The Handmaid's Tale: June [REVIEW]

The second season of The Handmaid's Tale ventures into a story not yet told. Having ended at the same point as the novel, the first season ended with Offred aka June being driven off in a black van, to a fate unknown. As the second season's first episode opens, we see the shows answer to a question readers of the book in an unexpected sequence that epitomizes the power of the show both in terms of narrative and visuals. This is where we get into spoilers, so if you haven't seen it yet, turn back now. 

We open on June in the back of the big black van. Her fate is unknown to the subject and viewer alike. While we know in the book, June lived long enough to record her story on a series of cassettes. Where this van leads her to is answered in one of the series most gut-wrenching sequences to date. June is pulled from the back of the van, men with guns surround her as she is unloaded with the other handmaids. They are gagged with leather masks and violently herded down a concrete passageway. The horror and confusion fill the air, contrasting with the stark visuals of their red cloaks and white bonnets. The almost painting like manner in which everything is shot only makes it more horrifying, the beauty of the composition bringing the madness into stronger focus. The women scream and cry as they are beaten with the brunt end of rifles when they fall behind. Alma and June try to join hands, but Alma is tasered.

They are lead towards a light which reveals an abandoned stadium, when June turns around she sees three platforms each fitted with a row of nooses. An executioner marches along the gallows. Then a voice, Anne Dowd's Aunt Lydia bellows scripture as her voice echoes in the darkness that surrounds the floodlights that illuminate the platforms. The notes of Kate Bush's This Woman's Work becomes the haunting soundtrack to this macabre tableau.

Every actress in this scene sells the idea that they are being marched to their apparent death. Some are resigned, eyes vacant and hollow, the end to this nightmare in sight. Other's eyes are wild, like a cornered animal, not willing to die but without any choice or agency in the matter. We see June clasp her hands together in a silent prayer. Alma urinates herself in terror. When they are all fitted with nooses, we have all but forgotten that the show's title indicates that this can't possibly be it, where is the show without its titular handmaids? But without the safety net of the source material, anything is possible.

When the lever is pulled and they drop an inch but find themselves with nooses still loose, we see as shock, gratitude, blind shock and seething rage wash over the faces of the women. In voice-over, we hear June's prayer "Our father, who art in heaven... what the actual fuck?". At this point, the audience has a moment to catch it's breath before we continue to see just what is in store for June, while also seeing the beginning of the end of the USA and the rise of Gilead.

In flashbacks throughout the episode, we see June and Luke, blissfully unaware of what life has in store for them both. A normal morning conversation about Luke needing double A batteries and deodorant when June goes to Wallgreens throws us for a loop when she reminds him he needs to sign her prescription. "Do they really check it?" Luke asks, his tone that of a man who doesn't quite realize the world he has found himself living in. A world in which a woman has to get her husband to sign off on what we realize is her birth control prescription. She says, maybe she can go off of it? Luke is taken by surprise but is it's clear he would love to have another child. We know at this point, the birth rate has already been dropping dramatically since before Hannah was born.

Later June is staring out a window, half-heartedly reviewing rewrites, daydreaming about the possibility of a baby. When her coworker arrives to let her know her phone has been buzzing in the other room (but not without a creepy/sarcastic remark about the subject matter of June's work being sexy). The school has been calling. Hannah's fever has increased, and we learn the school has a strict policy on children being 48 hours without a fever before being at school. When they couldn't reach June, they called an ambulance, despite the nonserious nature of a kid with a bug.

At the hospital, the nurse repeatedly refers to June by Luke's last name despite June's corrections. She accuses June of giving Hannah Tylenol in order to circumvent the school's fever policy so she wouldn't have to miss work. The subtext is clear to June, as a mother, she is expected to devote herself entirely to Hannah, which means being a housewife without a career.

When she arrives home with a sick Hannah, Luke is there watching TV. Men with assault rifles opened fire on Congress. Martial law has been declared. When June goes to take Hannah to bed, Luke tells her there has been an explosion at the White House. On the TV, we see smoke and fire billowing from the building. The uncertain and terrifying new world before her, June's eyes are brimming with fear of the unknown future.

In the present, the handmaids are in a circle, arm extended holding a stone in the pouring rain, as punishment for their refusal to stone Janine to death in the season finale. When Aunt Lydia announces that June has a secret, that she is pregnant, she takes her stone, helps her to her feet and shields her from the cold rain with her umbrella. She has June taken to get a dry change of clothes and then in a scene that despite its strangeness, works so well thanks to the acting of Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia. She goes to ring a church bell, rubbing her face against the rope, tears of joy in her eyes for the miracle of June's pregnancy.

She brings June soup, telling her she is eating for two. When June politely demures that she isn't hungry, Lydia takes her for a walk, threateningly pulling the chair out from under June. She takes her to the bellows of the Red Centre to meet Ofwyatt, a pregnant handmaid who drank drain cleaner and is now shackled to a chain, allowing her just enough room to make it from her bed to a rocking chair. She explains that this is the fate that awaits June if she refuses to be a good girl.

As June obediently eats her soup, the other handmaids are marched in and put in lines. As Lydia had said, they are to be punished. First up is Alma, who is marched to the kitchen of the cafeteria where Aunt Lydia has her handcuffed to the stove, before turning the gas burner on, burning her wrist. As she wails in agony, we see the faces of the other handmaids, knowing they will be next.

Later, we see June at the doctor's office. Serena Joy shows up with a warning. June's smart girl games won't be tolerated any longer. Before she can utter any further malevolent threats, The Commander, and the Doctor, along with some male technicians enter. They perform a vaginal ultrasound confirming the presence of the child. June watches nauseated as Fred and Serena marvel at this "miracle", the child they will take and raise as their own.

When they leave June to get dressed, of the technicians as he is leaving, refers to her by her real name. Thrown by this, she moves to dress and finds a key in her boot with a red square on it. She moves to a back door and finds the same red square above the doorknob. She unlocks it and follows the markers down the stairwell and into the basement. Eventually, she finds a flashlight and is running through the passageways of the hospital basement. Eventually, she ends up in the back of a refrigerated truck filled with the hanging corpses of livestock. Her ride ends at an abandoned warehouse where she is instructed to wait for someone to come. But someone is in the building awaiting her. It's Nick who orchestrated her extraction, using his May Day ties to secure her and their unborn child.

In the final moments, we see June burn her wings and habit. She cuts her hair, which had grown down her back in the time since she was taken to the Red Centre. Realizing she still bears the red tag on her ear that marks her as a fertile handmaid, she takes a pair of scissors and a series of bloody attempts cuts her ear so she can remove the tag, adding it to the fire and declaring her name and most importantly her freedom.

As someone who is a massive fan of the source novel and who desperately wanted to know what happened next, this episode satisfied in a lot of ways, while also setting up what should be another excellent season of the show. Elizabeth Moss continues to face act like no other, imbuing June with a fire and a rage that makes you believe she has what it takes to make it out of this nightmare alive.

The only thing to rival the excellent performances by its award-winning cast is the stunning visuals. Reed Morano who directed the first few episodes of the series is not involved this season, but her fingerprints are all over the show. The juxtaposition of extreme close-ups, displaying the anguish and suffering on the faces of these women and the wide shots that seem like classic paintings from an alternate timeline come to life. While the show is incredibly grounded, it is also highly stylized, with light, shadow, and color essential to building this world.

With 12 more episodes to go in the season, the first episode shows us that despite having moved beyond its source material, there is still plenty of stories to tell in the world of Gilead. Check back later this week for my review of the second episode of season 2, titled Unwomen, in which we see the fate of Emily after she stole a car and used it to attack several men.

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