Each week Lex & Max will discuss the latest episode of The Handmaids Tale, season two.
Recap: In episode one June and co. face the consequences for June’s refusal to stone another Handmaid to death in the form of a staged ‘execution’, Dostoyevsky style. The handmaids’ then find themselves holding rocks in the rain as further punishment when Aunt Lydia reveals that June is pregnant. June finds herself reunited with the Commander and Serena Joy in the OBGYN’s office before making a hasty and mysterious escape. Meanwhile flashbacks to the time before Gilead show us how everything has pretty much always been horrible.
In episode two June jumps from safe house to safe house in an effort to escape the regime. Meanwhile we meet up with Emily, moored in The Colonies, who encounters an unexpected foe. Flashbacks reveal Emily’s life and struggles in the world before Gilead.
Episode 1: “June”
Lex: The show has become an unapologetic grotesquery. I’m sad to see they’ve left Atwood’s text behind and embraced an ethos of off-the-wall horror. The opening scene of “June” in particular was both horrific and dramatically overblown. The audience knows that none of these handmaids can be killed, not least because June is among them. The drama is all manufactured with moody lighting, Fenway Park, and a Kate Bush song. I couldn’t feel it because it had a weak narrative base. Very disappointing.
Max: I was at the edge of my seat! I would have been highly disappointed if it turned into what I was dreading (a dream) but I was satisfied with the result being another form of torture. I feel like June – and the audience, through her – felt a sense of triumph in the finale when all of the handmaids stood up to Lydia and refused to stone Janine, so it makes sense to me that they’d be forced to pay for that in extremely dehumanizing ways. Watching the all of the girls cry and face death was emotionally crushing. I thought the direction in that scene was great, and my heart was pounding the entire time. Did I think June would die? No, but I didn’t know what to expect, and I definitely felt awful for what they were all being put through.
Lex: In the next sequence Aunt Lydia has taken charge again and I have to say – I’m very unimpressed with her as a character. She’s just a cartoon of a duplicitous soldier of the state.
Max: Aunt Lydia is really carried by Ann Dowd’s performance. I find her endlessly watchable and, even though she might seem a bit one-note evil, she terrifies me. That being said I would like to see further development for her. I’d love to see how she came to be and what drives her devotion to Gilead.
Lex: I really don’t think the show cares about character development at all anymore. It’s like the writers don’t have any time for it, and are too busy writing more torture and humiliation scenes. The overblown drama from the first scene runs through this episode. Like – when Aunt Lydia threatens June with confinement for continued misbehaviour; I’m not sure why June is supposed to care. Five seconds later June is being forced to eat soup and listen to a woman scream while her skin is burned off. It’s like ‘would you rather?’ without the ‘rather’. There’s no stakes.
Max: In terms of character development, I do think we got a fair bit of that throughout season one, especially for characters like June, Emily (Ofglen), and Serena Joy. I can give them a pass for not exactly treading new ground with the characters in the first two hours of season two as they’re stepping outside of the source material for the first time and had a lot of new world to setup and explore. I imagine that we’ll see more growth throughout the season. I will say, however, that I thought Emily’s storyline in the second hour was great… more on that later!
Lex: What about the flashbacks? I found them insufferable. June gets working-mother shamed by some stone-faced nurse for giving her kid a Tylenol? It’s a wonder June ever got out of bed in the morning, past or present.
Max: I feel you on this. I often wonder how any of these characters go on. Even pre-Gilead things were getting extremely miserable for quite some time, and I think they explored that well in the flashbacks throughout both of these hours.
Lex: Well I thought June’s emotional response to the nurse shaming relative to the violent military coup ridiculous. Rather than making sure she’s informed about the, you know, destruction of the government, June decides to comfort her mildly feverish child. I mean, the gesture is sweet and positive about motherhood but in context it’s damn irresponsible.
Max: I think it was just genuine fear and sadness that kept June at her daughter’s side rather than in front of the TV. Her husband was watching the news, so it’s fair to assume that she’d find out what was going on regardless. I think we were simply seeing her maternal instincts kick in during such a confusing, certainly terrifying, crisis, especially given the shaming that she endured at the hospital earlier. At this point June had already seen the world begin to crumble, so I took it as her simply wanting to be with her daughter for comfort.
Lex: Then at the end of the episode June symbolically burns her clothes, chops off her hair, part of her ear, and stands up again in the world like Sandra Bullock at the end of Gravity. Except more blood and gore. Also trauma.
