Playoff fever was in full force on April 25th, but a very different kind of highly anticipated television event was also airing. The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 premiere had the NBA and the NHL — as well as the MLB and MLS in non-playoff action — to compete with.
Of course, The Handmaid’s Tale attracts a typically different demographic from that of playoff hockey and basketball, but that doesn’t make it any easier to wrench the remote out of one’s playoff-enthused family member or roommate to watch two hours of depressing television about the patriarchy’s inevitable destruction of the American dream.
That’s not to say that the season 2 premiere was bad — it was amazing — but it was undeniably depressing…even more depressing than watching the Leafs lose to the Bruins. And, speaking of Boston sports teams, this double-feature premiere made some serious nods to another Boston team and their storied home field.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part I, June – The Home of the Green Monster
Picking up exactly where season one ended, we see Offred in the back of a van. She and the other handmaids who refused to stone Janine to death in last season’s finale “Night” have been rounded up and taken to Fenway Park.
The handmaids, corralled by riot police and vicious-looking barking dogs, are shoved onto the famous field to see their destination, a huge gallows with a noose for each handmaid. Lit up by the dilapidated stadium’s still-working lights, the gallows looks both horrifying and spectacular, as if it’s the center of some twisted circus.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part I, June – “And the Lord sayeth, ‘Perform perverted theatrics that make them piss themselves with fear!’”
As hooded executioners put the ropes around each of the handmaids’ throats, the young women sob and, understandably, Ofrobert loses control of her bladder. The handmaids’ fear is misplaced though: the whole ordeal is just a perverted bit of theatrics. Aunt Lydia ambles into view spouting her usual rhetoric about His mercy and greatness. The handmaids are spared, but there will be consequences for their lack of faith.
Later, during an ironic punishment wherein the handmaids must kneel in the rain while holding stones, a fellow aunt mentions something to Aunt Lydia. Aunt Lydia exclaims that Offred has been keeping a secret: she is pregnant — Nick is secretly the father, not Commander Fred — and thus exempt from the punishments the other handmaids must endure.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part I, June – The Price of Defiance
Aunt Lydia escorts Offred into a dining hall and sets a healthy meal before her. A typically defiant Offred refuses to eat, so Aunt Lydia walks Offred to a locked room. Upon entering, they see a chained pregnant woman, Ofwyatt, whose bonds only allow her to walk around her unlit cell and lie down.
Aunt Lydia explains that Ofwyatt endangered her unborn baby by drinking drain cleaner, a pronounced chemical burn around Ofwyatt’s lips confirming Aunt Lydia’s story. Seeing the stark cost of defiance, Offred acquiesces to eat.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part I, June – “Everyone, let’s give Ofrobert a hand!”
The rest of the handmaids are lined up in front of Offred. After some cajoling, the young women form two straight lines, and Aunt Lydia retires to the kitchen. Aunt Lydia instructs Ofrobert to come to her, but when Ofrobert enters the kitchen the handmaid starts screaming. The aunts grab hold of her and maneuver her toward the stove where they handcuff her to a gas element. Ofrobert screams in protest and pulls her hand away from the flame, but there’s no use. The camera cuts to Offred placidly sipping her soup as Ofwyatt screams in pain.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part I, June – “Why, I remember a day when women could actually own property!”
Both “June” and “Unwomen” featured a number of flashbacks to the days just prior to the establishment of the Gilead regime. “June,” unsurprisingly, featured flashbacks that involve June’s (Offred’s) experience, and “Unwomen” focuses on Emily’s (Ofglen’s) experience.
Viewers see June and Luke making plans to have another child before each head out for work in the morning. After a lot of smooching and carrying on, June eventually manages to leave with their daughter Hannah. Later in the day we see June caught in a daydream. Her colleague interrupts her reverie to inform her that her phone has been going off. The caller turns out to be Hannah’s school, and when June calls back she finds out that Hannah has been sent to the hospital with a fever.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part I, June – “Hellllllooo, nurse!”
When June arrives at the hospital, she finds a nurse looking after Hannah. The nurse turns out to be a touch judgemental about the double-income lifestyle that June and Luke have been leading. Implying quite heavily that June and Luke are bad parents, the terrible nurse also keeps calling June “Mrs. Bankole” even though June informs her that her name is actually “June Osbourne.”
The awkward interaction over, June and Hannah return home to find Luke worrying over the news. As June lies in bed trying to soothe her feverish daughter, the news reports that martial law has been declared in the US following dual terrorist attacks at the US House of Representatives and the White House. A number of congresspeople are dead and there is no indication as to what has happened to the executive branch.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part I, June – From the Back of One Truck To the Back of Another
Back in the present during a pregnancy checkup, Selena and Cmdr. Fred come to see how “their baby” is progressing. Selena and Offred exchange some harsh words, but Offred is able to deflect Selena by warning her that getting upset is bad for the baby. The examination reveals that the foetus is progressing normally. Selena and Fred, happy with their investment, leave the room, but after they’re gone the obstetrician calls Offred “June” as he makes his own exit.
Thinking this interaction a bit odd, Offred doesn’t make too much of it until she puts on her boots and finds a key inside one of them. The key sports a small red sticker, and before anyone has an opportunity to stop her, June uses the key to unlock the examination room. Strategically placed red stickers show Offred the right passages to take, and she manages to get inside the back of a freezer truck just before it closes its door and pulls away from the building.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part I, June – June van Gogh
Enduring a cold ride with a bunch of hanging pig corpses, the truck carrying Offred eventually arrives at its destination. The driver hurries her inside what appears to be a factory and she sees a very welcome face. Nick is waiting there for her, and after a touching embrace he instructs her to change out of her handmaid uniform and cut her hair
Offred does so with zeal, electing to also burn her uniform and hair in a nearby incinerator. With her old life going up in flames, she takes the pair of scissors she used to cut her hair and removes the final indication of her former role as handmaid, her earring tag. In two agonizing snips, June — Offred no longer — cuts off the offending jewelry along with the top half of her ear.
The epitome of defiance — what would Aunt Lydia think? — June stands silently in front of her burning uniform, blood flowing down her neck, as her inner monologue recounts her biographical information: “My name is June Osbourne. I am from Brooklyn, Massachusetts. I am 34 years old. I stand 5’3″ in bare feet. I weigh 120 pounds. I have viable ovaries. I am five weeks pregnant. I am free.”
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part I, June – Final Thoughts
As a reintroduction to the show, this episode knocked it out of Fenway Park. Along with the deft setting work that ensures that viewers know where June is during the majority of the episode, the disturbing and artistic imagery throughout “June” lived up well to the established hype surrounding the first season.
It’s not just the art direction that makes this show so worthwhile, though. The writing is, for the most part, very well done. Anyone familiar with Atwood’s writing style will find several lines indicative of the Canadian literary juggernaut’s influence, so it’s good to know that the producers of the show continue to seek her input even though the events of this season take place after the end of Atwood’s original novel.
The good writing finds good company in the caliber of acting on display in The Handmaid’s Tale. Elizabeth Moss is excellent as Offred — er, June — and Ann Dowd is amazing as the despicable Aunt Lydia.
And, speaking of great performances, there were a few on display in Part II of the season 2 premiere. Check out my thoughts on Part II, entitled “Unwomen,” including my take on the dreaded colonies.