Praised be, they are back
WORDS BY KIERA FAHEY
Ever since watching the entirety of Season 1 in one sitting one rainy Saturday whilst studying in Denmark (nearly all Saturdays are rainy in Denmark), I’ve been eagerly awaiting the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale. Last night SBS aired the first two episodes of Bruce Millar’s Season 2, and they did not disappoint. I went to bed feeling incredible uneasy and a little overwhelmed from 2 hours in Gilead, and extremely scarred by the scene where June cuts off her own ear to take out the government tracker.
The first season shadowed the great 1985 feminist science-fiction novel by Margaret Atwood, bringing alive many readers’ favourite characters to life, and adapting it to our modern Trump-era. However, with the arrival of the second season comes a new plot. Having exhausted Atwood’s original material, the second season has instead been created by the directors themselves, albeit with some contribution from Atwood.
In case you’ve forgotten the first season, here is a quick “previously on” recap. In a future world, fertility rates have dramatically dropped due to STDs and environmental pollution, and so any “fertile” women are forced into surrogacy for wealthy “commanders” and their barren wives. The former USA is now called Gilead, a Christian state where people greet each other with “Under His Eye” and “Blessed Be”. Society is broken into clear classes that are represented by a signature dress style; handmaids in red, housekeepers in green, wives in blue and aunts in brown. We follow the story of June, who becomes Offred (Of Fred, her commander) played by Elisabeth Moss, and her struggles coming to terms with the new society whilst experiencing flashbacks to her previous life.
Season 2 opens with a harrowing scene, which although only lasting 8 minutes, seems to continue an entirety. We are transported to Boston’s Fenway Park, which has been left to abandon and is now lined with three rows of nooses. The handmaids who had shown their rebellion by refusing to stone Ofdaniel/Janine in Season 1, are fitted with dog-like muzzles and lead into the stadium, to face (what they expected was) their deaths.
Although the scene was perfectly set with the excruciating tears of the women and the deliberate focus on each of the nooses, I am aware of the laws of television and am comforted in the fact that they surely can’t kill off the main character in the first 10 minutes. Nonetheless, the episode greatly succeeds in its emotional power. Aunt Lydia then enters the scene, reminding me of Ms Hannigan in the musical Annie, calling the handmaid’s ‘spoiled brats’. Ann Dowd does an incredible job of this part, using fear and punishment tactic to keep the handmaid’s in line, a well-known tactic of the great dictators.
An interesting change in Season 2 is that it presents June as June, rather than Offred. In the beginning of the second episode, she recites a list of facts about herself, height, weight, name. Here, it is clear that June is breaking free from her subservient role as Offred, and we look forward to seeing her true character come out this season. Although a favourite quote of mine, “Gilead is within you. Like the commander’s cock. Or cancer”, makes clear that although June has escape the Waterford’s home, she is still well and truly within Gilead and its rules.
This season’s flashbacks serve not only as a contrast to reinforce the dystopian atrocities of the current situation, but now aim also to show the reader the gradual decline of the USA into the fascist Gilead. We are taken back to June’s life with her husband and daughter where they are watching news broadcasts of attacks on the Capitol and White House, and witness Emily receiving the news that her marriage certificate is now longer valid as same-sex marriage is outlawed suddenly. It is a fascinating warning of how freedoms can be taken away, and we can see how the USA we know today became Gilead.
Season 2 also opens up the setting to include the “colonies”, where we find Emily. They are tasked with the activity reminiscent of the Les Miserables prisoners, digging nuclear waste from dusk until dawn, adorned in matching blue gowns. The colonies were only alluded to in Season 1, so it will be interesting to explore this additional storyline.
Further, not having Atwood’s book upon which to refer, Season 2 seems much more suspenseful. We all want to know how the USA experienced its transition to Gilead, are rooting for June to see her husband and daughter again, and are desperate to know if the handmaids will escape the torture of constant rape and forced surrogation.
The Handmaid’s Tale is fantastic television with award-winning actors, and brings up very interesting political discussions pertinent to our modern society. All with the well-executed cinematography, atmospheric music and emotionally charged acting that made the first season so effective. Although it is undoubtedly heavier viewing than Bachelor in Paradise, it is well worth it.