This post discusses plot points of The Handmaid’s Tale episodes “June” and “Unwomen.”
Last year, The A.V. Club’s weekly Roundtable discussions of The Handmaid’s Tale had an element of our Page To Screen feature. Out here in the still-free world, female staffers compared Bruce Miller’s adaptation with Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed dystopian novel, examining how well the show rendered the book’s dread and politics on the small screen. But the story now ventures beyond Gilead and Canada, mirroring the show’s own branching off from the source material. Miller still has a map, but he’s mostly writing his own directions going forward.
Now that season two of The Handmaid’s Tale has premiered on Hulu, we’ve braced ourselves for a return to its totalitarian nightmare, which remains every bit as oppressive as what Atwood envisioned, despite taking fewer cues from her work.
Danette Chavez: Some of my thoughts on the first half of season two are already out there, but now that I don’t have to worry about spoilers, I can pull out specific details from “June” and “Unwomen” to illustrate how much of a gut punch the show delivers in these first two episodes. Bruce Miller and Mike Barker, who wrote and directed this two-hour stretch, respectively, alternate between growing consternation and outright horror; from a flashback in which June (Elisabeth Moss) matter-of-factly asks her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) to sign a form giving his permission for a refill of her birth control prescription, to dozens of Handmaids staring down a death sentence for refusing to kill one of their own. All things considered, June’s voice isn’t even that testy when she makes the request; it’s Luke who rails about how insulting the whole thing is. But though she couldn’t imagine just how bad things would get, even Past June knows things could always be worse. The flashback shows her picking her battles, just as she does in the present, choosing the better part of discretion in her ongoing war with Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).
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Compare that somewhat tense kitchen conversation and the other pre-Gilead flashbacks in “June” with the barked orders of the guards and muted wailing of Handmaids in the present. The latter is obviously much more unsettling, but it’s also far more overt in its depiction of theocratic tyranny. The glimpses of the past, however, continue to fill in just how slippery the slope was/is. Months before she completely lost her autonomy, June still had to fight to distinguish herself from her husband; consider how she repeats her full name (complete with “maiden” name) to the medical professional (if that’s what she really was) who insists on referring to her as Mrs. Bankole. She was Ofluke before she was Offred.
The encroachment continues in “Unwomen,” which has flashbacks to Emily/Oflgen’s (Alexis Bledel) career in academia, and her desperate attempts to stay with her wife (Clea DuVall!) and son. The world-building is impressive, and Ofglen’s backstory taps into the rollback of rights for a different marginalized community. It’s one of the better examples of The Handmaid’s Tale tapping into real-world concerns; the inclusion of the ongoing debate on marriage equality feels organic here. This is not by any means a subtle show, so I’ll take the understated cohesion where I can get it.
What did you think of the trip to the Colonies, Caity and Laura? Also, is this the most disturbing use of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” to date?
Laura Adamczyk: I indeed found the use of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” to be disturbing in the scene where the rebelling Handmaids are led to the gallows and brought to the edge of death as a form of psychological punishment. But it was more disturbing in the disruptive sense, in that the showrunners seem not to have learned from the first season that when the action is intense, you don’t need stylistic flourishes like an emotional Kate Bush song for viewers to feel that intensity. The image of the row of weeping, terrified Handmaids with nooses around their necks is more than powerful enough on its own, and silence would have done the scene justice.
To your other question, Danette, the trip to the Colonies was just about as horrifying as I’d imagined from the book (where, as in season one, they are only mentioned). What strikes me most is something I’ve noticed elsewhere in these first two episodes: women and the violence perpetrated against their bodies. While season one focused more on sexual violations, through the state-mandated rape of the Handmaids for procreation, these first two episodes make very clear (and graphically so) what happens to Handmaids’ bodies when they don’t fall in line: She gets her hand held over a fire or blisters bloom on her skin while shoveling radioactive waste in the Colonies. As though the cattle prods weren’t bad enough, now fingernails are falling off.
We’re left with a mild bit of hope at the end: June is out of from under His eye, holing up in the Boston Globe offices and watching Friends (I thought it was a nice touch that she’s watching the scene where Rachel and Monica instruct Chandler on a woman’s erogenous zones, as sex with Nick has been one of June’s only respites); and Emily is still no one to mess with. But, shit, if these episodes weren’t the most difficult to watch yet.
Caity PenzeyMoog: The Handmaid’s Tale remains one of the most difficult shows to watch, if not the most difficult, and I think the reason for that is the very clear parallels it draws to contemporary American politics and the status of women’s rights. I feel a much stronger connection to current events in these first episodes of season two, as if the show’s writers are making a clear effort to connect the dots to today’s erosion of women’s bodily autonomy to the nightmare scenario The Handmaid’s Tale presents. I think it’s very effectively done. The dips into June’s birth control, and especially the scene of Emily speaking to a black student after a man sneeringly spoke over her in class, draw a clear line to the everyday misogyny women experience here in the real world to the experience of the handmaids’ in Atwood’s story. A man who recently killed people in Toronto espoused anger and hatred toward women, which was fresh on my mind while watching these two episodes. Men already kill us for simply existing; it’s terrifying to see a scenario of how that violence plays out in the worst-case scenario. In that sense I think these two episodes achieved what the writers intended: underscoring how women (and queer people) can’t ever take their rights for granted, and how easily a bit of erosion could lead to a landslide.
Of course, the show is still a thrilling story, which makes those connections palatable, if not easy to watch. (Though the soothing balm that is Friends helps.) The Handmaid’s Tale remains a visually sumptuous show, especially in the season two opener, and leaving Atwood’s source material opens up some exciting possibilities for June’s escape and retrieval of her daughter, Hannah, and the other characters’ fates. The trip to the Colonies is exactly what I want to see from this expansion: a whole world that Atwood alluded to but never explored. The writers can pad out the show with extra material, and I’m happy to see what becomes of Emily and Janine. (Hopefully we check in with Moira in future episodes.) My only wish is that Ann Dowd’s Sister Lydia stays in the mix somehow; Dowd was and remains one of TV’s best working character actors, and the demented joy she brings to her fervent believer makes her character one of the most interesting of the cast.