Warning: This story contains spoilers for season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale.
On April 5, conservative opinion columnist Kevin Williamson was fired from his new job at The Atlantic — mere weeks after being hired — after he doubled down on a past Twitter exchange in which he stated that women who have abortions should be hanged. That same day, I received advanced press screeners for the second season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which features a mock mass hanging of handmaids in its first 15 minutes.
It’s a gutting scene, with real-world echoes, that sets the tone for a sophomore season that’s even darker than its predecessor. I know what you’re thinking — season 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t exactly relaxing. But season 2, the first two episodes of which were made available on the streaming service Wednesday, offers up a heightened version of the elements that made season 1 frightening. “It’s a brutal world that we’re depicting,” said Kira Snyder, a senior writer on the Hulu show.
Having exhausted the source material from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, and working off-book, the creators had some room to experiment, and they do. The story picks up with June (Elisabeth Moss) in the backseat of a van, the same one she was shoved into in the final moments of the season 1 finale. When she finally emerges, it’s to the sound of barking German shepherds, a direct callback to the scene from Schindler’s List showing Jews getting off the cattle cars at Auschwitz. She’s gagged and pushed along with a group of handmaids into the center of an abandoned Fenway Park, where a scaffold has been erected.
The entire scene, set to the Kate Bush’s “A Woman’s Work,” is designed to devastate. “We talked about how often mock executions are used as instruments of torture around the world, and how sporting arenas are used for public display of this kind of punishment,” said Snyder.
It’s an effective technique, to the point where I questioned whether watching might be detrimental to my mental health. Likewise the scene in the following episode, which uses an item as innocuous as a boxy-heeled pump to convey the magnitude and sheer horror of the massacre that clearly took place in the offices of the Boston Globe in the early days of Gilead. And those are just the things we don’t see.
What we do see is June slicing off part of her ear to remove a tracker as she escapes. The camera never shies away, and the gooey ear-tearing sounds are turned up to the max, daring the viewer to look away from the measures this woman takes to escape the strictures of Gilead. I did avert my eyes, and took out my headphones — more than once. (It’s a long scene.) When Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) chained a woman’s hand to a stove and turned on the gas, I had to take a sanity break.
“If people want to follow up The Handmaid's Tale with an episode of The Mindy Project as a palate cleanser, I completely get that,” Snyder told me when I mentioned these moments. “That's something that has been on our mind all along, and it's always kind of [a] balance we're striking."
We get more flashbacks to the lead-up to Gilead – initially a slow creeping of ideology before segueing into an explosive takeover (including attacks on Congress and the White House). The Nazi Germany parallels are inevitable when, in episode 2, an incredulous, naive Emily (Alexis Bledel) rejects her boss’ instructions to keep a low profile because she’s gay. We saw this in season 1, when June gets her credit card declined at a coffee shop and assumes it’s a clerical error. She’s finally told that the law has been changed: women can no longer handle their own money, or any other property. In season 2, we see the walls close in even further: June’s husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) has to sign off on her birth control prescription.
But the biggest change is that we finally get a glimpse of what the real Gilead looks like, beyond June’s immediate surroundings. Season 1 featured many references to “the Colonies,” a radioactive wasteland where enemies of the state are sent to do biological cleanup until they die. Season 2 takes us there, to the encampment where Emily has been toiling away since she tried to escape.
The tensest moments in season 1 took place inside the confines of the Waterfords' home,where June/Offred was forced to submit to rape on a regular basis in order to fulfill her duty as a handmaid. And, oddly enough, , she’s been relatively sheltered in that household. The horrors that are characteristic of Gilead have thus far been mostly implied, alluded to in flashbacks to June’s time at the Red Center, where she was trained, and through a whisper network of enslaved women, warning of what’s going on in other parts of the country. But in season 2, June is finally taking action. She’s bucking the system, and as a result, she’s experiencing its cruelty firsthand. The mock hanging was punishment in response to the handmaids’ refusal to stone one of their members to death. Later, made aware of Offred’s pregnancy, Aunt Lydia (Ann Down) shows her how Gilead deals with expectant mothers who rebel: They are chained to a bed until they give birth, and then executed— a brutal approach for a society that claims to value fertile women as “sacred vessels.”
"If people want to follow up 'The Handmaid's Tale' with an episode of 'The Mindy Project' as a palate cleanser, I completely get that."
Compounding the horror: more and more, there are tiny, worrying glimmers of Gilead’s oppressive ideology in Trump’s America. “For the first season of the show, we were working on the pilot before the primaries, and we were working on everything else in the summer of 2016 before the election, so we didn't know the political moment in which the show would be coming out,” Snyder said. “But this season was different because we are living very much in this moment. This is the time and the culture in which our show is coming out. And it's not ever going to be a ripped-from-the-headline show because we're telling a story that's not quite about our world, but a lot of stuff absolutely does seep in.”
On some level, that’s always been the case. Atwood’s novel — and by extension, the show’s message — has always felt prescient. Donald Trump had been in office for just four months when the first episode aired in April 2017, and his rhetoric, and that of his Vice President Mike Pence, had eerily similar undertones to the ideas espoused by the founders of Gilead. Since then, our reality has crept even closer to Atwood's nightmarish vision.
“Ultimately,” Snyder said, “the political moment and the world moment in which [the second season] is coming out — our world is darker.”
The scene from “Unwomen,” which shows Emily, her wife and child joining a mob of would-be refugees at Boston’s Logan airport, reads differently when we’ve seen similar scenes at airports across the country as a result of President Trump’s immigration ban. Her stunned reaction to being told her marriage certificate is no longer valid is heart-wrenching and uncannily familiar. Likewise, the lynching of a gay man — and a scientist and academic to boot — earlier in the same episode doesn’t seem so far-fetched in a world where the president of the United States makes jokes about own his vice-president wanting to “hang” gays. And finally, June’s stay in the mausoleum that was once the Boston Globe headquarters is chilling, given the current mistrust, and even hatred, of the media by the powers that be. Total control of the press and its message for the purpose of propaganda is the cornerstone of any totalitarian regime. What’s striking here is that Gilead’s leaders chose to utterly eradicate the fourth estate rather than co-opt it to their advantage.
Still, there is a danger of sinking into what Snyder calls “pornographic misery,” which is why she and her fellow writers make sure to ground all the worst aspects about this theocracy in reality. (In a Reddit AMA pegged to the show’s release, Atwood said that there’s “nothing in the book that didn’t happen, somewhere.”)
“We don't want to be exploitative, and we need to keep picturing the hope and the resistance and how even in the worst circumstances people's better natures can survive,” Snyder said. “That being said, there are topics that are just straight up hard for people to watch. This season in particular is about motherhood and being pregnant, and depending on your circumstance, I imagine you might want to give yourself some time to get to [it]. But we're never ever trying be shocking or dark for shock or darkness' sake, and it's really important to all of us, and to me, to make sure that we find the lightness and the hope inside that.”
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