Any questions on how a modern, democratic society devolves into a brutal, authoritarian regime almost overnight are addressed within the first few moments of “The Handmaid’s Tale” when it returns to Hulu on Wednesday.
The bold Season 2 opener picks up where the 2017 finale left off, with handmaid Offred, a.k.a. June (Elisabeth Moss), being smuggled out of child-bearing servitude in the back of a windowless van, presumably away from the theocratic Republic of Gilead (formerly America’s East Coast) and toward the freedom of Canada.
But this is no rescue. She’s been driven deeper into the dystopian nightmare, if that’s even possible given the grim premise of Season 1, which was based on Margaret Atwood’s equally foreboding 1985 novel of the same name.
When the van comes to a stop, she’s thrust into a police roundup of other handmaids, all of whom refused to stone their peer in red to death in Season 1. Machine gun-wielding military police handcuff and muzzle the women, herding them down a narrow chute-like cattle into a dilapidated stadium where hooded executioners await.
They’re pushed and prodded, and chased by attack dogs, up the gallows stairs where they stand in a row; each is fitted with a noose. They are lectured by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) about the grace of God and the consequences of sin as they await the executioner’s pull of the lever. Some quake alone, some hold hands, some wet themselves in terror. It’s an opening sequence that will have viewers crying, or at least hyperventilating, before the hour-long premiere hits the 15-minute mark.
The state-sponsored terror scene is reminiscent of imagery from Nazi Germany, the pre-civil rights South, Islamic State at its apex and other eras of institutionalized persecution, fanaticism and subjugation captured by news cameras. But this isn’t some “foreign” or historical place. It’s Fenway Park, in the city formerly known as Boston. In the world of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it fell during a second civil war into the hands of the radical religious right. The new totalitarian regime’s call to arms is America’s falling birth rates. By forcing fertile women to bear children for elite commanders and their barren wives, they’ll save the human race. Just don’t resist, or you’ll be expunged from the very race they claim to be saving.
Season 2 artfully shows how such a thing could happen in America, step by agonizing step, in disturbingly plausible detail.
Since the Emmy-winning Hulu series outpaced the novel with the close of the first season, it now expands upon the Reagan-era concerns of the book — the rise of the Moral Majority, the backlash against the feminist movement, a spike in the war on women’s reproductive rights — with references that are chillingly current.
Through a series of flashbacks in the first two episodes that can be streamed back-to-back on Wednesday, we learn that a movement similar to #MeToo, sweeping ICE deportations, the apathy of an American electorate and the escalation of unchecked authority are all key components in the rise of Gilead. As if you weren’t already concerned about the state of the union …
But it’s not the politics that drive this drama. It’s the threat of what could be, portrayed in very human terms by Moss, Dowd and costars Alexis Bledel (Ofglen), Max Minghella (Nick) and Samira Wiley (Moira). They live these roles, while behind the scenes, show creator Bruce Miller and a female-dominated writing staff crafts and drives story lines strong enough to captivate viewers through the most dire of times (and dire they are).
This isn’t some “foreign” or historical place. It’s Fenway Park, in the city formerly known as Boston.
The dreaded colonies, which were only mentioned with fear in Season 1 — “Behave or we’ll send you to the Colonies!” — are finally shown here. It’s a scorched-earth, toxic wasteland on the outskirts of Gilead where “unWomen” (lesbians, adulteresses, dissenters) are sent to toil until death. It’s in this concentration camp-like setting that Marisa Tomei makes a guest appearance.
These women were college professors, interior designers, book editors and urban moms not so long ago. Their daily concerns before their loss of hair and fingernails from mining radioactive soil were pressing work deadlines, childcare and soy or dairy in their lattes.
We’re also given flashbacks to their lives before the war, an era Aunt Lydia refers to as the time of “anarchy.” It’s the picture of normalcy in Boston. Kids go to school, parents work, everyone is glued to their smartphones. Yelp is a thing. Except for the gradual erosion of rights and increased state monitoring: husbands are required to sign off on their wives’ birth control, hospitals begin keeping records on women who are fertile.
The escalation isn’t gunfights in the streets or action sequences, but hints via cable news that the world is spinning toward chaos. When June (later to be stripped of her given name and forced to take the name of her Commander, Fred) tucks her sick daughter into bed, she’s only half listening to the newscast in the background when mass shootings by multiple gunmen on Capitol Hill are reported. And there’s been an explosion at the White House.
The picture darkens in subsequent flashbacks of other characters, showing a jammed Logan Airport where citizens are screened for the privilege to leave, and eventually, the persecution of “gender traitors” (LGBTQ people). “I thought mine was the last generation to deal with all this …,” says an older gay man to his younger colleague. “I thought all of you were so spoiled.”
It’s not much longer until gays are hanged in public as a warning to the rest of the population.
The red capes, white-winged bonnets and creepy salutations — “Blessed be the Fruit,” “Under his Eye” — become more profound symbols of servitude and subjugation here as June continues her quest toward freedom.
When she attempts to escape via a system like the slavery era’s Underground Railroad, she is helped on one leg of her journey by an old-timer with a heavy New England accent. As he drops her at the supposed safety of an empty warehouse, she thanks him.
“Under his eye,” she says cautiously.
“After a while, crocodile” he answers.
And never has anything so facile sounded so profound.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
When: Any time, starting Wednesday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)