“Whether this is my end or my new beginning, I have no way of knowing. I have given myself over into the hands of strangers. I have no choice. It can’t be helped. And so I step up into the darkness within or else the light.”
The voiceover gives expression to Offred’s thoughts as she is whisked off in the ominous black van at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, Season 1.
Fans across the world collectively exhaled the breaths they had been holding, as the riveting last episode of the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale ended on this fascinating cliffhanger. As viewers obsessed over Offred’s fate, Season 2 of the show became one of the most awaited in the history of streaming platforms. SonyLIV is streaming the show in India, and we are ecstatic, for it really is an unmissable show. If you haven’t watched it yet, do catch it now to understand what the hullabaloo over the show is all about. You’ll be hooked, we guarantee you that.
Season 1 of the show had swept the Emmys in 2017, and captured audiences’ imaginations with its vivid telling of a moving traumatic story. It had been a true-to-source adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s eponymous 1985 chef-d’œuvre. And it ended where Atwood’s seminal novel ended – at the aforementioned cliffhanger.
Season 1 introduced us to the harrowing, terrifying dystopian world of Gilead, a totalitarian theocratic nation run by right-wing religious fanatics. The United Nations of America has ceased to exist, to be replaced by a dark, dismal country called Gilead. The rulers of Gilead are called Commanders. Women are the most traumatized lot under the chilling law of the new land. They have no rights and freedoms and a fertile womb is the only thing that makes them a valuable national resource in Gilead.
Fertile women become handmaids in the commanders’ homes whose own wives are infertile. They can no longer use their own name. They take on the name of the commander they are to serve – Of Fred, hence Offred; Of Daniel, hence Ofdaniel; Of Warren, hence Ofwarren; and so on. As soon as the Handmaid begets a child to her Commander, she is moved to another post, to serve another commander.
The Handmaids are routinely subjected to rape and torture of the most inhuman kind. Rebellious Handmaids have their tongue sliced off, or an eye gouged out, or an arm chopped off, or soles whipped till they drip blood, or worse, made to serve as prostitutes at the secret brothels where they are called Jezebels. And gender traitors, a Gileadian euphemism for lesbians, have their clitoris chopped off.
Offred, known as June in her earlier life, (Elisabeth Moss) is the Handmaid of one of the most important Commanders of Gilead, Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). His wife is Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski). Nick (Max Minghella) is their driver, and also an Eye (the secret agents of Gilead). He is also the silver lining in Offred’s bleak existence. They have several clandestine encounters, and by the end of Season 1, Offred is pregnant, ostensibly by Fred; but he is impotent, as hinted by his wife, and so we know the impending baby is Nick’s.
Season 1 had us hooked with its traumatizing premise and deeply disturbing visuals of female subjugation. We became invested in its absorbing characters. Season 2 continues in the same vein, only vastly more so. If Season 1 was compelling, Season 2 is downright captivating. It was never going to be easy to take up the story from where it left off in Season 1, what with no source material to fall back upon. But showrunner Bruce Miller takes the story into interesting territory, with numerous riveting and memorable moments to gratify the pickiest of viewers. The first episode sets the tone for the rise of June Osborne, the real woman behind first season’s Offred. Interestingly, there is no mention of the name June in Margaret Atwood’s novel. She is only ever referred to as Offred.
In a gut-wrenching opening sequence, Aunt Lydia (the exceptional Ann Dowd) puts the handmaids through a harrowing faux execution to frighten them into submission and as retribution for their defiance in refusing to stone Janine, formerly Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer) to death. That the sequence is shot at Fenway Park, the iconic home grounds of the Boston Red Sox, converted into an execution ground in Gilead, makes it all the more poignant. It hammers home the suppressive tyranny of Gilead like nothing else does.
As each of their heads is put into a thick noose, the handmaids get more and more petrified by the thought of their imminent hanging. One poor girl even wets her red handmaid’s uniform. That’s not all. They are left out in the pouring rain in freezing sub-zero temperatures, and later burnt with a gas flame. It is a particularly torturous episode to sit through. June, being pregnant, is spared the torture.
