And you shall obey his word, and the word of his servants here on earth.
Obedience is cultivated in Gilead, the dystopian society on which The Handmaid’s Tale centers. It may be requested or demanded at times, extracted through threats or through something as seemingly mundane as a required signature, but those moments of choice, or the illusion of choice, are in service of the greater cultivation. Here, women are livestock—for breeding, for labor, for show—and so must be brought to heel. You don’t ask an animal to obey you. You train it to obey, and you make sure it knows what happens when it does, and when it doesn’t.
So, welcome back to The Handmaid’s Tale, where they’re herding the livestock into Fenway Park for some additional obedience training.
In the hands of writer (and showrunner) Bruce Miller and director Mike Barker (Broadchurch, Outlander), “June” is a shock to the system for the viewers and the characters alike. Like June (Elisabeth Moss) and the rest of the handmaids, the audience emerges from the darkness of the van June boarded at the end of season one into a nightmare. Like the women who are steered through underbelly of Fenway Park, we’re thrust into the opening scenes without context and asked to imagine what horrors await. Gone (for now) are the voiceover monologues from June, letting us know what she’s feeling, thinking, observing, and remembering. Instead, we get cacophony and silence, the sounds of the environment heightened and the score increasingly ominous. June stepped into that van, knowing it was really “into the darkness within; or else the light,” but Miller and Barker want to make it perfectly clear that, when it comes to The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s not much light to be found.
If June’s two journeys in this episode feel at all familiar, it’s because they’re reminiscent of Emily’s in the third episode of season one (“Late”). Van, muzzle, silence, noose, muffled screams, silence, white room, silence, a path unknown, silence, and in the final moments of both episodes, an undiluted response. In the case of “Late,” some of the episode’s power comes from not knowing what’s going to happen. We know as little as Emily, and director Reed Morano keeps the audience in the van with her that whole terrifying ride. That’s true here, too, particularly in that second long, cold ride. We know what June knows, which is almost nothing.
But we, the people who watch this (and presumably many other televisions shows) have been trained, too. Years of reading and watching stories have taught us a few things, and so we know there’s no way that Elisabeth Moss’s character gets killed off in the first ten minutes of the second season of this show. When she stands on that platform, folding her hands and staring as hard as she can at the sky, it’s intensely suspenseful, but not because there’s any real worry that suddenly June won’t be on the show anymore. Instead, we’re left to empathize with what they’re experiencing, to observe all the little ways these women prepare to die, and to think about why this is happening and what it will mean for them, going forward.
In a way, perhaps that scene’s a kind of training for the audience, a reminder of how to watch this brutal show. What matters is what they’re experiencing and why they’re being forced to experience it—why they’re being trained to obey. Also of importance is the question of how: how they got to this point, how it happened, how gradually, how quickly, how easily.
The flashbacks on The Handmaid’s Tale have varied in their potency and importance, but here they’re essential, bookended by June mentioning that she needs Nick’s signature to pick up her birth control and the terrorist attacks on Congress and the White House. In between we see something relatively commonplace—a parent having to leave work because a child is sick at school—transformed slightly into something deeply unsettling, complete with the repeated refusal to call June by her “maiden” name and pointed questions about Hannah’s biological relationship to her mother. The increasingly upsetting events might, one imagines, mirror the story of how Gilead came to be: first something small, then some other small things, then a few larger things, and then explosions. People can be taught that something is normal, each acceptance making the next all the easier to accomplish.
The result of this careful narrative balancing—of June’s two frightening journeys into the unknown, of a noose around her neck (which, in a few shots, looks oddly like braided pigtails falling across her shoulders) and later blood streaming down that same neck, of a flashback story that somehow mirrors the escalating horrors of the present story—is a solid, often upsetting premiere. The absence of June’s voice throws the whole thing off-balance in an effective way, leaving us no guide but our minds (and Barker’s camera). It would be nice to think that, when that voice finally returns in the final moments, it’s a signal that June Osborne has found some control over her life, but solid ground isn’t always what it seems. Earlier she stood on a platform that she thought would drop her to her death, and instead it simply dropped to shake her; here, she believes she’s free, but she’s still hearing commands, and she obeys.
- Welcome back to The Handmaid’s Tale coverage. This year, Hulu released two episodes on day one, rather than three; the episode two review will run at noon.
- Sometimes this show is really subtle and smart. Other times it has June get into a truck full of swinging sides of beef. Literal dead meat.
- Other deeply upsetting moments in a deeply upsetting hour: June being shown the alternative to eating her soup, the tasteful furnishings in that nightmare circle, the handmaids all holding their rocks in the rain, the burning, June actually eating that soup while they all watch, the non-hug she gets from her truck driver, the dark scoreboard at Fenway, Alma (I think it was Alma) urinating on the gallows while she waited.
- The only scene that didn’t really work for me was the scene with the Waterfords at the medical center. Felt like a means to get June to her getaway meat truck and nothing else.
- In case you missed it, here’s Danette Chavez’s excellent pre-air review.
- Last year, I compiled some of the most impressive moments in the show’s cinematography on Twitter, and I’ll be doing the same this year, but they won’t go up today. Look for them tomorrow, if you’re interested.
- Miller has strongly suggested that some of the elements of the book that were skipped over in season one will be examined this season, so book readers, be cautious with spoilers in the comments.