The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 episode 1 review: June


Buckle up, folks. The Handmaid’s Tale is back for a second season on Hulu, and not one of us should expect it to pull its punches.

Welcome back to your favorite dystopian misogynist horror, everyone: The Handmaid’s Tale. When we last left our heroine, June, she was in the back of a van off to an unknown fate, capping off not only a Hulu season but also the novel by Margaret Atwood. It’s unknown territory from here on out, friends.

The second season opens with a lot of long, slow shots and long, slow moments. There’s June riding in the truck, the long scene of the women entering the stadium, and the long, long, interminably long and slow wait to see if they will all be executed or not. We, as an audience, know that June is safe. She is the main character. Plus the women as a collective are safe from death, at least. They do not know this. It takes a very long time for them to find out.

This strange juxtaposition of feelings takes up a noticeable chunk of the episode and sets up the season’s long, slow start. Slow is not a criticism. We get lots of lingering shots on Elizabeth Moss, who has perfected the “I give zero craps anymore” face. The entirety of the first episode seems determined to remind the audience that it has the power to make us profoundly uncomfortable. This comes in everything from the weird suspenseful moments to Aunt Lydia’s (Ann Dowd, who is incredible in this episode, as is the rest of the cast) long speeches to the weird, contradictory music playing as the women are placed on the gallows. I hated every minute of sitting through it, and yet it was also brilliant.

Another thing we’ll see a lot of in the second season, if the first episode is any indication, are these wonderful, sad flashbacks between June and Luke. These segments are relieving pauses in an episode ready to go to the walls with mental and physical torture scenes now. If you’re squeamish, take heed: Season 2 of Handmaid’s Tale ups the ante. It gets worse from here on out.

I almost want to be upset at some of the more gruesome moments. Yet, they’re contrasted with an even more effective subtlety of language and action than I saw even in the first season. The repetition in the flashbacks of “June Osborne” and Aunt Lydia’s continued insistence on calling a group of 20-40-something women “girls” instead of “women” (that’s been going on since last season) is a great set-up for the episode’s conclusion.

About three-quarters of the way through this episode, I was ready to be upset that it had undone every ounce of the quietly brewing rebellion that reared its head in the stoning scene from the first season. The other Handmaids will have turned against June. Or they will at least been momentarily exhausted and dissuaded by the torture and fear Lydia puts them through. So it’s a relief that even if we don’t get the satisfaction of watching the Handmaids tear up Gilead just yet (fingers crossed for later in the season), June’s risky escape into the bowels of the medical center gets you right at the edge of your seat. Surely something will go wrong. Surely yet another wonderful plan will be foiled by awful men with guns.

It is not.

The ending of “June” is still almost unsatisfying if you’re familiar with the book. The quashed rising rebelliousness unique to The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu series is retconned with Truck 1. June is then put in a second truck to deliver us to what was probably the intended result of the novel: a chance at freedom. We no longer have any eyes watching the Handmaids. That is unless we get a new point-of-view character later in the season (hopes high for the new Ofglen, she seems super). June is separate and mostly on her own, trusting in the providence of Nick (a good guy, apparently) and other strangers.

As June burns her Handmaid outfit, I’m relieved for her, but relieved for the series as well. Even with Atwood at the helm, I had some degree of anxiety about the series heading into uncharted territory. But already it’s clear that the creative freedom to take the series wherever will result not only in harsher individual moments but also in the continued powerful storytelling I came to expect from season 1.

Next: The Handmaid’s Tale: Where did we leave off?

With the element of surprise on its side, Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t falter. With current events being what they are, it’s hinted here (and more clearly shown in the second episode) that the creators are more than willing to shove the parallels to modern day to the forefront where they belong.

This isn’t and won’t be a comfortable watch. It shouldn’t be.