The first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” (2017–) ends on a note of foreboding uncertainty. Thrown into the back of a van that will either spirit her to salvation or cart her off to unimaginable punishment, June (Elisabeth Moss) can do nothing but wait and contemplate her unknown fate.
Readers of the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood were left in an identical position, since the original story concludes with this agonizing cliffhanger. Fortunately, creator Bruce Miller has returned to end our suffering, promising a second season — 13 episodes — of Gilead, a dystopian United States where women are treated as vessels for reproduction. An extremely religious and hierarchical society, Gilead maintains order through hatred and fear, and offers little hope of rebellion.
June, however, refuses to submit. Even under threat of death by hanging, she continues to fight, holding onto the belief that one day she will be reunited with her husband and daughter. Moss’ performance is simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking. The frequent close-ups of June’s face reveal a woman who has lost everything yet would rather cut off her tracker (and thus part of her ear) than become a mindless servant to the lust of her Commander (played by Joseph Fiennes). Dressed in the mandatory Handmaid uniform, a conservative red dress and a stark white bonnet, June exudes obedience and purity but hides a barely contained storm of twisted emotions brews within.
For those of us who are students, “The Handmaid’s Tale” occasionally strikes too close to home, in a very literal sense. The Boston setting makes the horror of the show feel even more real. For example, when June attempts to escape, she temporarily takes refuge in the basement of the abandoned Boston Globe office, only to discover that it had once been used as a human slaughterhouse. Fenway Park has become a mass gallows. After watching this show, your favorite landmarks will be forever tainted by the ominous and bloody possibility of what could be.
Perhaps even more unsettling than the gore is the onset of ubiquitous and absolute intolerance. Prior to the creation of Gilead, Emily (Alexis Bledel) was a professor at a local university. Because she is a woman, however, she was deemed unfit to teach and subsequently lost her job. Although she and her wife and son buy plane tickets to Montréal, the latter two are forced to leave without her, since same-sex marriage is no longer recognized under “The Law.” Despite sharing the same unwaveringly rebellious spirit, Emily is stripped of her identity in a way that June can never fully understand. For Emily, Gilead is not just a cruel master. It is the physical embodiment of the all-consuming fear of discovery and subjugation that disproportionately affects minority groups.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” not only portrays current-day Gilead but also shows what happens in the months leading up to, and during, the collapse and takeover of the U.S. government. To a certain extent, the flashbacks are more troubling than the real-time events, despite the unending ghastliness that Gilead presents to us. Due to a series of terrorist attacks, including one on the White House, the entire nation is in chaos and disarray. On a personal level, June requires her husband’s signature to purchase birth control pills and must leave work early when her daughter is sent home from school with a fever. These scenes may seem benign, but the prejudiced thinking and false beliefs behind them are responsible for the establishment of Gilead. Ignoring societal issues will not make them go away: It can only lead to graver problems in the future — ones that will be much more difficult to solve.
The road to tyranny in “The Handmaid’s” Tale serves as a warning of the slippery slope many envision today. And then where will we be? Gilead is waiting for us right around the corner, and the next few years could herald a new age. However, if we look to June as our guide and realize that now is the only time to speak out, hope may yet remain.