The story behind ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’s’ haunting Season 2 opening sequence
[Warning to readers: This article contains spoilers about the Season 2 premiere of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”]
Viewers of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” have been subjected to the nightmarish vision of a dystopian future and relentless scenes of brutality and degradation that are often hard to watch. But even those braced for more horrors in the new season may be traumatized by the opening minutes of the first episode.
The haunting sequence caught viewers up with a pregnant June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss), who had been whisked away in a van by militiamen at the end of Season 1 after she, along with her fellow handmaids, resisted orders to stone to death one of their own — her fate unknown and hanging on the words of her secret lover and confidant, Nick (Max Minghella), to “trust” him.
June’s destination, after a squeaky, heart-pounding ride, is revealed: She arrives in Boston’s Fenway Park and is immediately strapped with a muzzle alongside dozens of rebellious handmaids against the roaring sound of barking dogs — animals with more freedom to be heard. The handmaids’ horror is heightened when they view a row of gallows awaiting them. Kate Bush’s heartbreaking anthem “This Woman’s Work” fills the soundtrack as they weep, anticipating their final moments while nooses are placed around their necks.
The gallows lever is pulled. But instead of opening, the trapdoors beneath the handmaids’ feet remain closed. The setup turns out to be a sadistic exercise to terrorize the handmaids into submission.
“It’s an opening sequence that will have viewers crying, or at least hyperventilating, before the hour-long premiere hits the 15-minute mark,” wrote L.A. Times television critic Lorraine Ali in her review.
Moss, writing by email, used some colorful words to explain her reaction to the sequence — let’s just say it started with “Holy.”
“I still can’t believe the words on paper,” Moss wrote, “but SEEING it, being there, feeling the reality of it hit you… it’s something I can only explain with the look on June’s face as she experiences it.”
Showrunner Bruce Miller said the writers this season, working beyond Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, were focused on conveying a brutal realism in moving the story forward.
“So, you figure [the handmaid’s] are always worried about punishment,” Miller said. “The punishment has to be awful, you know? We’ve seen what they do to some people, so just because it’s Offred, you can’t pull it back.”
Just because it’s Offred, you can’t pull it back.
— Bruce Miller, showrunner of “The Handmaid’s Tale”
The episode, titled “June,” was directed by Mike Barker. The opening sequence filmed over two days — the bulk of it was shot in one “very, very long night,” Miller says.
“Picture our cast and crew in the midst of an abandoned baseball field in these horrific conditions, and now picture a few dozen handmaids on top of rickety wooden platforms,” Moss wrote. “This was grueling and, honestly, one of the toughest two days I’ve ever had on set. My bones felt brittle, my blood ran cold. This was a reality, in that moment, gasping for air was real, shivering was real. The struggle of portraying her in the midst of these real elements was truly difficult, yet the result was so beautiful and raw and real.”
Miller and his majority-female team of writers did research on mock execution, a common form of torture and punishment.
“We did a lot of research on what kind of punishments do you do to people who you don’t want to physically hurt, like psychologically you want to hurt them ... It’s the worst kind of psychological torture. It certainly terrorized me to watch it.”
The selection of Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” was inspired by the sentimental feelings from Miller’s childhood — but it wasn’t necessarily meant to be used for this sequence.
“I try not to overthink the music, because you can definitely fall down that rabbit hole,” he said. “I really wanted to complement the scene, and also be a little bit of what Offred has in her head, like the soundtrack to Offred’s life. So in some ways you want to go with your first instinct, like oh, this song! But I love Kate Bush and I like what she meant to me and meant to my sisters and stuff when I was younger, and this song has always been so sad to me and made me cry. So I basically said to the editor, oh, at some point this season I’d like to use that song, and she put it in there and it was just perfect.”
Of the Fenway Park setting, home for the Boston Red Sox, Miller put it simply: “It’s the cathedral of Boston.”
“I thought the idea if they were going to do public executions, they would do them in a place that people know and have good associations with,” Miller said. “Also, I really wanted it to feel like a place, like Boston. Sometimes shows feel like they’re floating in space… and anytime it’s more real, it’s definitely more scary.”
Ann Dowd, who plays the villainous Aunt Lydia, said the twist gives new meaning to the phrase “scared to death.”
“They took it as far as they could take it,” she said.
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