The episode ends with June escaping to a safe house with the help of Nick and a few people engaged in the underground resistance movement plotting for the fall of Gilead. She holes up in the headquarters of the erstwhile Boston Globe, which was used as a slaughterhouse by the Gilead regime during the fall of America. It is another poignant reminder of the suppression of free speech and the press in the new governing order. June’s escape bid is foiled however, and we are back to status quo. Though June is caught and restored to the Waterfords, it is a heartening sequence nevertheless.
The backlash by Emily, formerly Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), who had to go through the most unspeakable sufferings in Season 1, is another uplifting feature of Season 2. She poisons a Commander’s wife, stabs Aunt Lydia for daring to taunt her over her clitoris being cut off, kicks and stamps her with raging anger and generally is a rabble-rouser of sorts this season.
Another particularly disturbing storyline is the one about Eden, the 15-year old girl Nick is compelled to marry by the Waterfords, to keep him away from Offred. A disinterested Nick drives Eden into an illicit love affair and elopement with Isaac, a 20-year old boy assigned as Guardian at the Waterford’s home. The pair is caught and publicly executed by drowning. It is a hauntingly terrifying sequence, one that stays with you for days after. The fact that the girl’s own father turns her in is even more affecting, especially for June. She dreads the thought of her new-born daughter being raised in the suffocating patriarchal regime of Gilead.
What, however, is the singlemost exhilarating feature of Season 2 is Serena’s growing disenchantment with the oppressive, suppressive Gileadian laws, the very laws that she helped write. She is whipped with a belt by Fred for a transgression, her finger is chopped off for reading from the Bible (as per Gilead laws, girls and women aren’t allowed to read and write), and the couple faces crushing humiliation during their diplomatic mission to Canada. Yvonne Strahovski is simply fantastic throughout, her expressive eyes and face conveying her increasing fear and foreboding about having helped create the unrestrained monster that is misogynistic Gilead. Will she defect in Season 3? We just can’t wait to find out.
Season 2 also shows the dreaded Colonies for the first time, a toxic wasteland that is mentioned several times in Season 1, but never shown. The Colonies are where the Unwomen are left to work until they die. Unwomen are those women who are of no use to Gilead either as Handmaids or as Marthas, and are deigned to dig the toxic, highly radioactive soil of the Colonies until death claims them. It is a slow, painful death. The Colonies are also where sinners are sent to as punishment. The similarities between the Colonies and the Nazi concentration camps of the Holocaust are stark and eerie. Enough to give you goosebumps for sure. The muted, dismal grey, smoke-filled shots of the Colonies are a striking contrast to the vivid crimson reds and teals that pepper the scenes of mainland Gilead.
Elisabeth Moss is even more spectacular this season. Her powerful expressions, the mutinous set of her jaw, the sneering derision and scowling disdain that radiates from her face, her contemptuous half-smiles, all come together to make for one of the most influential female performances ever.
This season is crammed with particularly heart-wrenching, poignant and inspiring segments – June’s brief, tender reunion with daughter Hannah, and then the inevitable parting; her violent rape by Fred at Serena’s behest; her triumphant jubilation when she finds out from Nick about Moira having made it to Canada; the resounding slap she delivers to Fred, and so many more. And the season finale is invigorating and bracing. We teeter on the verge of euphoria at the audacity of the Marthas in galvanizing June’s escape; and then plunge into disappointment when June decides to stay back in Gilead. Season 3 is poised to be more stimulating than ever, and we just can’t wait for it to unravel.
The Handmaid’s Tale simmers with the unbridled tension that rages through the storyline. It leaves you unhinged with its display of brute force, power and passion. It consumes you with the powerful imagery and potent story of the vicious suppression of women in an era when freedom is a given. It is at once disconcerting and stirring. It is essential watching.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 is streaming on SonyLIV. Watch it now, people.
(Written by Rashmi Paharia)