McQueen’s masterful film is the kind that works on multiple levels simultaneously—as pure pulp entertainment but also as a commentary on how often it feels…
When the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiered exactly one year ago today on Hulu, President Donald Trump had already begun inadvertently making America great again. The misogyny he spewed and empowered in his supporters spurred those who would normally remain on the sidelines to take to the streets. The Women’s March that occurred worldwide the day after the president’s inauguration served as a prelude to the #MeToo movement, which went viral last October, as charges of sexual harassment took down the careers of men who had previously appeared invincible. In between all of this, HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” and Frances McDormand’s portrayal of Mildred Hayes in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” embodied the defiant spirit of female-led activism culminating in the founding of the #TimesUp movement on New Year’s Day of 2018.
There’s no question that creator Bruce Miller’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel couldn’t have been released at a more appropriate time. Its portrayal of a totalitarian society created by theonomist Christians to overthrow American democracy will be seen as one of the definitive works of the Trump era. The ten episodes of its first season took a simultaneously harrowing and invigorating look at how to fight against the normalization of oppression while maintaining one’s sanity in the process.
As June Osborne, a woman whose fertility has caused her to be enslaved as a Handmaid (a.k.a. reproductive surrogate) in the Republic of Gilead, Elisabeth Moss further cements her status as one of the great actors of our time. Few performers are as adept at revealing the depths of their character’s inner life in a single glance, and Moss is especially gifted at illuminating the glint of rebellion tucked beneath the placid surface of her expression. She has made a career out of playing women who refuse to be broken by men, whether they be the sexist ad executives in “Mad Men” or the insufferable boyfriend in “Listen Up Philip.” There is a scene in that film, directed by Moss’ frequent collaborator Alex Ross Perry, that encapsulates her genius. After she finally breaks up with her boyfriend and he storms out of her apartment, Perry holds the camera on Moss as a multitude of conflicting feelings—relief, sorrow, satisfaction, remorse—ripple across her face. This skill is crucial for a character like June, who must spend much of the time repressing her true feelings when in the persona of “Offred,” her designated name as a Handmaid.
Like “Big Little Lies,” a miniseries that has now grown into a multi-season show, “The Handmaid’s Tale” ended its first season at the same place that its source material did, with Offred boarding a vehicle without knowing where it would be taking her, though any mode of escape from her Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), and his vindictive wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), is most welcome. The note that Miller chose to end on was one of uncertainty, a fitting reflection of our current sociopolitical landscape in which nothing is guaranteed. Whether the subsequent episodes will follow in step with Atwood’s epilogue remains to be seen, though on the basis of the six episodes from season two made available to critics, Miller’s show is expanding its narrative while remaining as provocative and riveting as ever.
The frightening opening sequence calls to mind the Kafkaesque nightmare of Orson Welles’ “The Trial,” as Handmaids are ordered to walk through a tunnel, their path illuminated only by light streaming through slats of wood. When they emerge on the other end, they find themselves in Fenway Park, which has been reconfigured into an arena for executions. Relics of the free press and free speech can be observed in the abandoned Boston Globe building (now used as a slaughterhouse) and a dusty DVD of “Friends” (made during the days when erogenous zones were acceptable fodder for jokes). We also hear footage of the Red Sox winning the World Series over the end credits of episode two. The early sections of this season promise the structure of an odyssey, as June enlists the assistance of various samaritans—including her beau, Nick (Max Minghella)—to escape her incarceration. Cinematographer Zoë White, who previously lensed Stephen Cone’s wonderful “Princess Cyd,” brings an epic scope to various shots in episode three, such as the bird’s eye view of June racing through a cornfield.
Viewers hoping that this season takes off in an entirely different direction will likely be disappointed, since it’s not long before June is resuming her duties as Offred at the Waterford residence. Yet even in these familiar locations, the writers create intriguing new dynamics between the characters. Moss still manages to get in a few hilariously withering lines fueled by June’s inability to mask her contempt for her self-righteous rapists (her delivery of “Uh huh” is one for the books). She also gets to turn Mrs. Waterford’s words back on her, affirming that as long as her own child is safe (referring to Hannah, whom she mothered with her husband, Luke) so is the one she is currently carrying for the infertile couple. As the child grows in June’s stomach, Strahovski alternates between maternal warmth and venomous envy, bringing us to the brink of empathizing with her, only to repel us with her selfishness. Once again, the color red materializes in striking places—we see it in the curtains of the van transporting June back to the Waterfords as well as the blood pooling beneath her crimson uniform.
One strong addition to the cast is 20-year-old Sydney Sweeney, who recently won over viewers on Netflix’s “Everything Sucks!”, where she shared many of the show’s best scenes with Peyton Kennedy, the other half of their teen couple who gained a devoted fan base despite the program’s cancellation. The extroverted character she played on that show couldn’t be further removed from her role on “The Handmaid’s Tale” as Eden, the 15-year-old bride assigned to Nick. Despite her wide-eyed innocence, Eden is hardened in her conviction to obey Gilead’s laws, and since Sweeney looks much younger here than she did in “Everything Sucks!”, it makes her deflowering all the more disturbing. Thankfully, the scene contains no nudity, focusing instead on her hand gripping the arm of Nick, whose visible discomfort overrides any potential eroticism.
