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The Handmaid’s Tale returns with grim fury — and strange song choices

Everybody’s favorite dystopian drama is still bracing, increasingly noticeable warts and all.

The Handmaid’s Tale
A particularly harrowing scene from the season two premiere.

Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team gather to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writers Constance Grady and Caroline Framke discuss June,” the show’s second season premiere.

Todd VanDerWerff: From the very first frames of its second season, The Handmaid’s Tale wants you to know it’s bigger. As June is hustled out onto the field of the now-abandoned Fenway Park, then put through a kind of mock lynching, all while Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” plays, it would be possible to comment on the sequence through any number of lenses, thanks to its grim content, its beautiful direction, or even its cock-eyed sense of humor. (“Seriously?” June asks the audience when she’s not lynched. “What the actual fuck?”)

But, no, mostly, the sequence is just bigger, as is the episode that follows, in which June eventually goes on the run, hoping to find her way to the border and freedom. She gets an assist from Nick, while the Commander and Serena Joy seethe away. It’s bigger in that confident way TV shows sometimes get in their second seasons, where you can tell they’ve been holding back an entire world from you and are excited to let you see it. And it’s bigger in that way where you can tell Hulu dumped more money into the show this year.

I think it’s also bigger by directorial design. Where the scope of season one was limited, sometimes to the contours of one person’s face, the scope of season two steps back into wide master shots (at least in these first two hours, which I haven’t watched beyond), forcing the audience, more and more, to become citizens of Gilead, to contemplate all the ways we already are.

Both “June” and “Unwomen” (the second episode, which also launched today) take as a starting point this concern of how oppression is so deeply woven into our society that it sometimes looks like Just the Way Things Are. And that choice, as much as anything, kept me from feeling as if the series was going to disappear down a rabbit hole of its own hype.

Yes, it will continue to make the occasionally baffling musical choice (I can already sense “This Woman’s Work” is going to be a musical choice only Handmaid’s Tale showrunner Bruce Miller and I like, but dammit, I liked it). And, yes, I still don’t entirely buy anything the show wants to do with Nick. But the stuff that’s good is so good I almost don’t care.

How about the two of you? Where do you come down on this premiere and, perhaps more importantly, the contents of Bruce Miller’s first-generation iPod?

Constance Grady: Somehow, in the months since the season one finale aired, I’d managed to forget just how harrowing Handmaid’s Tale is to watch: the way all those blood-red robes against the grays of Gilead combine to create a sense of airless tension, the way those overhead shots of the Handmaids in their tight, anxious circles make you feel trapped, claustrophobic.

That opening lynching sequence drops me back into that mood relentlessly. (Look at how few guards there are, compared to the masses of women, and how little it matters: They still hold all the power.) I started to feel as though the show had grabbed hold of everything it could do well and was moving away from its weaknesses.

And then “This Woman’s Work” started to play, and I remembered once again how incredibly bad Handmaid’s Tale is at music. The world it’s created is so viscerally discomfiting to watch that whenever the show tries to use music to punch up the tension or to undercut it ironically, instead it has the opposite effect: Things start to feel mawkish and silly, and my emotional attachment to what’s happening onscreen is broken a little. So, yeah, this show is back, in all its harrowing and occasionally clumsy glory.

Most interesting to me in this first episode was the standoff between June and Aunt Lydia, which delves into one of the structural issues with last season’s climactic confrontation. We knew all along that June wouldn’t face the punishment for her rebellion that the other Handmaids would, because she’s our protagonist and can’t get banged up too permanently, and because she’s pregnant and Gilead wouldn’t do anything to hurt the baby.

And that knowledge kept June’s leadership from quite landing for me in the way that I felt the show wanted it to: It’s all very well for her to stand up to Aunt Lydia, I kept thinking, but what is she doing leading everyone else down this road? She might be untouchable, but they’re not.

But Aunt Lydia knows that June is untouchable too, and she manages to leverage that immunity into its own kind of punishment. The sight of June sitting warm and untouched and eating her lunch as the other Handmaids line up to be tortured is haunting, and it reminds us that Gilead is able to turn any perceived strength into its own kind of punishment. No one is ever truly untouchable in this world.

How season two weaponizes June’s pregnancy

The Handmaid’s Tale
Lydia and June talk it out.

Caroline Framke: All the horrors of this show started to blend together for me after I mainlined the first six episodes of this season for my overall review. But I can still remember the moment when “This Woman’s Work” started up because it’s the only time I’ve ever burst out laughing during The Handmaid’s Tale.

Anyway. I won’t spoil anything specific, but that moment with June’s status protecting her as people around her get hurt does foreshadow some of the grief to come. (It also sets up Aunt Lydia to be more of a consistent force this season, which is bad news for June but great news for fans of Ann Dowd’s great and sternest acting!)

Despite my initial wariness at June’s pregnancy, I have to admit that it makes for some of the show’s strongest moments both in this premiere and beyond. June’s dueling resentment and vulnerability are constantly at odds, and her newly elevated status only complicates it in ways that Elisabeth Moss is particularly good at selling with a glancing smirk or grimace of pain.

June’s pregnancy also means that her escape(!) is that much more of a blow to the people she’s running from. (And here’s a quick side note to say that I really loved that slick final sequence where June broke out of the sterile doctor’s office with the help of strategically placed red marks on the wall.) Not only did they lose a Handmaid, but they lost a pregnant Handmaid. It’s safe to say that they’re not going to just let her go into that good night without exhausting some serious resources to track her — and, more importantly, her miraculous womb — down.

Since you both have only seen this premiere and the second episode, I’m curious: What are you hoping for from this season at this point, now that you know its setup? Does losing the structure of June’s life in the Waterford home and the Red Center excite or concern you at all?

Todd: My assumption is that June will wind up a Handmaid again sooner or later. The premiere sets up so neatly the stakes of being not just a woman but a pregnant woman in this world, and there are too many unexplored ruptures between June and Serena Joy, that I assume the show will get back to its status quo eventually.

One of the things I really like about this show as a TV structure nerd is the way it weaponizes all the things that are irritating on other TV shows. Where other shows give the regular characters plot armor that protects them as extras die by the hundreds, The Handmaid’s Tale invents a world where a functional womb will protect you from pretty much anything — up to and including death.

The same goes for pregnancy. On most other shows, it would be a happy event that was also a desperate grab at rejuvenating a show gone tired. Here, it’s one of the worst things that could possibly happen, and your captors will use it against you. Compare the moment of Luke and June thinking about having another kid in the flashback to the grim reality of June actually carrying her second child. At its best moments, the show knows everything it’s doing, and it knows so precisely how to turn every screw it can, trusting in Elisabeth Moss’s face to hold it all together.

And even now, as June is superficially “free,” the series is hammering home just how little that even matters. June and Gilead are inextricable from each other, no matter how far she makes it toward the border or how many tags she tears out of her ear. Gilead oppresses June, but Gilead also is June. It’s a question I hope the show delves into more in the weeks ahead.

And come on, folks: It might have been over-obvious, but the Kate Bush cut was great!

Caroline: You are entitled to your opinion, but when this show sets a revenge scene to “Goodbye Earl,” you can’t say we didn’t warn you.

The first two episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season two are currently available to stream on Hulu.

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