When the last season of The Handmaid’s Tale ended, the spark of revolution had been ignited with a dropped stone. Now, that spark is growing—but there are already consequences, too.
The first two episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale have been released on Hulu today, and we’ve finally gotten the answer to that all-important question: Did Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss) escape? Sadly, the answer is no—at least not yet. Instead, at the start of the first episode, “June,” the black van takes Offred and a bunch of other handmaids to a dilapidated Fenway Park, where brown gags are tied over their mouths and they come face-to-face with a group execution. This is their punishment for refusing to fall in line.
This whole segment is brutal. The handmaids are dragged, beaten, kicked in the face, all while being forced to make their way to a hangman’s noose. They’re crying, holding hands, pissing themselves. As I watched it, I felt terrified but conflicted. I knew Gilead would never execute that many handmaids, given their importance, and I knew they wouldn’t kill off their main character so quickly. But at the same time, I was like, “Would they?” But of course, they wouldn’t—it was a fake-out orchestrated by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). They’re just not a workforce that can be replaced; they’re a resource.
As Aunt Lydia continues her punishment, forcing the handmaids to hold stones aloft in the freezing rain, she’s told a most-blessed surprise: Offred is with child. This is Aunt Lydia’s purpose, how she justifies all her horrible actions against these women so naturally, she’s elated.
There’s one scene in particular that really stood out to me, not just for the performance, but also for how it was visually framed. After Aunt Lydia found out Offred was pregnant, she took her to another area and brought her some food. She turns on the kindness, eager for Offred to respond gratefully. But the handmaid doesn’t. Offred knows her fetus gives her power, so she refuses to eat or show deference. This makes Aunt Lydia furious, and it was represented in the direction. During the scene, every time the camera was on Offred, it was still. Calm. Showing her power. Aunt Lydia, on the other hand, was seen with a handheld camera. It moved around chaotically, representing how little control she had over the situation and how that was slowly putting her over the edge. Given how Aunt Lydia ends the scene showing Offred a pregnant woman chained in the basement as a warning, it’s clear Offred rattled her.
After Offred falls back in line—including a horrific moment where she calmly eats her meal as other handmaids are tortured on a burning stove—she’s finally given the opportunity we’d been hoping for since the beginning of season one: a chance to escape. At the doctor’s office, one word ignites her resolve and sends her to the point of no return: “June.” A key is found in her boot, which leads her on a scavenger hunt to freedom. Well, not freedom exactly, but to the ruins of the Boston Globe, where she spends most of the second episode, “Unwomen,” hiding out. We’d previously learned this season would give us an indication of what Gilead did to the press, and now we get our answer: They slaughtered them.
As Offred hides out in the Boston Globe, isolated and angry, we also learn what has happened to another beloved handmaid: Emily (Alexis Bledel). The last time we saw her, she’d been circumcised as punishment for falling in love with another woman, with plans to keep her as a handmaid since she can still bear children... until she stole a car and ran over a soldier while on a shopping trip. Emily has since become an Unwoman. She’s been sent to the Colonies, an environmentally toxic wasteland, to work herself to death. It’s a clear metaphor for places like North Korean work camps or Russian gulags, where sometimes it doesn’t even seem like the work is accomplishing anything. After all, these women aren’t only here to try and create new farmland; this place is designed to punish.
While she’s there, the Colonies get a surprise resident in the form of Marisa Tomei, who plays a commander’s wife sent to the labor camps for adultery. She’s, let’s just say, not well-received by the other women, yet Emily shows her some kindness... or so it appears. Emily has scars that not even an enabler who says she was “opposed” to the university purges can heal.
Both “June” and “Unwomen” are juxtaposed with flashbacks to the early days of Gilead’s takeover of the US government, centering around June and Emily, respectively. Right around Gilead’s initial takeover, Emily was a college professor with a wife and son. Her boss, who we learn is also gay, says she’s going to be taken off teaching courses for the next semester as a precaution. He doesn’t want anything bad to happen to her or to the school, as Gilead doesn’t care much for homosexuality, by which I mean we soon see Emily’s boss get lynched.
She and her family go to the airport to try and get a flight to Canada before it’s too late, as her wife is a Canadian citizen. The airport is packed with people trying to flee, but Emily can’t go, because the “government” no longer recognizes her marriage. This revelation from a clearly Gilead-aligned TSA agent, came after Emily was given a bunch of mixed signals from a variety of agents and guards along the way, who didn’t seem to know what the hell was going on. She’s forced to watch as her wife and child escape, leaving her behind.
One of the bigger flaws from last season is we didn’t get an indication of how Gilead was able to take over the government so quickly, and it’s something they’re definitely working on this season. We’re getting more signs of how much Gilead and its religious principles had invaded the country well before any shots were fired.
In addition to Emily’s TSA story, we’ve also got June’s. She’s forced to go to the hospital to fetch her daughter after she came down with a fever—showing how much the public school systems fear any harm coming to children, given the infertility crisis. The nurse barrages June with a bunch of questions about her mothering skills that lead to accusations that she’s an unfit parent. The fact that she keeps calling June “Mrs. Bankole,” even after correcting the nurse multiple times that she goes by her own last name of Osborne, shows where this woman’s allegiances lie.
The second episode ends with both Emily and June struggling to heal old wounds. June creates a memorial for the murdered journalists, where she prays for their souls, reclaiming her faith in a world where belief has been forced on her. Emily, on the other hand, does something more questionable: She murders the commander’s wife, poisoning her with pills she’d tricked her into taking and leaving her to die a painful death. Emily isn’t in a place to forgive or forget. She’s suffered far too much.
The Handmaid’s Tale is in new territory, having completed the book’s saga by the end of the first season, but I feel this new chapter is a very strong start. It’s expanding its own world, diving into new characters, and addressing some of the mistakes of its past (though not all of them, at least not yet). It’s still bleak as fuck—making it a hard pill for some to swallow—but that’s because it’s not supposed to be. You can’t avoid it, you can’t escape it. Gilead is within you.
- The nurse suspiciously asking June if Hannah was her “biological child” could be an indication of how the show is going to explore Gilead’s racism from the original novel, as well as how an oppressive system like Gilead’s would disproportionally affect women of color. The show failed last season by completely ignoring race, a point well-made by my coworker Evan Narcisse, but the showrunner said this season will better address it.
- Alexis Bledel looks really good in glasses. Like, unnaturally good.
- Emily’s situation at the airport really reminded me of the chaos that ensued after the Trump administration enacted the initial travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries. Mostly chaos and confusion, with a few agents seeming to call the shots for everyone else. I don’t know if that was purposeful, but I have my suspicions that it was... at least in part.
- The interactions between Offred and Aunt Lydia are fantastic throughout this episode, and I’m happy Dowd has been given a bigger role this season.
- Another one of the more heartbreaking moments so far was seeing Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and June watching the TV as Gilead launched its attack on the US government. One of the common flashback themes on the show has been complacency, like how a lobster doesn’t know it’s being boiled alive if you heat it up slowly. June simply saying “what the fuck” as she watched her system of government collapse might have been all she felt she could do—especially since Hannah needed her—but it was still complacency.