited for its return. There is already much to praise the new and returning cast for – which I will get to eventually – but the cinematography and directing is what truly took center stage during these two hours. The opening sequence of “June” was equal parts terrifying and mesmerizing. There was a palpable sense of confusion and fear, as the Handmaids were pushed around and led like cattle to the slaughter. The enormity of their situation dawning on June, and reflected in her stunned gaze before we even see what’s going on, was the perfect little beat of tension-building before the reveal. That wide shot of the gallows in Fenway Park, which was once a relatively happy place, captured the alarming nature of what was happening in a fashion that leaves you breathless, winded.
These first two episodes were full of gorgeous sequences and single shots. June’s escape from the hospital, the aerial view of the Handmaids holding rocks in the rain, and the way June was framed by nooses while kneeling in front of her makeshift memorial wall, are but a few examples. The use of color is yet another reason to marvel at the look of this show. The bright, red blood gushing from June’s ear onto her pale, white undergarments forces you to stay locked in the moment, in the shock of what just happened – this is where I gagged, if you were wondering. In flashbacks, the past practically pops into life by utilizing hues and shades we become so quickly unaccustomed to in the present-day plot: nail polish, regular clothing, and even multi-colored Post-It flags contain such vibrancy in contrast.
The somber, washed-out color palette of the colonies was a particular highlight though – if something so depressing could even be deemed a highlight. The brutality of this place hits hard immediately, and not just because of how rough-looking Emily now is. The seemingly endless browns and tans of the barren wastelands, the grime and gloom in the women’s living quarters, and the heavily greyed blues of the workers uniforms, paint a very hopeless picture. You don’t need to see the gas masks – worn only by those in positions of power, of course – to comprehend the toxicity of the colonies; you can feel it, smell it.
On top of adding more visual depth to the show, the introduction of the colonies was a large part of how The Handmaid’s Tale has begun to broaden its universe. The colonies were a place often used as a threat during the first season. Being sent there for a life of literal backbreaking work, was perhaps the only fate worse than being a Handmaid or a Martha or anyone else with no autonomy in Gilead. Allowing the narrative to follow the women sentenced to this life creates a ton of potential for what’s still to come this season. It opens up the door for more diverse stories to be told, and was a great way to keep characters like Emily and Janine around.
Similarly, though on a smaller scale thus far, these episodes hinted at how widespread the secretive resistance group Mayday has become. While the logistics of it all remain foggy, it’s clear the alliance has recruited several people willing to use their positions to help smuggle people out of Gilead. What remains unclear, for now, is how much The Eyes are apart of it all. As with last season, the flashbacks continue to show us the ways in which laws were changing and attitudes were shifting, affording us a more rounded understanding of the days and weeks leading up to the fall of society. With every new detail – like seeing how “disobedient” pregnant Handmaids are treated – the stakes are raised.
While season one gave us an idea of how deep Gilead had dug its claws into the United States, and how its regimes’ ideals were beginning to creep into other countries, we rarely ever left Offred’s day-to-day surroundings. In expanding its scope, The Handmaid’s Tale feels richer with possibility than ever before. And though it feels like a lot was accomplished in these two episodes, the expansion is slow and purposeful. The show is being careful not to lose focus or cohesion by becoming a sprawling narrative overnight. Most importantly, it hasn’t sacrificed any of the intimacy it worked so hard to develop with its characters in season one.
Now I’ve reached the part of my review, which I feel will become a regular segment as the season progresses: where I praise the shit out of the women in this cast. Each one of them is outstanding, but this week I’ll start with Ann Dowd. Aunt Lydia is as chilling as ever. It’s unnerving the way Dowd can switch so easily from soft to spiteful, and in how she fuses those clashing behaviors. She imbues Aunt Lydia’s sermons with such fervor, prompting reactions of both enchantment and disgust.