The finest episode of season two, thus far, is the fourth one, entitled, “Other Women.” It’s the show’s best depiction to date of how unearned guilt holds a vice on one’s identity, fragmenting it into abstract concepts of good and evil that leave no space for the true essence of humanity. What makes Aunt Lydia, the Handmaids’ overseer, so fearsome is the fact that she is entirely convinced that her misguided efforts to save civilization—by administering godly virtues via cattle prod—are in line with holy scripture. She truly believes that she is protecting the souls of these women by repeatedly abusing their bodies, while placing the blame of their suffering onto themselves. As played by Ann Dowd, Aunt Lydia makes Nurse Ratched and the Trunchbull look like Larry and Curly, lending a Shakespearean weight to her character’s tragic dimensions. The character is not unlike any pro-life candidate focused solely on bringing life into a world unequipped to nurture it. By unearthing buried guilt from June’s past, Aunt Lydia insidiously elicits a tearful confession from her, promising that she’ll find salvation “as Offred,” thus leaving the damnation of her past life behind.
One of the most cathartic elements of the series is June’s narration, where she gets to provide expletive-laden commentary on the surrounding horrors while clinging to her individuality. Now that Aunt Lydia has infiltrated her mind, June’s witty voice-over is suddenly silenced, replaced by the robotic repetition of formalities. I was reminded of Moss’ haunting monologue from one of her early films, Deborah Kampmeier’s “Virgin,” where she recounts how a dog receiving electroshocks refuses to leave its cage once it has been opened. This episode, more than any other, illustrates how a cycle of abuse can hold people captive by snuffing out their sense of worth. This is how the unspeakable becomes normalized.
Among the show’s many triumphant achievements is its ability to throw viewers headfirst into the narrative, juxtaposing flashbacks and parallel subplots in a way that brings us closer to June’s disorientation without devolving into incoherence. Though Alexis Bledel was credited as a “guest star” during the first season, she emerges here as a full-on supporting player, with many scenes devoted to her character, Emily, a Handmaid sentenced to a life of hard labor, in part because of her “gender treachery” (a.k.a. lesbianism). The scene from season one where she’s forced to watch the execution of her wife is as shattering as anything I’ve seen on television. In the second episode of season two, we get many wrenching scenes from Emily’s past, including an airport interrogation that calls to mind the hatefulness of Trump’s transgender military ban.
Various actual guest stars accompany Bledel in this episode, and though their presence is somewhat of a distraction, they are all well-cast, notably John Carroll Lynch as the concerned colleague who tries coaxing his friend back into he closet. Emily’s scenes mirror those of June in how both women are faced with the question of whether to reject life altogether in the midst of a seemingly eternal hell. Cherry Jones turns up in endearing flashbacks as June’s liberated mother, while Moira (Samira Wiley), June’s friend who escaped to Toronto’s “Little America” community and reunited with Luke (O-T Fagbenle), has a scene where she refers to herself as “Ruby,” demonstrating that she still hasn’t shaken her past persona as a Gilead prostitute. Perhaps the biggest laugh I had during all six episodes took place in Serena’s flashback to her fiery confrontation with students. When her voice is silenced by their outrage, Fred cries in protest, “This is America!”, embodying the ironic victim complex of various Pure Flix movies railing against the suppression of their freedom to suppress the freedom of others.
I’ll admit that I always look forward to the songs selected for the end credits of each episode. Their lyrics may occasionally be a bit on-the-nose, but they are also reassuring, reminding us of the time that came before Gilead and is destined to return. The songs are, in many ways, the battle cry simmering within the Handmaids, and as June’s despondency grows during this season, the music fades along with her voice-over. In one indelible shot lensed by DP Colin Watkinson, we see June propped in her bathtub, resolved simply to keeping her head above water, nothing more. What ultimately breaks her out of her sunken place is the resilient spirit of her unborn baby, whom she converses with after days of silence, telling the child that the Waterfords “do not own you.” Her words, of course, echo the lyrics of the song that concluded the very first episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Lesley Gore’s classic 1963 tune, “You Don’t Own Me,” which serves as the unofficial anthem of the entire series.
Even religion cannot be owned by violent ideologies since personal faith cannot be policed. It’s refreshing to see June build her own candlelit vigil while praying to what she believes is a loving God. The motif of flames characterizing the first six of thirteen scheduled episodes for this season suggest that the Handmaids may be planning to fight fire with fire, quite literally. Will the match that June lights to burn her uniform be the spark that lights the fire that will burn Gilead down? I can’t wait to find out.
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