I am ON THE FLOOR. In different ways, the first two episodes of Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale have devastated me. How much heartbreak, how little hope can we handle? How many times can our stomachs drop to the floor, in just the way the girls expected to drop in the opening moments of Episode 1? Here are my thoughts on just the first episode – I’ll pick up Episode 2 in a separate post.
Following the mass resistance and subsequent arrest at the end of Season 1, we knew there would be Consequences. This is not a society that tolerates dissent, particularly from the lowly, unredeemed Handmaids. And they can talk about these girls being the most praised of society – but all they are to Gilead are walking wombs. And if it weren’t for the exercise benefits of walking during pregnancy, I’m sure that freedom would be curtailed as well.
But the form of that punishment was extreme, brutal, heartbreaking, and soul crushing – never mind that it didn’t happen in reality, I sure had trouble sleeping after watching (both times). But it’s the sheer graphic nature of that brutality that drives home the mob mentality, the willingness to be brainwashed for survival that infects Gilead. Surely these men had once been honorable, respectful people. Surely the women collaborating had once been independent, with jobs and bank accounts and library cards. Yet, so quickly did the fanatics take hold, and so extreme were their beliefs, that they must be right, and those once honorable, independent people were caught as surely as a leaf is caught in a flooded stream.
Muzzled, restrained, terrified, the girls are led – pushed, by snarling dogs and men with cattle prods – into empty Fenway Park. And that long run through the former ballplayers’ tunnel, to an unknown fate, was the first stomach drop of the episode. Did you have any idea what waited for them? We didn’t know where they were at first, whether they would be beaten, shot – and in many ways, that might have been preferable to the psychological terror of being pushed onto platforms with rows of nooses, having those ropes put around their necks, not even able to reach out to the girl next to them for a quick not-quite-but-it-will-have-to-do comforting hand hold. The hooded hangman, the yelled commands, the anger and hatred created an almost visible fog around the girls, some so terrified that they wet themselves. And then – the lever is pulled – and …. nothing. My heart stopped, I thought I would throw up – I was right there with June and her helpless sisters.
I really want to know Aunt Lydia’s backstory. Was she always a religious fanatic? Ever married, have her own children? She sure is a believer now. She showed a tiny bit of compassion for Jeanine in Season 1, but only as the girl was pregnant and about to deliver (and a surprising kind gesture as Jeanine was laying unconscious after her jump from the bridge). After that, her usefulness had ended, and she was held in no higher regard than any of the other girls who didn’t understand “freedom from” and “freedom to.”
Another stomach-sinking moment was when the handmaids were led into the cafeteria and made to line up in front of June – and one was led away, pulling back, knowing what was coming. We knew something bad was about to happen, but could you have seen THAT coming? Attaching her to the stove and turning the burner on her hand? I heard those screams in my dreams last night. You don’t need a pretty hand to be raped once a month, any more than you need an eye, or a clitoris. All you need is a womb. And obedience. Obedience through fear? Sure, even better. Gilead obviously doesn’t believe that honey works better than vinegar – given the right incentives, many of us would be willing to try to bear children in a world where population had dropped to a dangerous, extinction-level rate. But in a so-called civilization where women are evil – a la Eve – they need to be kept in line, controlled, with whips and chains rather than kindness and care.
Do you think you’ve done her a kindness? She could have gone to her Maker swiftly, surrounded by her friends. Jeanine is on her way to the Colonies. She will suffer because of you. Every Handmaid who followed you into disobedience will suffer the consequences. But not you! You are with child. You are protected. But you knew that.
The episodes’ cinematography was evocative. “Current” scenes were in muted tones, very slightly blurred, as if reality wasn’t completely real to these people. They can’t quite believe that their society has come to this. Flashbacks, however, had color and sharpness – this is reality, this is what they hold as true. And in several scenes, June looks up to the sky – the sky is hope. Frustrated, impossible, but hope. More frequently, the camera looks straight down – over the girls kneeling in the rain holding stones, notably, using that angle almost as a ceiling – there is no hope. Nothing will fall from the sky and save them. Gilead is all-seeing, an eye in the sky.
The flashbacks to June’s life before Gilead were revealing! Having to get your husband’s approval to get birth control… the desire to have another child when you can see the beginnings of life as you know it unraveling… and the questions at the hospital! “Do you work full-time?” “What arrangements do you have if Hannah is sick?” “Children are so precious. We have to make sure they are in a safe environment. With fit parents.” You knew exactly what she was implying – mothers working is wrong. Women belong home with the children. Anything else is wrong. Wrong, and unfit.
June’s insolence toward Serena was daring. She knew how far she could go – Serena wouldn’t dare hurt her, but she had to be careful to protect the pregnancy, because that was the only way she could protect Hannah. But she could get a little of her own back – “Don’t get upset, Serena. It’s bad for the baby.”
June’s “escape” was almost as harrowing – would she be caught? What would be the consequences this time if she was? And who was the mysterious man who left the little red stickers for her, the man who called her June in the examining room? When she finally gets to the boiler room, and Nick is there waiting for her, there was a sense of relief – but not complete relief, by any means. I understood her grim joy at burning her robes, the symbol of her slavery! And while it must have hurt like crazy to cut that ear tag off, she was smart and brave to do it.
As much as I love this series – and it truly is one of the best TV series made, I believe, I’m struggling watching it. I have to admit that – maybe you are too. Sci fi is not, in general, a joyful genre. Destructive aliens, bleak worlds, a lot of death and rayguns – but this is in a class by itself. It has brought about a loud, fractured and difficult conversation about the role of women, the unleashing of base and uncivilized opinions, the fallout from the current political climate. Most men I’ve talked to about the series are sympathetic, but shake their heads and say it’s just fiction. And most women say yes, I’ve seen those tendencies, that minimalization, that anger bubbling to the surface.
Between the end of season 1 and this beginning of season 2, the #MeToo movement has emerged, definitely opening up the discussion, but often fueling the anger and confusion among both men and women. And frankly, I’m having a hard time with it. This show upsets my natural calm and optimistic nature. Is that a good thing? Have I been too placid in the face of what the majority of women deal with, things that I can honestly say that I either haven’t experienced to any great degree (or been oblivious to)? I read the book shortly after it was published, and the issues it raised then had stayed with me, more than 30 years later. But I am now a mother, older and maybe not wiser, and I think I need some processing of the themes and ideas that run through this series.
Where does June go next? We’ll discuss that in our wrapup of Episode 2!
Continue the discussion about the show in our non-political Facebook group, The Handmaid’s Tale – Gilead Online
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