This piece was originally published May 07, 2018 and is part of The A.V. Club’s favorite features of 2018
Premiering three months after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t help but feel significant. The relevancy hits because Margaret Atwood pulled every detail about the controlling and punishment of women in her dystopian novel from real-world examples, mostly historical (going as far back as the biblical story of Jacob and his two wives, each with two handmaids who bear children to be raised as the wives’ own), but some more modern (the relatively recent abolition of slavery; the Thatcher/Reagan reactionary rollback of rights gained by feminists in the ’70s). A TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale was always going to be topical, but the timing of season one felt like a cosmic joke: The show was in the can before the election, so any reflection of the changed world it premiered in comes down to the writers reading the tea leaves circa 2016.
Season two is different, both in the context in which it was made and in how that has affected the show’s portrayal of pre-Gilead America. The flashbacks in season one were focused on June (Elisabeth Moss), her family, and her job, providing an intimate look into who she was before she became Offred. There were allusions made to how that familiar-looking America could become the Republic Of Gilead, but they were vague, with an emphasis on June observing a more hostile attitude toward women from her limited perspective. It was personal, and not necessarily political—not yet. This season’s flashbacks—now expanded to include Emily’s (Alexis Bledel) as well as June’s—make explicit connections to what’s going on in our real world, tying the everyday sexism, racism, and homophobia many of us experience as a routine part of our lives to the experiences of the characters. The Handmaid’s Tale is showing us: See how these people experienced the same things you experience, and see where all this can lead. See how the commonplace marginalization and oppression we’re accustomed to, how the rollback of civil rights, could look in a worst-case scenario.
The inhumane treatment of immigrants; the nauseatingly uncertain status of DACA recipients; the never-ending erosion of abortion rights; the criminalization of sex workers; the abysmal state of trans rights and murder rates; the racism that makes walking into a Starbucks or Waffle House unsafe for people of color; cops killing with virtually no consequences; cops raping with virtually no consequences; cops assaulting romantic partners with virtually no consequences; white supremacists openly rallying; rollbacks on the rights of people with disabilities; the continued oppression and disenfranchisement of Native peoples; that damn anti-gay baker who refused to make a wedding cake (whose case is now at the Supreme Court); fucking Ross Douthat arguing that so-called involuntary celibate (“incel”) men who murder women might have a point: All of this is happening today, as the white men who have traditionally held power take their feelings and revenge out on those of us who have only relatively recently gained rights like voting and bodily autonomy.
It’s in the scene in the season premiere, when a medical worker, while interrogating June about her ability as a mother, calls her by her husband’s last name, Bankole, even after she introduces herself as June Osborne. (As a woman who didn’t take my husband’s name, I’m intimately familiar with this phenomenon.) The uncomfortable back-and-forth demonstrates the beginnings of a state surveillance into personal lives, but by bringing June’s surname into the scene, The Handmaid’s Tale draws attention to this holdover of a time in the not-too-distant past when women took their husband’s name as a matter of legal requirement, losing their right to buy and sell property, live where they desired, and earn money along with it. “Coverture” and “legal unity” dictated women’s subordinate legal status during marriage; aspects of these marriage and property laws lingered as late as the 1970s. The last of their kind, Louisiana’s “Head And Master” law granting control of marital property to the husband, was overturned in 1981. But even today they echo in our wedding traditions of fathers “giving away” daughters to their husbands, held over from when fathers widely had total control over whom they could marry. In Gilead, Handmaids are renamed in a convention that combines the prefix of “belonging to” with their Commander’s name, which is how June becomes Offred.
Speaking of traditional marriage: Emily’s flashbacks provide a necessary new element, showing the queer experience under the encroaching totalitarian government. The show is thankfully more interested in showing intersectional plights this season, after season one neglected to examine other marginalized people and all but ignored how race factors into oppression—something for which it was rightly criticized. Emily, a lesbian, and her boss, Dan (John Carroll Lynch), a gay man, are both targets of the emboldened, puritanical state.
In a flashback, an ICE agent patrols the airport where Emily is forcibly separated from her wife and son. It’s subtle, but it creates an unmistakable link between Emily’s family being torn apart and scattered across borders to ICE’s current aggressive campaign against immigrants and activists.
Last month, meanwhile, a self-proclaimed “incel” killed 10 people in Toronto, inspired by mass murderer Elliot Rodger’s “war on women.” The violence and vocal misogyny of these men are mirrored in the attitudes and actions that the Republic Of Gilead turns into public policy, and they make appearances in pre-Gilead times, too: In a flashback from season one, June and Moira (Samira Wiley), fresh from a jog, are verbally dismissed as “sluts” by a barista over their workout clothes. Elsewhere, June has to have her husband’s approval before she can refill her birth-control prescription. Controlling and punishing women is endemic to the belief systems that would include men committing the sort of murderous rampages we see in contemporary headlines—and often not at all, like the three women who are killed every day by their intimate partners.
In Gilead, these misogynists and the state are openly one and the same. But considering the sexist bills floating through Congress attempting to take away abortion rights, defund Planned Parenthood, restrict birth-control access, force abstinence-only curriculum, and generally put the state in charge of our bodies, American women are already familiar with how that belief system infiltrates our own government. (That goes doubly for people of color and queer people.) If last season of The Handmaid’s Tale felt scarily relevant for airing at the beginning of the “grab ’em by the pussy” presidency, the second season is important for the light it sheds on what is actually happening, today, in America. It’s one of the very few fictional stories to deal so directly with 2018 misogyny, and to paint a picture of where it could lead.
“I was asleep before,” June intoned in a season-one monologue. “That’s how we let it happen—nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” We’re already in the tub, and the water is getting hotter. Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale is awake to the world, and reminding us to check the temperature.