Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale begins with a mock execution of dozens of handmaidens. They’re walked up to a mass gallows in a dystopian Fenway Park, their captors using cattle prods to push them along. Each woman cries, some wet themselves. With nooses around their necks, the floor gives way just a few inches, reminding them how close to death they are at all times.
“Let this be a lesson to you,” Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) menacingly advises. It’s a message that just as easily could be meant for the audience as the terrified women before the Green Monster.
The Handmaid’s Tale has always been a deliberately tough watch. It never shies away from its darkest impulses, with its list of atrocities towards women too long for this space. And if you think that’s the worst of what’s to come, I have some bad news for you.
Last season, I wrote in my newsletter about how awkward it was for me, a straight white man, to watch. It is obviously an expertly-made piece of art. The look created by Reed Morano transports us to a world that looks like nothing else on television and forces us to see the world in the same ways that its protagonists do. The flashbacks from the first two episodes of this second season have reached Lostian levels, telling a single character’s story in two parallel ways, showing us the experiences that have brought them to their current decisions. We’re shepherded on that journey by some of the most impressive acting performances on the small screen.
But I don’t want to say that I enjoy watching The Handmaid’s Tale, because to say so would also be to say that I enjoy watching that list of atrocities. I spend a good chunk of each hour watching through my fingers as I watch someone suffer through yet another inhumanity. Yet I feel a sense of duty to listen. It’s not only showing us the worst case scenarios of troubling social and cultural trends, but also scenarios that are much closer.
In the flashbacks of the first episode, June (Elizabeth Moss) struggles with the balance between motherhood and being her own woman, having to leave work to take care of her sick child. The world is starting to turn at that point – she’s unable to fill her own prescriptions without her husband’s consent – and the nurse implies that having a job makes her a selfish mother. At home, the terrorist attacks that will turn the United States into the Republic of Gilead have just occurred, but a conflicted June chooses to sleep with her child rather than join her husband by the TV.
The second episode brings us back to Emily (Alexis Bledel) and her flashbacks show us her life around the same time. Her gay colleague is hung at their university and her marriage is nullified by sudden law changes. She watches as her wife and their son escape to Canada, unable to do anything more.
June’s world has become unrecognizable to us – Emily’s even more in the wasteland of The Colonies – but they weren’t always that way. They exist on the ashes of our world, a fact we’re reminded of as June hides out in the abandoned Boston Globe offices and as Aunty Lydia threatens the handmaidens over the same loudspeaker that announced a World Series victory for the Red Sox. That slow descent over time is at the heart of The Handmaid’s Tale, a warning of how something like this may come to be, and just what that entails.
Not everybody can or should put up with watching this show. Any number of those atrocities I mention could be deemed “torture porn.” While they exist to show us consequences and stakes in this dystopia, they reject the fundamental principle that television should be an escape. Unlike going to a horror movie for two hours and then returning to the safety of your home, The Handmaid’s Tale hits you where you sleep. Instead, it uses the same brutal methods of Aunt Lydia to remind us all of the worst case scenarios, and that if there’s even a chance of them coming to realization, they need to be taken seriously.