Our own terrifying Gilead

April 25, 2018

Leela Yellesetty reviews the new season of The Handmaid's Tale, as the Hulu adaptation moves on from where Margaret Atwood's novel left off.

RECENT YEARS have seen the resurrection of the horror genre as a potent vehicle for social commentary, most notably with last year's phenomenal movie Get Out.

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, premiering in its second season April 25, follows in this tradition, but also manages to do something that decades of escalating blood, gore and shock value in the genre have failed to do: It is flat-out terrifying.

With hardly a drop of blood in sight, the first 10 minutes of the new season may well be the scariest thing I have ever watched.

While the over-the-top violence of much horror--and indeed much of mainstream movies and television in general--tends to desensitize viewers, The Handmaid's Tale does the opposite: it sensitizes you, in the most excruciating way.

This is due in part to a combination of superbly well-crafted direction and cinematography, and the unbelievable acting skills of the cast--most notably, Elizabeth Moss as main character June/Offred, whose subtlest close-up facial expressions manage to convey a more complex and palpable array of emotions than many pages of dialogue.

Elizabeth Moss plays June Osborne in the The Handmaid's Tale
Elizabeth Moss plays June Osborne in the The Handmaid's Tale

The other thing that makes it terrifying, of course, is that it hits a bit too close to home.

Because of this, I can't fault anyone who isn't able to watch. Personally, I recommend taking ample breaks between episodes to recover. But if you can do it, you should watch. Because it is so, so good, and more relevant than ever.

I got a chance to sneak preview the first six episodes, but what follows is a mostly spoiler-free preview of what's in store for the new season.

IF SEASON one in the fascist theocratic dystopia of Gilead mirrored our own shock and horror at living in Trump's America, this season provides an equally compelling foil for year two of Trump: the reality of the situation has set in, the stakes have gotten higher, and the determination to resist is tentative, faltering, but increasingly hardened with every partial victory and devastating defeat.

Season one took us through the end of its source material in Margaret Atwood's book, so from here on out, we're on new terrain.

This season takes us beyond the confines of Gilead, in what was formerly Boston, to the refugees in Canada--June's husband and best friend among them--and to the colonies, where the defiant "unwomen" are consigned to slave away in a radioactive wasteland until they die from exposure. This is where Alexis Bledel's character Emily/Ofglen has landed, and where her rage only intensifies.

Review: Television

The Handmaid's Tale, season two begins April 25 on Hulu, starring Elizabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel and Ann Dowd.

Meanwhile, our main character oscillates between her twin identities as Offred, her imposed role as dutiful handmaid, and her defiant reclamation of her former name June, who as Aunt Lydia (played with terrifying brilliance by Ann Dowd) menacingly intones, "has no place in Gilead."

The choice between resistance and survival is all the more heightened because this season Offred is pregnant, which makes her both more vulnerable and dangerous in a world where childbirth is prized and elusive.

As scary as the world of Gilead is, some of the most frightening scenes are in the flashbacks--which take us to the lives of the various characters, mostly in the period between the initial terrorist attacks and the coup that installed the theocracy.

Here we see haunting echoes of our present world, including a scene of conservative leader-turned-commander's wife Serena Joy speaking about her book A Woman's Place to a crowd of jeering college students with protest signs, or desperate fleeing refugees being interrogated at the airport.

Like today, a rising far right doesn't go unopposed, but nonetheless gradually succeeds in normalizing their reprehensible ideas in the guise of "free speech" while taking advantage of societal crisis--in this case, a worldwide collapse in fertility--to sell their draconian "solution" as a legitimate way out.

As the Queensland Times' Wenlei Ma notes, "It's the small things in these scenes--of the judgment on motherhood or someone recoiling at a photo of a same-sex family--moments that aren't unfamiliar to us today, that are the most chilling."

The show is adept at exploring the psychology of trauma and the impact of abuse on survivors, including the insidious ways abusers use their victims' own guilt against them, and pose as their only salvation.

"Women are so adaptable; my mother would say," notes June of her feminist mother, who we meet in flashbacks this season. "It's truly amazing what we can get used to."

In another scene where escape from Gilead seems to be on the horizon, June wonders, "What will happen when I get out? There probably is no out. Gilead is within you."

IN THE wake of the explosion of the #MeToo movement, a woman-centered show exploring these themes is particularly resonant, though, of course, it's not new. As Moss noted in an interview:

Part of the thing about the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements is that it has been going on for a very long time. Margaret [Atwood] wrote this book in 1985, and I think that the themes in that book of sexual assault and rape and violence have been around for a very long time. We're just continuing to bring a voice to that story and continuing to bring a voice to women who have experienced this.

As I wrote in my review of season one, the treatment of racism (or lack thereof) continues to be disconcerting, for while the rise of theocratic fascist takeover in America seems all too believable, the idea that it would be a color-blind one is not.

This is especially the case since many of the scenes and scenarios seem reminiscent of this country's dark history of slavery. Keshia Smith McEntire speculated about this odd directorial choice on the Black Nerd Girl blog:

The idea of women being forced to cook, clean, sleep with others without consent and endure physical harm or death if they do not stay in line is not some horrific, unforeseeable future, but a page of America's past and present. Maybe Hulu's producers felt attaching a white face to a story that is essentially about the rebranding of slavery in America would attract more viewers, seeing as Black women in Hollywood rarely get the opportunity to play "the everywoman."

Despite this weakness, The Handmaid's Tale works both as a gripping work of art and a powerful political call to action. Perhaps most importantly, though the context is almost unrelentingly bleak, the show never loses sight of the possibility--and, indeed, the necessity--of resistance.

It is these moments that keep us watching, and give us hope that a future Gilead can be avoided in our lifetimes. As Atwood put it in a recent interview:

I see a moment like this as two opposing forces. We're not in the Handmaid's Tale yet or I wouldn't be sitting here...

There are a couple of ways to think that are not very productive: One of them is that progress is inevitable. That has never been true. It's just an excuse for not doing anything. The other one is everything is circular. That's not true either. The only thing that's true is a number of different possibilities. Writing dystopias and utopias is a way to ask readers where they want to live and where they end up depends partly on what you do now.

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