Watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” I often find myself contemplating how a society could let things get that out of hand. I remind myself it’s a work of fiction; a dreadful dystopian vision that could never come to pass. People are too intelligent or reasonable or compassionate to be capable of such cruelty in real life, right? Sometimes I wonder.
When season one of the award-winning Hulu series based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel premiered in 2017 at the dawn of the Trump administration, it felt like a timely and portentous, if sensational, omen. The series’ brutal depiction of a world where religion is used to justify the subjugation and rape of women, the murder or exile of homosexuals and the restriction of free speech and expression hit like a punch to the gut at a time when many fretted over our country’s slide into authoritarianism in the hands of a mentally unfit, misogynistic commander-in-chief and his kakistocracy of cronies, bigots and socially regressive religious zealots.
Now, a year later and in the wake of the #MeToo movement — a year in which powerful men have been rightfully called out for their mistreatment of women — the series returns for a sophomore season that remains both hard to watch and essential viewing for this moment.
If season one felt too real, season two doubles down on that uneasiness, as it explores how the rise of the authoritarian theocracy of Gilead has affected the lives of other segments of the population.
By this point, showrunner Bruce Miller has mostly burned through the original text. However, with Atwood serving as a producer and writer, the show is not in danger of deviating from the author’s vision.
Elizabeth Moss’ June/Offred is still our main protagonist. When we last saw her, she was rallying her fellow handmaids to defy their captors. In the aftermath, the women are tortured for their disobedience, but June is spared when it’s discovered she’s pregnant.
June’s exalted status is short-lived. Soon after, she is rescued by Nick (Max Minghella), the father of her baby and spy for Gilead, who leaves her in the care of the resistance movement Mayday.
In one of the season’s darker moments so far, June hides out in the abandoned headquarters of the Boston Globe. As she wanders the building, she discovers where the paper’s journalists were executed by firing squad. Moved by the sight, June builds a shrine in front of the bullet-ridden, blood-stained wall.
It’s an unsettling, affecting scene that demonstrates just how much of a threat a free press is to authoritarianism, and a not-so-subtle dig at the Trump administration’s hostile relationship with journalists.
We also reconnect with Emily/Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), who’s been exiled to the colonies. The colonies are a brutal nuclear wasteland where infertile women, homosexuals and other enemies of the state are sent to toil and await a slow death. Emily weathers the harsh conditions serving as a field nurse to her fellow inmates.
Flashbacks reveal more of Emily’s backstory. We learn she was a college professor before the universities were purged, and get a chilling look at how violence was used to intimidate and terrorize not only women but also homosexuals.
The flashbacks are a good example of show-don’t-tell storytelling. Over the course of the series, they have been used to provide brief glimpses into how Gilead came to be, without relying heavily on exposition.
Another flashback focusing on June and her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) gives us a glimpse of the attacks on the Capitol and the White House, which the founders of Gilead perpetrated to consolidate their power.
More unsettling, however, is the encounter June has with a nurse who pointedly questions June’s parenting choices. Like the scene in the cafe from last season where June is harassed by a misogynistic employee, it’s another example of how the toxic seeds that gave rise to Gilead had been germinating in people’s minds long before the zealots came to power.
It also serves as a reminder of how easy it is for people to flip that switch when given permission. That’s what makes “The Handmaid’s Tale” so chilling. Over the past two years, we’ve seen that all it takes for people to openly embrace abhorrent ideas and proudly spout hateful rhetoric is someone to tell them it’s OK to do so.
It might feel like hyperbole to say they were headed for a future like Gilead, but right now it’s naive to dismiss the notion entirely. The show does an excellent job of showing that these sorts of things happen slowly, imperceptibly; norms are eroded, systems of government are dismantled, a crisis emerges, things go to hell.
Within the show, there is an important warning to be heeded. When we let fear take hold, when we look the other way as others are marginalized and subjugated, when to choose to keep our heads down because it doesn’t affect us, we become complicit in the crime. The real villains of “The Handmaid’s Tale” aren’t the zealots who rose to power; it’s the regular people who gave it to them.
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New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiere on Hulu every Wednesday.