This piece contains spoilers for Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
June (Elizabeth Moss) is right where we last saw her at the end of Season 1 of “The Handmaid’s Tale”: riding in the back of a black van headed to an uncertain fate.
Psychological, emotional and physical torture ensue. What do you hold onto if you can’t see your way out of a place as dark as Gilead, a fundamentalist city on a hill that has conscripted fertile women to be concubines?
If the first two episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Season 2, are any indication, there isn’t much hope ahead. Season 1 held glimmering promises of a new day from a resistance organization known as Mayday. Occasionally, one of the handmaids stepped out of line.
Think back to when June, or “Offred“ as she’s known in Gilead, continues her forbidden relationship with her family’s driver, Nick (Max Minghella) or when Emily (Alexis Bledel) kills a guard in an attempt to escape.
Whatever actions felt like steps forward are now meant to feel like backward mistakes. It leads June to sees an even uglier side of Gilead’s disregard for humanity, like when pregnant women are chained up to protect their unborn child or when one handmaid has her hand burned while the others watch.
The creators have already taken the show past the original book by Margaret Atwood that the series is based on and are now free to write their own fan fiction with the characters.
And the audience is left to wonder just how much worse things can get for the handmaids.
Just two episodes into Season 2, we go well beyond the confines of the book.
The story reunites us with Emily, now a prisoner cleaning radioactive waste on the colonies. We learn more of her back story and the events that led to her tragedy, including her separation from her wife and child as they fled to Canada. Her environment looks like a nuclear concentration camp, a harsh wasteland of orange dirt, grubby blue smocks and very ill people working to their deaths. Emily’s actions turn sour in order to survive and keep some level of autonomy and sanity away from her captors.
The other major development is June’s last-ditch bid for freedom. Along the way, we see and learn much more about what has happened to the world.
Fenway Park has become the site for mass hangings, and the former Boston Globe office and printing press has morphed into a grim “slaughterhouse,” as June describes it. The desks are still decorated with Red Sox and Celtics signs, framed pictures of loved ones and an abandoned DVD of “Friends.“ The multiple bullet holes and bloodstains are evidence, however, that the freedom of the press didn’t carry over to Gilead.
Her newly found freedom, like everything else since this theocratic takeover of the United States, remains an illusion. Unable to go outside or escape, she’s stuck in the old Globe building and forced to make sense of what’s happening. June mourns the dead in a poignant scene where she sets up a memorial for strangers she will never know along with the countless strangers that have disappeared under the regime.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” will continue to feast on our present-day headlines for its scares. The writers are following the news to their extreme conclusions: women losing abortion rights means losing all rights, persecution of refugees and immigrants leads to banishment to the colonies, fear of terrorism and covert operations lead to a hostile takeover by religious zealots promising safety.
The show has been criticized for not adequately addressing racism, and whether that will be amended in Season 2 is yet to be seen.
Gilead has proven to be a house of horror for our time, a place that has taken on new meaning in the Trump era. Is the show now supposed to be an escapist reminder that things can always get worse or does it remain hopeful that we can survive what indignities may come?
Those choices now lie within the show’s writers room.