The first 15 minutes of The Handmaid’s Tale, Season 2—the first episode to deviate completely from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel—is equal parts gripping and stomach turning. How will anyone—handmaids and viewers alike—survive this?
(Some minor season premiere spoilers below.)
In “June,” written by series creator Bruce Miller and directed by Mike Barker, we pick up right where the finale left off: June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is being hustled out of the Commander’s home by the Eyes, the group of government-funded spies to which her baby daddy (Max Minghella) belongs. She is violently muzzled and herded, along with the other rebellious handmaids, into Fenway Park, which has been repurposed as a mass execution grounds. The women are fitted with nooses. Continuing the show’s tradition of ironic music choices, Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” plays throughout.
But the handmaids do not hang. This, as explained by Aunt Lydia (the ever fantastic Ann Dowd), was all to demonstrate the scope of Gilead’s power and remind the women that their lives—more importantly, their wombs—are not their own. As Aunt Lydia prays, June’s narration cuts in: “‘Our father who art in heaven...’ Seriously? What the fuck?”
If only the psychological and physical torture ended there, but instead it extends across the entire first episode and, we can presume, into the rest of the season, which will take us beyond the City Formerly Known as Cambridge and into the Colonies where the least breakable of women are sent to toil until they die. But what, exactly, does this depiction of violence do for the story? We were already well aware that Gilead is a misogynist hellscape where women are punished for the most minimal acts of self preservation or rebelliousness; we’ve already seen a clitorectomy, multiple hangings, and feet flaying. Which is all to say: We get it. Gilead is bad and we don’t want to live there.
There’s this point where violence on screen goes from necessary evil to intolerable, and it’s one that so-called prestige television has a particularly hard time grappling with. Season 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale toed this line rather artfully, being brutal enough to paint a very clear picture of what can happen as women are subjugated to the point of being walking ovaries. But it seems as though the creators of Season 2 are wrongfully assuming that they need to up the ante to remain compelling, when really these scenes—like, say the one featuring a screaming fellow handmaid handcuffed to the range of a burning stove—only make the show less watchable to audience members (primarily women) who see Gilead as a reality not too far from reach.
Fortunately for the show, enough of us are invested in the story (a credit to Atwood) to try and see it through, even if it means enduring a fair share of the tedious and taxing violence that is more closely resembling torture porn than it ever has before.