There is an easy way to look at the dystopian horror show that is Handmaid’s Tale. And, that way is by separating the nearly indescribably awful politics of Gilead from our own world by blaming the draconian republic on one specific, world-changing catastrophe. Of course, we’re talking about the three-pronged, full-scale “slaughter” of every person in the three branches of American government, which decimated Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court all at once, and traditional red, white, and blue democracy along with them. The Sons Of Jacob, the domestic terrorist architects of Gilead, were able to rise from those ashes and recreate the nation how they saw fit.
While that is the most comforting way to view a show made of discomfort, it’s not actually correct. The Handmaid’s Tale’s season 2 premiere, “June,” proves America was already gripped by dangerous systematic misogyny long before the Sons Of Jacob purchased a single assault rifle. To understand this fact, all you have to do is look at how birth control was regulated before the coup.
At the beginning of the season opener we get a flashback to the life of June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Luke Bankole (O-T Fagbenle) prior the days of Gilead. It’s mostly happy. June still will works at her beloved publishing house, the couple’s daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) is mostly worried about whether she will get waffles, and Luke simply wants someone to pick him some AA batteries. No is concerned about being shot, kidnapped, or left for dead.
But, there is one very strange detail amid this portrait of domestic bliss. As the Osborne-Bankoles figure out what they need from Walgreens, June mentions her “form,” which Luke needs to sign before she heads to the pharmacy. Luke, aghast, asks, “They actually ask to see it?” Obviously, he has heard about the mysterious form and didn't take it seriously. June reminds him there’s a mandatory line for “husband.” The magic of this scene is that no one actually says the words “birth control,” but it’s immediately clear that’s what everyone involved is speaking about. Especially since, by the end of the conversation, June decides to “go off” the meds, enticing the kind of pure joy that can only mean, “We’re going to try for a baby.”
Although it's eventually revealed this scene took place on the same day as the D.C. “terrorist attack,” this policy clearly predates it. June already had the form before any violence broke out, and, from her reaction, it sounds like she's already been told how imperative it is that a man signs the prescription, either by her own doctor or the pharmacist when she asked for her medication without Luke's written okay.
This kind of protocol suggests the spirit of Gilead was already alive and well in the American healthcare system, and likely politics itself. After all, if the standard birth control prescription requests a husband’s signature, what recourse do single women have? It’s unlikely medication-based rules could be completely overhauled in such a drastic, targeted way without some type of government intervention.
It seems likely the excuse for the sexist rule, as is the excuse for atrocities Gilead currently commits, is the spiking, population-threatening infertility crisis sweeping the Handmaid's world at large. Yet, it's truly about control and enforcing the country's increasingly “conservative” attitude on every individual woman.
We can see as much is true during a later “June” scene, when the titular character goes to retrieve Hannah from the hospital following an in-school fever. As June tries to check Hannah out — her illness is so minor the fever is gone — a hospital official named Nurse Wheeler (Ericka Kreutz) interrogates the mom. Subjects like June's full-time work schedule, parenting choices, and the kinds of “arrangements” made if Hannah is sick are condescendingly picked over. It’s suggested the Osborne-Bankhole household isn’t “safe,” and June isn’t a “fit” mother because she works. All the while, Nurse Wheeler refuses to call June by her chosen name, “Ms. Osborne,” in the situation, and insists upon the patriarchal “Mrs. Bankhole.”
Calling someone by their non-existent “married name” isn't going to increase the birth rate, Nurse Wheeler.
Again all of this institutionally-sanctioned behaviour, which the leaders of Gilead would happily support, appears to be official policy. We can see Nurse Wheeler reading off a given form and diligently writing down notes. Yes, the wide-ranging mass shooting that leads to Gilead is eventually shown to have happened on this exact day, but this system had clearly been in place for quite some time.
That’s why these scenes harken back to one of June’s most important season 1 narrations. In “Late,” June, now trapped in Gilead as a handmaid explains, “Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” At the time, June was intimating red flags like the suspension of the Constitution were the beginning of this macabre hot tub, and the supremacy of Gilead is the fatal boiling point.
Yet, we now know those little offending “June” precursors were actually the true deadly bubbles — not the start of martial law. As these original policies were beginning to control the women of America, frustrated men like Nick, a former steel worker, were being recruited into the Sons Of Jacob and promised a better future. Remember, when Nick joined the Sons, which happened at an unknown time but definitely before the D.C. attacks, there were chapters in 30 states. Weeks before the coup, the FBI was following members because that's how dangerous they already were. At that same time, radicals like Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) were espousing the philosophy of “fertility as a national resource [and] reproduction as a moral imperative.”
This isn’t a neat timeline of “this, then that.” No, it’s a messy, long-running web, and at its centre is the tyranny the men of Gilead always hoped for. If only someone had noticed.
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