Well hello there, high blood pressure! The Handmaid’s Tale returns to our screens with a bang, a whimper, some hiding behind a cushion and that all too familiar rising dread. Using the phrase ‘eagerly anticipated’ to describe season 2 is probably inaccurate, not because we don’t love it, but because it’s like going to the dentist. You’ve got the date marked on your calendar. You know you have to. You know it’s for the best. But when you’re waiting for your appointment and you hear the high-pitched screech of the drill going in surgery 2, you can feel your shoulders tensing and you long for a hot bath and a
cup of tea large whiskey. (Who am I kidding? Get me a fruity cocktail with a pretty pink umbrella. Blessed be the fruity cocktail. Sorry, Aunt Lydia.)
But it’s OK! The re-caps are basically group therapy, so welcome back to the darkest and most unsettling program on your TV! There will be huge, massive spoilers for episode 1, so consider this your final warning. Our re-cap for episode 2 will follow soon, so please don’t spoil that for anyone in the comments!
Are you ready? Then let’s begin!
Elisabeth Moss said last week that no-one would guess what the first scene would be. BEG TO DIFFER! OK, fair enough, I didn’t think it would be the first scene, but I am relieved that the mass execution at an otherwise deserted Fenway Park was a cruel ruse to stomp out that little seed of rebelliousness that we saw at the end of season 1. Aunt Lydia warned us that “There will be consequences,” and she’s not renowned for kidding.
It was, however, the sort of scene that will break the hearts of many book-readers; it’s the LAST thing you want to imagine following Offred’s enigmatic declaration at the end of the book. The tapes! THE TAPES! She has to get away! It can’t end here! Thankfully, it didn’t.
They really milked this moment though, didn’t they? And it was working, right up until Kate Bush started singing. I have generally loved the soundtrack choices in the show so far, though I know they have grated with a lot of viewers. ‘This Woman’s Work’ is a beautiful song, but I found it distracting here. (There’s an NSPCC advert that uses that track, so that was all I could think about. Definitely broke the tension.)
The punishment doesn’t end there. Oh no. That’s just the beginning. Gilead seems to be developing an emergency rehabilitation program for unruly handmaids. As I said in my predictions post, Gilead learns from its early mistakes. It evolves. (Now that’s ironic.)
Aunt Lydia’s Handmaid Optimization Regime: Rebellion Inhibitor Doctrine
Step 1: Scare the shit out of them.
Step 2: Make them grateful to be alive.
Step 3: Work those arms. Feel the burn!
Step 4: Uh, BURN those arms!
Step 5: Make sure they really start hating the pregnant one.
June is released from Step 3 early on account of her pregnancy, which Aunt Lydia is mildly hysterical about. This is more exciting than her ‘freedom to and freedom from’ speech; she’s got some crying and bell-ringing to do. And an obstinate handmaid to
break turn into a Very Good Girl. But first, bells.
Aunt Lydia takes on a strange dynamic here, the worrying ‘kindly cruel’ one she had around Janine last season. She wants to nurture, to cluck over June and to fuss, but only on her terms, and only with complete submission from June. Guilt is the only weapon she has against her, what with the pregnancy rendering June almost fully immune. For now.
I say almost, because there’s another troublesome pregnant handmaid locked away, chained at the ankle, under close guard until she gives birth. Ofwyatt is a warning. Cross me again, and that will be you, dear. And if there are any lingering doubts about pregnant immunity having a clear expiration date, poor Janine is another reminder.
“Do you think you’ve done her a kindness? She could have gone to God quickly, surrounded by her friends. She will suffer because of you.”
Such a peaceful, calm death, stoning. Sure, Jan.
But it’s clear: every handmaid who disobeyed will face the consequences. Except June. Poor Ofrobert. And all the other handmaids, waiting for their turn at the hob, cold and shivering, listening to the screams, watching June eat her dinner …
Let’s retreat for a moment into the flashbacks, because Luke is cute, and little Hannah is adorable. In relatable world moments, Luke has a Man Drawer for his batteries, and presumably his take-out menus, random cables and leftover foreign currency. WE ALL HAVE ONE. NO POINT DENYING IT. He has to sign for June’s birth control pills now. But it’s OK, because they are going to come off them and try for another baby. It’s cute. It’s so sad because it’s not going to happen.
The school rules about illness that many of us recognize have been ramped up a notch, what with so few children around, and so June has to collect Hannah from the hospital when she gets a fever. Despite being corrected numerous times, the doctor won’t use June’s maiden name, and then proceeds to deliver the most judgmental lecture ever. That conservative ideology has crept into medical practice and wants to declare June and Luke unfit parents because she has a job. Why can’t the flashbacks be comforting? Darn it.
The next flashback shows June arriving home with Hannah, and putting her to bed, while Luke watches rolling news and frantically relays the events of the day. Machine guns in the capital. An explosion at the White House. Watching terror play out on TV is nothing new, but it’s the juxtaposition of the rise of the regime and the snuggles at bedtime that chills. Are we so desensitized that we don’t see the Big Stuff for what it is?
Back in the ‘present,’ June’s waiting for a medical exam, and there’s a familiar clippy-cloppy noise approaching. We know Serena’s shoes a mile away. And she is not happy. “I will not have any more recalcitrance!” That’s a lot of syllables when you’re in a temper. June’s still rebellious enough to deliver a burn of her own, silkily reminding Serena of two things: for now, she’s untouchable, and they both know Gileadean Wife behaviour during a handmaid’s pregnancy and labour is ridiculous: “Don’t get upset, Serena. It’s bad for the baby.” She glares at the Waterfords as they watch the ultrasound. Then Serena thaws, a teeny weeny bit anyway. Don’t kiss her forehead, you patronizing, deluded horror of a human being. (Didn’t take long for that rage to come back, huh?)
But hold the front page! There’s a guy wearing Crocs. Crocs survived the end of the world?! Let’s put this in perspective: much of the modern world disappeared. They got rid of sliced bread! But no-one did away with Crocs! My theory: it’s because they are the straightest shoes ever. (I’d wager Birkenstocks were burned.) I BET Aunt Lydia has a pair of Crocs at home. I bet she slips them on at the end of a long day and does that little sigh of relief. (Wait — do Aunt Lydia and Deadpool have something in common?) Full confession: I own Crocs flip flops. Those little bobbles on the soles are magical; it’s like getting a foot massage when you walk. (Editor’s note: No, this isn’t sponsored content.) Crocs Guy is on to something. I think I like Crocs Guy. Maybe this is how we can prepare for the rise of Gilead? THEY’LL NEVER COME FOR CROCS WEARERS! BLESSED ARE THE CROCS! (Editor’s note: I swear this isn’t sponsored content.)
But Crocs Guy isn’t just modeling classic heterosexual footwear; he calls June by her actual name, and whaddya know, there’s a key in her boot! And a trail of little red sticky tape for her to follow! She’s getting away! Just a short journey with some charming pig carcasses, which is a small price to pay, really — before a quick stop in a dark and spooky building. Then
that hybrid of all the Jonas brothers Nick shows up! Yay! She gets new clothes, a haircut and then NO NO NO NO WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THE SCISSORS NO NO NO
With blood dripping down her neck, the tag — the last marker of her Handmaid status — is gone. She burns it all. She’s free. She’s June again.
But wait — this is just episode 1. It can’t be that simple. Gilead is within you, after all… Brace yourselves: season 2 is going to be a rollercoaster!