Elizabeth Moss continues to achieve so much without saying a single word. What this woman can express with her face, and sometimes just with her eyes, is more than most actors can do with even the best written lines of dialogue propping them up. From June’s stunned gaze at the gallows in Fenway Park, to the anxious yet optimistic frenzy on her face when escaping the hospital, to the determined and steely clench of her jaw as she cut into her own flesh, Moss is magnificent. The voiceover in season one never bothered me too much but the show’s decision to scale it back, in favor of letting Moss do the silent work, was a smart one.
Alexis Bledel was the real MVP this week though, with two scenes during “Unwomen” that showcased the kind of complex work she’s capable of. The first of which comes during a flashback when Emily, her wife, and their child are trying to leave for Canada. The entire sequence is both enraging – seeing people stripped of their human rights should never be easy – and heartbreaking – this family was being torn apart, slowly, painfully, even as they stood together. It’s the final goodbye, however, where Bledel turned my tears to full-on sobs.
I felt the sorrow and loss in her expression, could feel her urgency as she hugged her wife and child. Bledel made the pain my pain; in the moment, I could easily imagine what it would be like were I in the same situation. As Emily is forced to watch her wife and child leave without her, Bledel shows off her trying-not-to-cry-despite-the-immense-heartache-I’m-feeling face, willing her lips not to quiver, scrunching them to the side as we’ve all done before, as if it will somehow absorb the grief. It’s phenomenal.
The second scene is when Emily leaves the Commander’s wife – played wonderfully by Marisa Tomei – to die, after admitting she’d poisoned her. The murder wasn’t shocking, like when Emily (Ofglen at the time) backed over a man’s skull with a car. No, this murder was vengeful, it had purpose. The peak of the scene comes when Emily tells her,
“Every month you held down a woman while your husband raped her. Some things can’t be forgiven.”
Emily wasn’t yelling this at the wife, she wasn’t in a rage; she was just fairly calmly stating the reality of the situation. It’s this restrained nature in which Bledel delivers the line that makes the scene so powerful and haunting. There was no empathy, nothing resembling warmth; Bledel’s face and voice were simply cold and matter-of-fact. It may have been murder, but it was deeply liberating all the same. There’s a nice through-line forming, from Emily’s resistance to having her teaching job taken away, and her rebellious spirit within the walls of Gilead.
The catharsis that scene provided (not the murder itself) was one of those small rays of hope The Handmaid’s Tale is so adept at withholding until we really need them. “June” and “Unwomen” had other moments of hope, albeit just as tiny as in the first season. The most subtle of them being the man who responded to June’s “under his eye” farewell with the old familiar “after a while crocodile.” It was small, but it was evidence that the old world it still out there, somewhere, and there are at least a few who want it back.
Other moments were undoubtedly hopeful, like June’s escape from the hospital. That hope turned out to be fleeting, as her expectations of freedom were instantly challenged, and any optimism was surely dampened upon discovering a line of nooses in her “safe house.” However, June managed to somehow find her strength once again, and honor the dead in the only way she could.
Still, given the show’s subject matter, which, by design, is going to stimulate some bleak and enraging situations, these small bits of brightness have to be enough. So, let’s remember to brace ourselves for the darkness ahead, and just keep finding the beauty within it.
Under His Eye
- Showrunner Bruce Miller promised to better address issues of race in the second season, but there’s no sign of that yet. If the show continues to follow its source material, even loosely, there will be plenty of opportunity to present more diverse stories at the colonies. The representation in this show needs to improve moving forward, and we should hold Miller to his promise.
- Anyone else want an Aunt Lydia flashback? I want to know what kind of woman she was before all of this. Was she quiet and meek before gaining power? Was she passive aggressive like the nurse June interacted with? Or has she always been an awful person? How did she secure the position of Aunt? Of course, more Ann Dowd is never a problem, either.
- From my notes: THE EAR TAG TRACKER! HOLY FUCK! I’M AT A LOSS FOR WORDS!
The Handmaid's Tale S2E1/S2E2 Review Score
"June" & "Unwomen"
Elizabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, O-T Fagbenle, Samira Wiley, Madeline Brewer, Amanda Brugel