Max: I love that we fell on total opposite sides of this episode. I truly enjoyed it from start to finish (I watched it twice!). I thought the ending was pretty liberating. I definitely didn’t expect to see June making a dash from Gilead so early in the season – or at all – and cutting out her tracking device was, though gruesome, a nice touch. That said I felt very much the same as I did when she refused to throw the stone at the end of last season. She was brave and obviously feels great in the moment, but there are definitely going to be dark consequences for all of this going forward.
Episode 2: “Unwomen”
Lex: After episode one I thought to myself “Well this June escaping thing has happened quite a few times. It’s has go somewhere this time.” I was hoping they would throw in some of that awesome character development for June rather than having her experience endless political turmoil and violence.
Unfortunately the only development to speak of is that, and this has been recently confirmed, Elisabeth Moss’ face is permanently frozen that way.
Max: Oh, I think Elisabeth Moss is so damn great in this. I’ve been a fan since Mad Men, and I really adore her work in this series. I do think she can come off a bit wooden at times here, but I believe a big part of that is that June has become so hardened from all that she’s seen and gone through. I think that’s why it’s so jarring when we see her smiling and laughing in some of her flashbacks. There was such a stark contrast between the lovey-dovey flashback scene with her and Luke in the first episode and the harsh, almost violent, sex between her and Nick in the abandoned Boston Globe building.
Lex: Don’t get me wrong, I like Elizabeth Moss as a performer and Mad Men is my favourite show of all time. A performer is only as good as the material, so I can’t blame her performance for the shortfalls in the narrative. That being said her performance in The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t bad, and the wooden quality is attributable to the situation but I think her actions and reactions are predictable, and her motivations are transparent.
Back to episode two: June wasn’t in this episode much. As mentioned I had hoped that her change in situation might make for some more interesting story for her. Instead we’re all brought on a glorious joy ride to a horrible labour camp to see more women be tortured!
Max: Aunt Lydia mentioned how awful The Colonies were supposed to be, and while it wasn’t exactly fun viewing, I’m glad we got an actual glimpse of it. I think that during this season we’ll see the world expanding a lot now that the writers are free from the pages of the book.
Lex: I hope you’re right about that but I’m not super optimistic the writers will do anything with it. The conclusion of Emily’s storyline in this episode was potentially interesting and looked a bit like character development. The system continues to exert its toxic influence on her. I’m curious as to how she’ll continue to react within the confines of that system.
Max: Yea, we’ve seen Emily get radical before but this was a new level. As gruesome as it was, I couldn’t help but cheer internally when I realized that she was killing the commander’s wife and said to her, “Every month, you held a woman down while your husband raped her. Some things can’t be forgiven.” It’s not much, but it felt like sweet revenge: a small victory in life that, for Emily, has been incredibly hard and brutal for years now. I thought her flashbacks were really well done, as well, and if nothing else served to show us just how much she lost so quickly – her job, her friends, her wife and child. Like June, I’d love to see Emily reclaim some of that this year. I won’t hold my breath for a happy ending, though.
Lex: I think the problem with what Emily said to the Wife is that it’s just another example of the writing using the characters as political mouth-pieces which is in large part the reason why I find the story so one note. I won’t go so far as to say all political art is bad, but I think when you cross politics with ideology and then make art about it you’re going to run into some problems. If your goal is to promote a particular political ideology (which The Handmaids Tale is undoubtedly doing) then you’re totally constrained within the confines of those ideas. Especially in a temporal medium like a TV show when you just have to make the narrative regurgitate your ideology over and over again. I think being off book has been a tremendous disservice to the story – they’re expanding on Atwood’s novel in the most basic way possible, meta-referencing our current socio-political conversation, and just blasting us with ideological commentary.
Another issue I have is the relentless bleakness. I have a similar issue with Darren Aranofsky’s Requiem for a Dream: I don’t believe any life can exist without pockets of joy, no matter how small. At least not in story land. By keeping everything so bleak and dreary we’re denied any understanding of their humanity. Life is just a horrifying struggle. What’s the point of that? How can they be redeemed?
Max: I actually really enjoyed both episodes but I don’t totally disagree with all of your points. I have some friends who dropped this during season one because the show just got to be too much for them. I basically watch every episode with my hands over my eyes, and I kind of love that about it. It’s high-anxiety throughout, but these two episodes did feel particularly bleak and especially gruesome. That said, I think it sort of comes with the territory. Clearly the writers are trying to paint a picture of a dystopian alternate reality (that doesn’t feel too far-fetched, eerily), and with these two episodes they tried to push the audience – and the character of June / Offred – further and further. For me, it worked.