Wednesday, April 25, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - Offred is Punished for Her Actions But Still Finds a Way to Resist in 'June'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 2.01 "June"

Offred reckons with the consequences of a dangerous decision while haunted by memories from her past and the violent beginnings of Gilead.

The Handmaid's Tale presented such a bleak world in its first season. Gilead is a place that is so abusive and destructive all in the service of creating life. It was demoralizing to see all of the horrible things that happened to Offred and her fellow handmaids. Offred really struggled with how she could push back in this world that revered the handmaids for their service of creating new life while also oppressing them to ensure that they could never leave that servitude. She learned so much about the way the world was changing when she came to a new posting at the Waterford house. She learned even more about the Eyes, Mayday and Jezebel's. She saw a world that existed around Gilead and knew that things were much more complicated than they seemed on the service. Of course, it was still absolutely devastating when she learned that she was pregnant. All she wanted was to escape from this world and reunite with her daughter. She did get confirmation that Hannah was still alive and growing up as a part of the future generation of Gilead. But she was denied any form of communication with her. It was a way for Serena Joy to leverage her own baby's safety from Offred. But the season still ended on the ominous note of Offred being taken away from the Waterfords. She was taken from her home into a van for mysterious reasons. As such, the show needed to explain right away what was going on with her. Was she discovered as a spy working for Mayday? Would the letters that she isn't suppose to have lead to her execution? Or was this some new form of punishment that would completely reshape her story in Gilead? "June" wastes very little time answering that question. It's not long before the audience learns that it's not just Offred that has been taken. It's all of the handmaids.

It's so disorientating to watch as Offred is forced out of this vehicle and into one giant group with the rest of the handmaids. They are essentially herded like cattle. That's such a potent and horrifying visual. It proves once again that this world and system don't really care about women and their bodies. They only see them as vessels for new life. If the handmaids can't produce children, then they have no use in this society. But now, they are being punished for refusing to stone Janine to death at the end of last season. That was a refusal to act that Offred started. She was the handmaid able to talk Janine off the ledge to give her daughter a chance at a future. It was miraculous that Janine survived the plunge herself. Offred still thought it was merciful to deny this order from Aunt Lydia. It was a moment that showed that the handmaids have power in this world. If they refuse to act, then this entire society comes to a stop. As such, the leaders of this world need to put them in their place. This is such a bleak and traumatizing start to the new season. It shows that there is nothing this world isn't willing to do to force the handmaids into submission. It is willing to convince all of them that they are about to be hanged. Once they emerge from this underground tunnel, they see that they are actually in Fenway Park. It's a landmark of the old America. But it's a terrifying setting for this ordeal because it's the mixture of the new world overcoming and destructing the old one. They see the nooses hanging for each of them. They are forced onto the platforms with the ropes tied around their necks. They see the executioner release the lever that would effectively kill all of them. It's only then that they realize that Gilead could never follow through on this action. They just needed to scare all of them into believing it as a real possibility to know just what it's like to plead for their lives in this way.

It's completely creepy and sinister to watch as Aunt Lydia rolls into the scene. She just slithers about continuing to quote scripture as a way to convince her girls that their actions had consequences that were severe and costly. This is hardly the only punishment she has designed for them as well. At a certain point, the show runs the risk of being too brutal and traumatic. After awhile, it could be seen as nothing more than misery porn where the audience is continuing to watch the show put these characters through the worst of circumstances. And yes, that has always been a sufficient enough reason for people to turn away from the show after awhile. It is bleak and depressing. But I still find it captivating because there's still more to the story than the specific traumas. The trauma helps inform so much of the character actions while the show reveals new layers to this world and just how complicated its creation actually was. So, it is agonizing to watch as Aunt Lydia forces the handmaids to stand outside in the pouring rain with their arms out holding a rock. It's a test to prove just how grueling it can be to hold onto this stone for as long as possible. The trauma is then finished with the handmaids being tied to a gas stove as they suffer severe burns to their hands. That last one really could be a bridge too far. It shows just how masochistic Aunt Lydia really is. She enjoys this punishment. But the show doesn't spend too much time focusing on the screams of pain during that time. Instead, it's more focused on Offred and how she finds herself completely exempt from all of this. She doesn't have to endure as much torture because she is pregnant and that news quickly spreads and becomes a celebration.

