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'The Handmaid's Tale': A deeper look at the chillingly prescient second season

'The Handmaid's Tale': A deeper look at the chillingly prescient second season
Hulu's Season 2 of "The Handmaid's Tale," which ends Wednesday, was more than just an excellent dystopian drama. It was also incredibly prescient. Pictured: Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Janine (Madeline Brewer). (George Kraychyk / Hulu)

The nation fell fast and right under everyone’s noses. There were warnings, of course, but they were hard to hear over the noise generated by partisan rancor, bully-pulpit politics and the sound of red herrings being tossed around when things got really hot.

And to be fair, it’s not as if people were paying that close of attention. In fact a large percentage of the electorate never even bothered to vote. But that apathy turned to concern once they saw their new government ripping children away from their mothers and sending them to parts unknown. Then there were the militarized borders, travel bans, a state-sponsored war against journalists, newsroom killings, men abolishing women’s reproductive rights and the rest of the free world’s dismay and outrage over the fall of a once-great democracy.

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The bleak future of America depicted in the season two run of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which ends this Wednesday, couldn’t have cut any closer to the bone in 2018 without sawing us all clean in half.

The Hulu drama, which is based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel which envisions America after a second civil war, was widely described as “dystopian” when it debuted last year. However, prescient may be a more accurate description for the series’ Season 2 run .

Week after week “The Handmaid’s Tale” managed to mirror present-day headlines with a chilling accuracy, especially for a show that was written and shot months in advance. And it didn’t stop there. Since the drama is set in the police state of Gilead (formerly America), where gays, Muslims, willful women and anyone else deemed a threat to totalitarian rule are lynched in public, it showed what Zero Tolerance policy, alienating Canada or targeting the free press might look like post-resistance. Let’s just say as bad as things seem now, Season 2 was there to show us how bottomless the bottom really is.

If “The Handmaid’s Tale” wasn’t such a smart and gracefully executed series, it might have been too disturbing to watch our fictional demise just two steps ahead of our actual demise. Like Season 1, the Elisabeth Moss-led production continued to be as shocking as it is subtle, as topical as it is timeless. But this time around it drilled down deeper on its portrayal of a society gone mad, reflecting the tumble into darkness through the experiences and emotions of people who aren’t us – but could be if we’re not careful, or at least aware.

The show’s main character June (Moss), was a working professional in Boston who knew the state of the union was bad, but like many, assumed all would be OK. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice, right? But that bend doesn’t happen soon enough for June, whose child is taken from her before she’s sent into servitude as a breeder by Gilead. The regime is reacting to a worldwide drop in fertility rates. Now she must speak in state-mandated religious vernacular, which includes skin-crawling greetings such as “Blessed be the Fruit” and “May the Lord Open.” She longs for the days before the red cape, when she was free to drink overpriced coffee, Snapchat about nothing and argue why feminism no longer matters with her activist mom.

Like all great science fiction or futuristic thrillers, “The Handmaid’s Tale” turns our worst fears into watercooler moments and binge-worthy stretches hunkered down at home. June’s subtle slide from working nine-to-five each day and tucking her daughter into bed at night -- to becoming a prisoner in a country she no longer recognizes as her own — is a particularly powerful way to connect the far-fetched with the probable. And she had no idea it was coming.

When June explains why she wasn’t assigned to one of the other subservient positions for women in Gilead that doesn’t involve ritualized rape, she explains she may been spared her fate “if I hadn’t been an adulteress, if I’d gone to church. If I’d played my cards right. If I’d known I was supposed to be playing cards.”

But as this season comes to a close, it’s the show’s knack for foreshadowing recent news events that will no doubt follow it to the Emmy nominations. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is likely to garner a high number of Emmy nods for the second time in a row (it won best drama last year) when nominations are announced Thursday.

Offred pays her respects to the fallen in the former Boston Globe newsroom.
Offred pays her respects to the fallen in the former Boston Globe newsroom. (George Kraychyk / Hulu)

One of the show’s more heartbreaking foreshadowings of current events came on June 28, when a gunman walked into the Capital Gazette newspaper in Maryland and killed five people. The war of words against the press from the White House, its propaganda arm Fox News and congressmen who’ve advocated violence against noncompliant reporters was weaponized. The gunmen’s motives were reportedly personal, but in such a hostile climate, he must have felt emboldened.

Weeks before the tragedy, “The Handmaid’s Tale” set two of its more powerful episodes in a newspaper office gutted by violence. It was the Boston Globe offices, a place where journalists like those shot at the Gazette furiously reported on the rise of Gilead until they too were silenced by gunfire. The fictional building’s basement walls — pocked with bullet holes and smeared with blood — bore witness to their demise.

June discovered the scene in the weeks she’d spent hiding out in the building during her attempted escape to the free world of, wait for it, Canada. She fashioned shrines in the basement to those who’d been executed, and upstairs, gathered an assortment of their newspaper articles, assembling them in a chronological order that documented the rise of Gilead.

In hindsight, it was all so clear to her. The women’s protests decrying the patriarchy, the politically motivated domestic terrorist attacks and mass shootings. ICE. The ACLU. And then there was the sheer exhaustion of a public overwhelmed by the news. “You were there all the time,” says June of Gilead, “but no one noticed you.”

Season two of “The Handmaid’s Tale” ensured we’d notice because part of the story it’s been telling is our own.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

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Where: Hulu

When: Any time

Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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