The first season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale seemed like it couldn’t come at a more topical time. It fell within the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, when there were so many startling headlines that season one felt like a not-so-distant future. Season two, which started streaming on Hulu in late April of this year, came at a time with just as many startling headlines, but a growing numbness to the political turmoil that seems to keep worsening. By comparison to the first season, the following season is darker, scarier and more unbelievably twisted, as it moves past the universe building and plot points that make up Margaret Atwood’s book (from which the show came), continuing the character and plot development past its conclusion.
The first season’s addictive qualities come from the horror of seeing this universe play out on screen, but also from flashbacks to the period before Gilead (the extremist and patriarchal republic that replaces the United States) that look all too familiar. Season two’s fear factor is in the expansion of this universe, but also in the use of images in the linear time of the show that continue to exist in our history books, in the news, and in real life. We see June being guided in her passage to Canada. We see handmaids and others (spoiler ahead) with missing hands, fingers, and eyes. These familiar and fearful images that are used to speculate a world that oppresses most of the population, especially women, make it clear that the goal of The Handmaid’s Tale as a whole, but particularly the second season, is to beg its viewers to not let this world become a reality. Still, there are glimmers of hope within acts of true selflessness and kindness from citizens of the dystopia that tell viewers that the show’s characters are based on reality; not everyone is inherently evil and if there is a way into this hellish reality, there is a way out.
On more than one occasion within the second season, June is given opportunities to escape Gilead with the help of smugglers by hiding in the backs of trucks, abandoned buildings, warehouses, and people’s homes, as well as running through fields of tall grass, forests, and backyards in constant fear of Gilead’s law enforcement. These scenes are shadowy, with light streaming in through cracks or shining harshly against the night, which aid the sense of suspense in whether or not she is going to make it out. These escape scenes harken back to the 1800s – to the Underground Railroad – where instead of handmaids and other oppressed groups fleeing desperately to the safety of Canada, escaped slaves made the fearful passage from southern plantations into northern states or Canada. Like June, they stayed in safe houses and were guided by people that were willing to risk their lives to bring innocent human beings out of danger and oppression and into the safety of freedom. People have studied the Underground Railroad as early as elementary school history class, but the images remain unfamiliar because they are so far removed from modern life. We know what the Underground Railroad was because of stories and historical research, but it is impossible to know what the fear and anxiety of escape from systematic danger looks like in that context. In this case, the viewer gets a tangible picture of reality for so many escaped slaves of the past that could be made real again if a totalitarian regime were to take over. These scenes are scary not just because of the cinematography and suspenseful music, but because of the sense of reality and possibility in these moments. Yet, the forces that conducted both the Underground Railroad and The Handmaid’s Tale’s version are those of pure goodness and selflessness. We know from the violence and punishments in the show and book that the stakes are incredibly high and that these people are risking being horrifically tortured or murdered, and still they remain a part of a resisting emergency force to get people out and safe from Gilead. Even in moments of fear, the show demonstrates the prevailing message to viewers that hope can be woven into even the darkest moments and that good will always exist in people’s hearts.
Gileadean law enforcement is as dystopian as it is terrifying, but that is not to say that this kind of law enforcement has not existed in different time periods and parts of the world. For handmaids, punishment for trying to run away is whipping the soles of the convict’s feet. They also face losing eyes or hands as punishments for disorderly conduct and defiance. Hangings make up the majority of punishments for a variety of crimes, including the crime of being a priest, rabbi, gay, or a doctor that performed abortions. The lightest punishment is the first offense for reading while female: the amputation of a finger. Granted, not all of these punishments are historical and many are exaggerated, but as real as beheadings were in France during the reign of terror, and amputations in ancient civilizations and some African and Arab countries today, it is believable that a government that governs based on fear would do this. These punishments are terrifying, which is exactly why they are placed in this speculative context, but there is truth in this fear of government and their capabilities. What if we all lived in constant fear of our government? People of color in America have for ages already.
The effect of this sort of control on the characters in the show is a mix of humiliation and anger. In an act of protection for her daughter (born by June), Serena Joy reads a passage from the Bible to a board of commanders, including her own husband, to try to legalize women reading so that they could continue to study God’s word. As a result, Serena Joy loses a finger, and Yvonne Strahovski’s portrayal of Serena Joy’s despondency, pain, and humiliation say it all even before she utters “I tried.” She cannot believe that society has become this oppressive. We see throughout the season that Serena Joy played a role in building Gilead, but this scene makes it seem as if she feels guilty for helping create this society. Previously out of character for her, she shows her good side when she lets June take her daughter when she runs away. Anyone that could have possibly created such a society seems inherently evil, but people as well as characters on TV are layered, as Serena Joy’s reactions to having law enforcement take her finger show us.
When I finished watching the season finale of the second season, I remember screaming on the phone with my sister about the ending. For that reason, I will leave that up to you to watch and judge for yourself. As my sister’s and my breathless discussion started to calm down, we came to an interesting conclusion: neither of us knew very many men that watched the show. We also concluded that this could be because The Handmaid’s Tale is largely a female narrative that some men might not be able to relate to as closely. Regardless, I urge viewers of all backgrounds to attempt to stomach the horrors presented in the show because it is indeed a remarkable production and speculation of events past the span of the book and into Americans’ deepest fears for their country. This horror can be eye opening and shocking enough to help people out of their feelings of numbness at the day’s headlines. Further, it is a reminder that there is always good nature that can be found in the most evil tendencies of humanity. There are images in the show that are horrific and not for the faint of heart, but for those that dare, this is fear that can motivate us to act if not for ourselves then for love for our fellow human beings.
Robin Kopfis an editorial intern atTikkunmagazine. She is a recent graduate with honors from University of California-Santa Cruz with a BA in Literature.