The writers of The Handmaid’s Tale could have chosen any abandoned location as a Mayday safehouse for June (Elisabeth Moss) to hide in after her hair-raising escape from Gilead. She could have spent months shivering in a damp shed. Or hiding out in the closet of an elementary school classroom. Or reading old books in library stacks. Technically, all June needed was a place to stay.
So the fact that June is transported to the former Boston Globe headquarters in the second episode of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale is a very, very deliberate decision — and so is the slow build-up to that revelation.
At first, it’s not obvious where the friendly Mayday truck driver has dropped June. This building, the driver informs her, hasn’t been touched since the war — and it certainly looks it. This is the kind of spooky, damp place the Loser’s Club in It would have faced down Pennywise, not the kind of place you’d want to live in for an undisclosed period of time. The driver hands her a flashlight like it’s a talisman to ward off spirits.
After Friendly Truck Man leaves, June tremulously explores her new home. She walks down spooky hallways with a flashlight and runs a hammer against the walls. Finally, she comes across a fairly conventional office space: cubicles with mugs and framed photos, a Friends DVD, meeting rooms.
The big revelation comes 21 minutes into the episode. June passes by a stack of freshly printed Boston Globe newspapers with a truncated headline visible: “In the Aftermath of America’s Bloodiest…” Then, June turns on the powerful lights, illuminating the huge machinery of the newspaper’s production center. And there she is: the physical heart of free press.
In this gigantic room at the Boston Globe, June is witnessing the last moments of America the free, preserved in time. Given the headline on the Globe’s final newspaper, the Globe journalists had clearly been reporting objectively on the events in the United States until that point. It’s not obvious what event the headline is referring to, but likely, it’s a reference to the coup on the government staged by the Sons of Jacob. Ostensibly, after the government was taken over, the free press was the only space citizens could obtain information uncontaminated by Gilead.
And that posed a problem for Gilead. In Atwood’s book, the newspaper is censored gradually. But in the show, the newspaper is destroyed abruptly – and so are its employees. Because in that very room, June sees something more shocking than the last vestiges of the free press. She sees a line of nooses. She sees a wall caked with blood, and littered with bullet holes. The employees of the Boston Globe were slaughtered in this room, and with them, the last vestige of the first amendment.
In Gilead, working for a newspaper was on par with being a “gender traitor” — but perhaps even worse. Emily (Alexis Bledel) was a “gender traitor,” but her life was spared because she was fertile. While wandering the office, June encounters a woman’s desk with cards from her child. An abandoned shoe is near the desk; she finds its mate below the noose. Even fertile news reporters were executed. Anyone who worked tirelessly to spread objective information, who endured long hours and minimal pay for the sake of higher ideals, would pose a threat to Gilead. The woman's shoes also offer up another clue about the enduring values of the Boston Globe. Unlike at June's workplace, the Globe's women employees were not fired.
The Boston Globe is a silent character in this episode of the Handmaid’s Tale — and a pointed message to the audience. Listen up, The Handmaid’s Tale seems to say. Instead of sitting comfortably and watching a TV show, pay attention to what’s happening in your country. In country in which the current president calls the media an “enemy of the people,” the presence of an desecrated newspaper building in Gilead comes as a foreboding warning. Because after a full season of The Handmaid's Tale, we know all that followed the destruction of The Boston Globe — and it isn't pretty. This scene in the Globe is heavy-handed in its symbolism and timeliness, but that doesn't mean it isn't also terrifying.