Friday, April 27, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale: Season 2, Episode 1: June

June and her fellow defiant Handmaid’s, having refused to stone Janine, are harrowingly led away to their punishment. They’re muzzled and bound and hounded to a site of apparent execution

It turns out to be faked (they’re not going to murder fertile women) but it’s harrowing and deeply horrifying psychological torture. And it doesn’t end there, hounded by the hectoring and vileness of Lydia’s false love (and extolling their “freedom” because they have “freedom from” the threats of the past - like the threats of the past matched the horrors they endure now) and fervent belief

June continues to watch Lydia with eyes that burn with hatred - there’s some excellent facial acting here. Especially as it is revealed June is pregnant and apparently has some protection against Lydia’s spite. But while June may be safe, her companions are not - as they continue to be tortured and June watches. And even pregnant Handmaids can be chained and confined in the dark

Through this as well we’re reminded that not only is Lydia a sadist, but she is a fervent believer. When she hears June is pregnant she is moved to tears ringing the bell announcing it.

Similarly while Serena is deeply invested in putting June back “in her place”; she’s also moved to kissing June in gratitude when she sees a sonogram of the baby. Their fervour only makes their sadism more powerful - because they’re not just evil people doing evil things because evil; they’re fanatics who genuinely think they’re doing good things despite the obvious vileness

But there is a way out - when one of the workers at the hospital June visits calls her by name - and sneaks her a key. She manages to get out to find that her escape has been orchestrated by Nick

And can there be a clearer cleansing than her burning her old uniform and carving a tracking chip out of her ear?

This is all undercut with the past - how Gilead became Gilead. The creeping lack of rights and freedoms which have become almost normal - like June having to get written permission from her husband to be prescribed birth control. Or a nurse repeatedly calling June by husband’s surname despite her protests. And her being shamed for working when she has a child.

We see this creeping encroachment of freedom just before the news reports a devastating terrorist attack against the leadership of the US. And we all know how fear of terrorism is so often used to push back civil rights.

The sharp brutality of Handmaid’s Tale is always hard to watch. There’s always a question when we see this level of anguish and agony as to whether all these scenes serve a purpose or if we’re delving into torture porn. But I think, unlike, say, Game of Thrones we have a purpose for the brutality here - the sheer unrelenting awfulness pounds home a constant stark message especially in this opening episode of the new season

In particular I think the sheer awful brutality of Gilead, alongside June’s flashbacks, are especially powerful. Because if there’s one lesson all marginalised groups, it’s that rights have to be fought for - not just to gain them but to preserve them. And there’s also a lot we tend to… let slide. It’s easy for things to become the new normal - or to have always been normal and to let things go because you’re afraid or worried or you just don’t have the energy or the time or the focus to deal with it right now: like June having to correct the nurse about her name despite already having told her. The stomach turning violence is juxtapositioned next to the road to that violence - we’re seeing not just the destination but the road: and while that violence may seem unthinkable to many, the road is all too believable.