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TV Review: The Handmaid's Tale (Season 2)


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“All we leave behind is the uniform. Wife. Handmaid. Martha. Mother. Daughter. Girlfriend. Queen. Bitch. Criminal. Sinner. Heretic. Prisoner. ”

The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale goes beyond its title, the book and first season in telling us not just the story of “a Handmaid”, but the tales of every handmaid, martha, econowife and wife in Gilead. The misogynist theonomic state oppresses the “fallen women”, as Aunt Lydia calls the Handmaids, but also every other woman and girl. 

Names throughout have tremendous weight. They symbolise each woman’s agency, whether physical or mental.  The first episode, when Offred escapes, she announces her freedom by narrating: “My name is June Osborne”.  After she is recaptured, Offred’s demand that Aunt Lydia call her by her “fucking name” is met by her name being weaponised against her through the body of Omar, a man who helped her, and her real name June. Lydia tells Offred if she is a “good girl” she can stay alive ,but  “June will be executed.” For a while the event destroys all sense of June’s agency and identity as she gives into Gilead, mind and soul. The handmaid funerals following the attack in which Lydia promises that women like “Ofryan, Ofleo” and “Ofhal” will be remember is contrasted with their real names remembered in Canada.

The Martha who helps Janine’s baby Angela, is revealed as a Dr. Hudson before.  When June and Hannah finally meet in episode 10, June is told she is now “Agnes” ,but slowly through June’s love we see “Hannah Banana” still exists. The name of June’s new child likewise expresses June’s connection to other women. Originally she is Holly, after June’s mother, but Serena chooses Nichole.  Eventually Serena’s love and sacrifice for her makes June decide the baby should be called Nichole. The pivotal display of women’s power and agency through their names and identity however comes when the letters of women in Gilead, last season’s May Day, get to Canada through Nick with Moira and Luke releasing them.  The “My name..” of the handmaids and Marthas show the true extent of Gilead’s crimes ceasing any possibility of the state working with Canada.  As June tells Holly/Nichole, speaking a “story” wills someone “into existence”. The letters show the women were, and ARE. 

The relationship between June and Serena Joy this season is easily the highlight. The change it brings about in Joy even marking her. Serena represents all women who buy into systems designed to oppress them. As a member of its elite she doesn’t notice its impact on her and her loved ones until it’s too late. She is a woman that does terrible things, but she has the capacity for good. She is complicated and this season shows her self-realisation of Gilead’s evil. As flashbacks show, her books were early propaganda for Gilead. A would-be assassin shot and injured her, leaving Serena unable to carry children. She can’t be a mother to her own child and can’t write in Gilead. June’s child is the only reward for her struggles. Following the explosion, with Commander Waterford incapacitated, he asks Serena to do admin and send over his work to the hospital. He unintendedly brings Joy and June together in partnership as they do his work and even start making decisions without his permission. June notes that while she is “a fallen woman”, in Serena’s case “this is new”. She seems “pretty fucking happy” about falling, June concludes.  

The women promise they won’t forget each other’s efforts. Serena goes too far however when she forges Fred’s hand to allow a former paediatrician, Dr. Hudson, now a Martha, to treat Janine’s baby Angela, who is ill. She is whipped by Fred when he gets out. Episode 9 and 10 see Serena turning back her new-found agency to remain behind the comfort of the system’s beliefs, even precipitating a horrific act against June. The tragic death of Eden, Nick’s 15-year-old child bride and econowife reward for serving Gilead, finally wakes her up. Finding Eve’s heavily marked and banned bible, Serena, in response to June asking how she intends to keep Nichole safe, ties to persuade the commanders to legalise reading scripture for girls. For reading from Eve’s bible she has her pinkie cut off. “I tried” she tells June who descends the stairs, intent on action. Serena becomes a true mother when she sacrifices her own chance to raise Nichole to ensure she can get smuggled out to a better life. June rewarding this by deciding Nichole is her daughter’s true name. June and Joy show what women can accomplish when they don’t buy into each other’s oppression, but unite. 

Every episode of the show is beautiful shot even if it seems to snow constantly! In episode one, the fake-execution scene represents the women as cattle. Flung out of trucks, forced down metallic corridors in leather muzzles to find Fenway park full of gallows for them, Kate Bush’s This Women’s Work playing as they all think they’re about to die. The funeral for handmaids killed in the attack is also cinematic, shot from above the black-clad women become a geometric pattern moving in unison for the ceremony.

The country house that June is trapped in for two episodes has its isolation highlighted through extremely wide bird eye shots of June from above. In episode 12, when Commander Waterford demands thanks for making the Hannah reunion happen, June slowly realises he means sex. The facial expressions displayed by Elisabeth Moss here flit between anger, amusement and fear, and show her brilliant acting skills.  Eve and Isaac’s execution is also tragically beautifully shot.  Finally the Marthas working together to get June out, creates an extremelly emotional sequence in the finale. The visual style of The Handmaid Tale, never mind music like X-Ray Specs and Bruce Springsteen, continue to paint a Gilead that is alien, yet also through music and locations, startlingly real. 

Despite issues like the amount of female directed episodes (5) to male (7), and the problems caused by the show's mishandling of race, the show continues to be one of the most relevant and important shows on tv today.

It isn’t perfect, but its the show 2018 needs. 


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