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Hulu’s long-anticipated Margaret Atwood adaptation isn’t afraid of going off the script in its second season. Entitled “June,” the first episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale”’s return starts off with a public hanging, in which all the handmaids are muzzled, herded by dogs and men, and forced into nooses in a dilapidated Fenway Park. All the while, Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” vocalizes rather unfittingly (given the show’s typical somber anxiety) in the background. It’s unlikely that the show would kill off its heroine in the first episode, so this scene is pure clickbait. But look past the misstep and give the first episode a chance. The melodramatic hook does not do “June” justice.
As evidenced by Season One’s popularity, both Atwood and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” find their power in subtlety and restraint, the tension between normalcy and horror. Atwood writes monstrosities with an eerie calmness, detailing how the handmaids are reproductive machines for her dystopian society’s powerful families. Her prose is mediated by the snarky comments of the story’s protagonist, Offred, or June (played by Elisabeth Moss in the TV series). Likewise, the Hulu adaptation mirrors the book’s tone with muted colors and filtered lighting, its confined state only punctuated by June’s narration. Her voice is first heard after it’s revealed that the public hanging was just a set-up, a cheap scare tactic (for both the handmaids and the show’s viewers). “Our father, who art in heaven. Seriously?” she asks. The show cuts to the title card. “What the actual fuck?”
But even after the tacky first scene, “The Handmaid’s Tale” quickly remembers how to captivate an audience using the same method as before. While the show spends a little too long focusing on Aunt Lydia’s (Ann Dowd) joy over the news of June’s pregnancy (it’s nearly impossible to sympathize with a woman who thrives on torturing others), the show finds its grounding in focusing on the handmaids—the women who dared to revolt in the last season’s finale. One by one, each handmaid has her hands burned by a kitchen stove, as the others wait their turn in line. In between them is June, who is forced to eat soup at a cafeteria table under their watchful eyes. Not much is said, but everything is implied: the resentment the other handmaids must feel toward June, who evades punishment because of her pregnancy; the potential split in the budding camaraderie that saved Janine (Madeline Brewer) from being stoned; the loss of the little power they thought they had in the Republic of Gilead. The subtlety somehow heightens the stakes, while the process of piecing together the full implications lengthens the horror.
There are other quieter moments that also have hefty impacts. Touch seems to be a relevant theme in “June,” particularly platonic kisses. Gilead is essentially devoid of unregulated contact, so it’s startling when Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the woman who plans to take June’s baby as her own, kisses June on the forehead after a long history of emotional and physical cruelty. “God bless you,” she says. There’s a brief moment of affection in that sterilized hospital room, making Serena Joy sympathetic for just a second.
But Serena Joy’s small appreciative gesture is nothing in comparison to June’s momentous one. June (potentially) escapes her life as a handmaid by stowing away in a butcher’s truck after following pieces of red tape to freedom, possibly left behind by the doctor who addresses June by her real name. After she is let out of the truck by yet another kind person, she hugs him, and kisses him on the cheek. It’s shocking—handmaids have no power in Gilead. June isn’t allowed to have physical or emotional connection to anyone, not even her fellow handmaids (earlier, June tried to hold another’s hand at the public hanging, but was forcibly torn away).
But June breaches that boundary, and does so again when she strikes a match and lights her old uniform on fire. It feels like a breath of fresh air, not just for June, but for the narrative itself. It’s a new season, and the writers behind “The Handmaid’s Tale” may be picking up on the fact that it’s time to leave Gilead behind and carve a new path on new territory. World-building and world-expansion are tricky things, but subtlety is key. If the writers can maintain the same quiet, deft hand that made the first season so provocative and not devolve into theatrics like they did with the opening spectacle of “June,” they won’t have any trouble keeping the first episode’s fire alive in the rest of Season Two.
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