Of course, Aunt Lydia still has to drive the fear into Offred as well. There's such a wonderful acting moment for Ann Dowd upon getting this news and realizing that she potentially hurt a new baby while also needing to pivot this moment into a celebration. She learns what's going on right after she zapped Offred too. In one of her rare private moments as a character, she is seen getting very emotional as she races to unlock a room. That could be remorse. But it ultimately plays as tears of joys because she gets to ring the ceremonial bells that will fill the whole country with news of a new pregnancy. That makes it clear that she's really only concerned about the baby and not the woman carrying it. In fact, she sees Offred as the head troublemaker. She was the one who started the resistance to the stoning. It was Offred who stepped up and made a big show of not wanting to throw the stone. As such, Aunt Lydia weaponizes the truth about what happened to Janine. From her perspective, it would have been kinder to give Janine a quick death from stoning. Now, she'll die from having to work in the Colonies. That's a much slower and more agonizing way to go. That place remains a threat that the show has teased over and over again. It's yet to actually be seen. But considering Madeline Brewer is still a series regular on the show, it seems inevitable that it will be introduced shortly. All of this could be an effective threat against Offred to get her to see the error of her ways. It does not. Instead, that moment comes when Aunt Lydia shows that her life and freedom in Gilead could get a whole lot worse. She takes her down to meet another pregnant handmaid who is chained in a basement with no lights that she can turn on. That shows how an act of deviance can still cost Offred greatly if she continues to push back against this system.

Freedom proves to be a huge theme of this premiere. In her grand speech, Aunt Lydia talks to the handmaids about getting freedom from the corruption of the old world in Gilead. Before, they had the freedom to do anything and dealt with those personal consequences themselves. Now, they have been given new life and purpose that has meaning and value in this world. That's the way she rationalizes everything that she does. Meanwhile, Offred receives freedom from the cruel punishments because she is pregnant. Serena Joy is blessed with freedom from her animosity and anger upon seeing her baby on the sonogram for the first time - even though it's still too early to hear a heartbeat. One minute, she was threatening Offred for jeopardizing this baby. And the next, she's praising Offred for giving her this miracle. But the most important freedom comes during the last third of the premiere. A group of people are helping Offred escape from Gilead. That's a huge deal. Offred has been looking for a way to escape this horrific and controlling regime. She's had to shut off a part of her life just in order to provide this service for the men who deem themselves worthy. She's been continually raped and made to feel less than. And now, she has a chance to leave this world behind. She runs towards that. She feels the urgency to make a run for it as quickly as possible. It's a journey filled with so much peril. She could be caught at any possible moment - by the guard in the stairwell, by some mysterious object waiting in the dark corridor, by the people driving the getaway vehicle. She has no idea who is helping her or why. She has no idea what future awaits her as soon as the truck drops her off. She's so appreciative of the help she has received. It feels like she is finally escaping this life. She is free. Then, she gets confirmation that that is exactly what's happening. It has all been arrangement by Nick as well. He told her to trust him when she was taken away by the soldiers in the finale. And now, he is proving that that trust has been earned. He wants to give her freedom again. He is doing so because it's likely that her baby is biologically his. It's such a freeing moment when Offred removes her handmaids clothes, cuts off her hair and saws the identifiable red staple off her ear. She throws them into the fire as an act of defiance. This is her refusing to go back to that life. She is free. She sees herself as June once more. She is quietly confident. But the world is still full of perils. She hasn't escaped Gilead just yet. She's being asked to lay low for awhile. Plus, there's the complicated situation with Hannah and whether or not June can actually leave her daughter behind in this world. But right now, it's so empowering to think that the season is starting off with June as a free woman once more.

Some more thoughts:
  • "June" was written by Bruce Miller and directed by Mike Barker.
  • The various flashbacks have proven just how the world reacted before the creation of Gilead to the rising infertility rates. The show has made a point of showing that the United States government wasn't handling things any better before they were overthrown by the leaders of Gilead. In fact, it's so traumatizing to think that a simple fever with Hannah is enough to force a hospital visit which leads to June being judged for her decision to work.
  • It's also just so casually brutal to listen to the nurse repeatedly refuse to call June by her actual name. To her, she just doesn't see a world in which the man, woman and child don't share the same last name. That makes her view June differently because it gives off the perception that she cares more about her identity than doing what's best for her daughter in a world where any simple mistake could turn out to be lethal.
  • The flashbacks last season proved that it was already way too late when June and Luke decided to make their run to Canada. By that point, they already should have been across the border. It shows that sometimes it takes awhile before one realizes just how horrifying the world has quickly become. Right now, they are witnessing the terrorist attacks on the Capitol and White House. They see the government being overthrown. But it's also more important for them to care for their sick daughter.
  • Will June remain free for the entire season? Or is she bound to be captured and forced to put on the Offred identity once more? Commander Waterford has always been portrayed as one of the leaders of Gilead. He served in its creation and is one of its most capable leaders. He has a military background and the influence to lead a very extensive search for his missing handmaid and the baby she is carrying.
  • It's also very important to note that Serena Joy knows exactly where Hannah is and just how personal that connection is to June. She knows that she can exploit that bond in order to bring her own child back to her. She doesn't want to lose this baby. As such, it should be very interesting to see how far she is willing to go in order to find Offred and get her to comply.
  • The "Previously on" segment at the start of this premiere is mostly a summation of everything that happened last season and not just the storylines most important for this episode. As such, it reminds the audience of what happened to Emily and Moira even though they aren't seen here at all. Plus, there's no update as to what Rita has done with the letters that Offred hid in her bathroom.