When I was waiting for my sister to give birth to her first child, I fell into conversation with a nurse, as often happens when you hang out at a hospital for a long time. She asked me whether I had any kids, and when I said no, if I was planning to. I answered once again in the negative. She then looked at me seriously and said, “You know, this is probably going to be the most meaningful thing your sister has ever done.”
It was a shocking reminder of how I’m viewed, even by other women. To some, we truly have no value unless we fulfill a set purpose, which is to reproduce. This is not a new belief. Women are constantly reminded that many consider us the sum of our parts reproductive and otherwise, but I don’t think anyone truly gets used to the fact that some people will never consider you a complete human being. I have also never heard a man talk about an experience like this.
The Handmaid’s Tale is frighteningly realistic for this very reason. Its familiarity comes from the knowledge that all of its dystopian horrors are merely what women already experience daily, both personally and politically, taken to its logical, albeit extreme, conclusion. It really could happen here. And it does when we become too complacent to heed the signs and prevent it.
Last season, many of its female characters chose to fight the power, and this season they face the consequences. In the second season premiere, Gilead is intent on showing these women just how little control they have over their lives. Think your possession of viable ovaries makes you immune? Gilead will make you literally wet yourself with a false hanging and various physical punishments that will be sure to damage the parts of you they consider inessential. Like your hands.
Not even a pregnancy makes you immune, as the poisonously sweet Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is sure to remind Offred (Elisabeth Moss). Yes, you will still be provided every comfort. While you’re literally chained to them. Luckily for Offred, Nick (Max Minghella), her lover and the father of her unborn child, is able to eventually help her escape to a temporary safe space, where she is able to become June again on her own terms. But Gilead isn’t so easy to flee from. Her sanctuary is an abandoned workplace still full of the remnants of the people who once worked there, as well as the horrors inflicted upon them.
Others are even less lucky. Last season, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) was forced to watch her lover die, was genitally mutilated, then taken away after committing a bloody act of rebellion. She’s now Emily again, having been sent to The Colonies, which have been often mentioned and always dreaded. This season, we see why, where it’s revealed they contain those dubbed Unwomen being used as slave labor in an environment where even the water is toxic.
The Handmaid’s Tale has always made great use of flashbacks, and they’re made the most out of once again as aspects of June’s and Emily’s lives pre-Gilead are exlored. Emily’s are the most poignant, as they reveal she’s lost even more than we previously believed. When she was a college professor, she made a point of supporting and encouraging other women, and refused to hide the family that had once again become controversial. Unlike June, she knew when to get the hell out of Dodge, but it was still too late. Her marriage was declared invalid, and while her wife and toddler son were able to make it to Canada, she was not.
June’s life is the more unsettling due to her living what many would consider a “normal” life. Gilead’s creeping approach barely inconvenienced her. Sure, it meant she needed her husband’s approval for her birth control, but it was easily procured. Then her daughter falls ill and is taken from her school to the hospital. When she goes to pick her up a female hospital worker repeatedly calls June by her husband’s last name rather than the one she’s clearly kept for herself, and threatens to take her child from what she sees as an unfit home. When she returns to that home, the terrorist attack on the government has been carried out, and neither she nor her husband have any inkling of what else is to come.
The rage has long been building, and now that both women are less subject to Gilead’s control and surveillance, it threatens to consume them both. It’s more obvious in June’s case, especially during the rough, angry sex she has with Nick at her hiding place. But since she has been able to partially free herself, she is able to at least somewhat transcend her anger and truly make her new surroundings a kind of sanctuary.
At first, Emily seems to have found a kind of peace providing the women around her with the best care and support she is able to. But her rage is quickly revealed to be all the more engulfing due to its continued suppression, driving her to commit a horrific act of brutality.
Needless to say, any worries about how The Handmaid’s Tale will fare now that it’s off the book, so to speak, should be quickly laid to rest. It’s no longer only the horrors of the dystopian rulers that are recognizable. It’s the anger of those caught up in it as well. We have identified with these characters so fully that we not only see ourselves in June’s ability to (eventually) be better than the times, but also in Emily’s cruelty. Would we forgive those who have trespassed against us, or would we demand an eye for an eye? The show gives us no answer.