Monday, April 30, 2018

The Handmaid’s Tale 2x01 and 2x02 Review: “June” & “Unwoman” (Speed Walking to Totalitarianism) [Contributor: Mel]

"June" & "Unwoman"
Original Airdate: April 25, 2018

It is time again for a horrifying look at misogyny on a rampant and fundamental federal level, and for once it’s not the news! The Handmaid’s Tale is back to venture into a completely unknown world. Literally. With the first season ending right where the book left off 30 years ago, everything from this point on is new territory. You’ll remember last year this show was a cultural juggernaut in the world of a tumultuous election and a spotlight on women’s rights. It won eight Emmys and two Golden Globes, as well as critical acclaim across the board.

And so this new season opened with a two-parter to kick things off. Last season we left as Offred was being carted off and the Waterfords watched their best chance at having a child being lead to certain oblivion. There was, off course, a spark of hope in Offred’s reunion with her husband and daughter.


"June" opens with striking scene of the rebellious Handmaids led to an overgrown Fenway Park, which has been converted into gallows. They are, ultimately, spared but forced to undergo cruel punishments as penance for refusing to stone Janine (Janine herself is now on her way to the Colonies). June is quickly spared from further corporal punishment when Aunt Lydia learns she’s pregnant, but she is forced to watch while her fellow Handmaids are tortured as a result of following her into rebellion (one gruesome scene involves handcuffing the hands of the Handmaids to a gas stove top and igniting it).

During her ultrasound appointment, Serena and Fred are overjoyed at the image of their child and attempt to make amends with their former Handmaid. After the appointment, June is left a key by the attending nurse which ultimately leads her to a butcher truck that gets her safely away to a discrete warehouse where Nick is waiting. She cuts her hair, burns her Handmaid robes, and cuts the tag out of her ear, proclaiming herself June Osborn.

In flashbacks, meanwhile, Hannah has come down with a cold and the school calls while June is at work. They inform her that children are required to be fever-free for 48 hours before they can return to school and — since they could not get a hold of June — they’ve called an ambulance. At the hospital, June is questioned by the nurse about giving Hannah Tylenol to break the fever and scolded for trying to avoid missing work. June is told that if she cannot prioritize the safety of her child then they will be forced to make other arrangements. Shaken, June arrives home with Hannah and learns that the Senate has been targeted in a massive shooting during a session and an explosion has gone off at the White House.

"Unwoman" opens with June being delivered to a run down and abandoned version of The Boston Globe where she’s instructed to wait for further developments. Meanwhile in the Colonies, Emily (formally Ofglen) is forced to work on radiated land with several other “unwomen.” Emily acts as the barracks doctor for the sick women. One night, Mrs. O’Connor — formerly a Commander’s wife — arrives at the Colonies to a cold welcome but Emily seems to befriend her before ultimately poisoning her for facilitating rape as wife of a Commander. At The Globe, June is horrified to see the remains of an execution scene for the journalists and insists to Nick that she needs to get out. He, in turn. insists it won’t be safe for her to leave for weeks. Ultimately she relents to waiting.

In the flashbacks Emily, a professor in biology, is relieved of her fall classes after the “new board” learned she had a picture of her wife and child as the background on her phone. A few weeks later her boss — who is also gay — is left hanging outside one of the buildings with the word “faggot” spray-painted beneath him. Emily and her wife attempt to flee to her wife’s native Canada but the border patrol declare their marriage no longer valid under the new laws and Emily is forced to stay behind.


While the first season is a look very much at the status quo of Gilead and the possibility of a bubbling resistance beneath the surface, the second season (which goes beyond the last page of Margaret Atwood’s novel) imagines what life on the run — and in a resistance — might look like. But that’s not so much the story in the episode — at least not the one I focused on and came away with. For me one of the best parts of the show continues to be the scenes in the past where we watch the slow burn toward tyrannically theocracy. I think these small bits of change are even more relevant with the publication of Amy Siskind’s new book The List which systematically tracks every time some form of our government or rights was put on the chopping block in Trump’s first year.

To me this is the real triumph of the show. The world of Gilead is horrifying and the scenes throughout are visually stunning to watch but it’s only an abstract concept until you see exactly how a society ended up there. In episode one we see that June suddenly has to have her husband sign off on birth control prescriptions, is no longer allowed to keep her maiden name post-marriage, and is scolded and vaguely threatened into prioritizing caring for her child full time over going to work. Emily, who has a great bit where she knocks down some mansplaining in her lecture hall, is suddenly out of a teaching job because a picture of her wife and child is on her phone. Even more reminiscent of recent past is the revocation of Emily and Syl’s marriage certificate by the government.

It wouldn’t be unacceptable to head into this season with a fair bit of skepticism considering they’re developing a sequel to a book that’s been in print for over thirty years. And there’s always the danger of oversaturation and shark jumping when it comes to dystopian stories in today’s entertainment media. But the grounding of this is in the very real possibility of the United States slipping into some version of Gilead between minor policy changes, growing attitudes of misogynistic pushback on fourth wave feminism, conservative punishment for queer members of society (you know since we have that VP who “wants to hang ‘em all”), and the possibility of mass shootings with assault weapons. The Handmaid’s Tale has always been a warning, above all things. And while I’m interested to see where June goes from here, how Serena copes with another loss of a chance at a child, and how June’s family is fairing, the dark and terrifying way dystopian seems to creep on America in the flashbacks is the most eerie part of the show.


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