The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Episode 1 Review: June

We're kicking off episodic reviews of The Handmaid's Tale Season 2...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This Handmaid’s Tale review contains spoilers.

The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2, Episode 1

The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale was so expert in sustaining tension that it was half TV show, half Pilates regime. Watching Offred navigate through Gilead’s sadistic apparatus, I held muscles I couldn’t name as taut as a bowstring for an hour at a time. It was a mettle-testing endurance event – ten episodes of breath-held dread. I didn’t so much look forward to the show’s return as feel the need to go into training for it.  

A strength-building plan (say, 20 reps of blasting a horror movie soundtrack while watching Fox News) might have been a wise undertaking in advance of this new run, which is just as brutal as the first. Not a newton of tension has been released for season two. Gilead is the same barbarous prison, and its zealots, as typified by Ann Dowd’s monstrous but compelling Aunt Lydia, are every bit as dangerous. 

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It makes sense that nothing’s changed. The season two opener picks up from the very point the season one finale left off. After leading the handmaids in a passive revolt by refusing to stone Janine to death, June was seized by the Guardians and driven away in a black van. “Trust me,” was the last thing Nick said to her.

She was right to do that. By the end of this episode, Nick and his resistance connections had choreographed June’s escape from captivity. She finished the premiere head shorn and dripping blood but, as she put it in a rousing monologue, “free”. 

If June had delivered those words in a season finale, they’d have felt triumphant. Hearing her say them with nine episodes to go feels worryingly like tempting fate. This is Gilead after all, where hope goes to die. As Commander Waterford told his lackey on the phone, finding the missing Handmaid is the state’s first priority. She’s carrying precious cargo. 

We saw last season how pregnancy made a handmaid’s stock soar. When the household wrongly assumed that June had conceived a child, she was instantly elevated. Until her period came and showed her for the worthless, empty whore she was, extra portions and cosy little platitudes rained down. 

This real pregnancy rescued June from the prison camp-style torture to which the other handmaids were subjected for refusing to murder Janine. The special treatment served two purposes – it cossetted God’s vessel while driving a wedge between the leader of the handmaid rebellion and her fellow soldiers. While the others were being tortured, Aunt Lydia put warm, dry, fed June on full view. Just as the handmaids clinging to each other while being herded into the stadium were forced apart, the solidarity between June and her peers must also be broken down. 

The episode’s flashbacks took us to the day the US constitution was broken down and martial law was declared as a result of the Sons of Jacob’s terrorist attacks on the Capitol and the White House. While power was being seized on a national scale, smaller infringements were being made on June’s autonomy. The story of Hannah’s sick day and the line of questioning it sparked contained a raft of assumptions about motherhood: A good mother should cease to exist in her own right. A career and personal fulfilment must always be sacrificed for the saintly honour of raising a child. Working mothers will always be judged and will always be found wanting… The Handmaid’s Tale is skilled at showing how strands of thought prevalent in the real world prepared the ground for Gilead’s extremes. Each time June Osbourne was called Mrs Bankole—a name that wasn’t hers but one that better suited the patriarchal worldview of the hospital staff—a little piece was chipped away. Enough chipped-away pieces, and before you know it you’re being led to the scaffold in a muzzle.

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That gallows trick was clear for what it was from the start. Handmaids are an economic resource and far too valuable for Gilead to execute. Knowing that June wouldn’t hang though, didn’t make the sequence any less tense or doom-laden. Once again, by keeping Elisabeth Moss’ miraculous face in the centre of screen, we experienced the unsettling horror of it all playing out in her eyes.

So far, season two feels like a continuation rather than a rejig. There’s an increased scope now that June has broken free of the Waterford home, but it’s all drenched in precisely the same level of dread. Bolstered by all those awards and rave reviews, The Handmaid’s Tale creators evidently knew their showwasn’t broke and so blessedly, they didn’t fix it.