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The Handmaid's Tale - June & Unwomen - Review

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The Handmaid’s Tale returned for Season Two with two powerful episodes. This season the show will be flying solo, mostly without the safety net of the award-winning novel on which it is based. Both “June” and “Unwomen” were written by Bruce Miller and directed by Mike Barker. If these two episodes are any indication, Miller would appear to have lots more to say. The beautiful visuals, wonderful writing, and terrific acting continue from season one.

“June” picks up exactly where we left off in season one, with June (Elisabeth Moss) in the back if that van. Symbolically and ominously, the window to the front compartment opens and then slams shut. Has she lost her opportunity to escape? This opening scene is silent except for Moss’s reactions – and the growing concern on her face.

She’s right to be concerned as she’s yanked out of the van into the chaos of the other handmaidens undergoing the same rough treatment: they are all gagged and have their hands zip-tied in front of them. If they try to touch each other and comfort each other, they are torn apart. It’s “game day” in a horrible way as they are herded onto Fenway field. The field is full of gallows, and each of the handmaids are lead to their own noose, which is placed around each’s neck.

        In a nice echo of the last episode of the first season, we see June drop her eyes and clasp her hands together in front of herself – the way Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) instructed them all to show submission. But June raises her eyes and tries to give and draw strength from the others. Many are crying and Ofrobert – Alma (Nina Kiri) wets herself in terror. But they also do look at each other and try to take one another’s hands.

The music crescendos as June looks up and a man yells “by his hand.” The lever is pulled and the music cuts out so that all we hear is the sound of the women dropping a few inches only. It’s a horrible way to torture and subjugate them all further. And then Aunt Lydia is there broadcasting religious nonsense at them. This is a lesson for them. If looks could kill, June would have dropped Aunt Lydia right there. June’s thoughts are not exactly the reaction Aunt Lydia was looking for: “Our Father, who Art in Heaven. Seriously? What the actual fuck?!”

We get more flashbacks to “before,” which gives us a sense of how things were going badly in society, but how they were going well for June. It’s a typical day with June and Luke (O-T Fagbenle) getting Hannah (Jordana Blake) off to school and discussing what needs to be picked up at the store. When June needs more birth control pills, we find out that Luke has to sign a permission slip for her! Luke, naturally, thinks it’s ridiculous. However, the big news for them is that they are going to try for another child.

In the present, Aunt Lydia treats the handmaid’s like – and even calls them – spoiled children. The torture continues as they are forced to hold up the rocks they wouldn’t throw – while kneeling in the rain. When their arm drops, they are zapped with a cattle prod. She tries to convince them that there are two kinds of freedom – freedom from and freedom to. Like everything in this new reality, the dichotomy isn’t that simple – and the point is that freedom bestows the right to choose.

Aunt Lydia is thrilled to find out that Offred is pregnant and immediately removes her from the punishment, requiring the other handmaids to say “praise be his mercy.” Of course, they’ve just seen the woman responsible for starting the revolt manage to completely escape the punishment. June continues to shoot looks of utter hatred at Aunt Lydia.

Ann Dowd is really terrific, even in how she moves as Aunt Lydia, lumbering along. She hands June off to someone else to get out of her wet clothes, while she rushes to ring the bells. We see her hesitate for a moment and gather herself. Is she really as religious as she’d have us believe? She takes a moment to collect herself. Perhaps to thank God – but there has to be a certain element of self-preservation in here as well. Aunt Lydia must be seen to perform a function. She’s to keep the girls in line and make sure that they produce children in due time. Of course, there’s also nothing nuttier than a religious zealot…

Back in the dorm, in her dry clothes. June hears the bells. She rubs her neck – she’ll be stiff from holding that rock in the rain. But she also knows that her window to escape has just gotten a whole lot smaller. They’ll keep an even closer watch on her because of the baby.

Aunt Lydia joins June for lunch, bringing her soup, and we get a battle of wills. This is just a wonderful scene from two powerful actors and Moss and Dowd are both terrific. June tells Aunt Lydia that she’s not hungry – she’s still got cards to play and ways of taking control of her life. However, Aunt Lydia’s primary concern is the baby. She tells June that there will be no more dramatics and asks if she can be her “good girl” – as if June were a dog.

Aunt Lydia points out that the dramatics were all for nothing in the end. June insists that Janine wasn’t nothing – she’s a human being after all. Aunt Lydia agrees but asks if June thinks she did Janine a kindnesss. She tells June, who looks increasingly devastated, that Janine has been sent to the colonies – a quick death would have been preferable to this slow one… It’s clear that Aunt Lydia is furious with June. She thinks that everything she’s done was calculated based on her knowing that nothing would happen to her because she was pregnant. Aunt Lydia clearly doesn’t like having to punish the “girls” in her charge – even if she’s enough of a religious zealot to prefer to send them quickly to heaven.

But June continues to try and rebel in the only way left to her. She refuses to eat – simply claiming she’s not hungry. Aunt Lydia suggests a walk, then and takes June to meet Ofwyatt (Alana Pancyr). Ofwyatt tried to drink drain fluid while pregnant, so they have her chained to a bed, waiting to finish out her pregnancy. Aunt Lydia suggests that nine months can seem like a very long time. June agrees to eat.

While Lydia eats, the other handmaids are brought in soaking wet and forced to line up. Aunt Lydia begins with Ofrobert, taking her into the kitchen and burning her hand while the rest listen. Aunt Lydia knows that it will be an effective punishment for June to listen while all the others suffer for her disobedience. And of course, forcing the others to listen and wait for their turn only increases the torture.

In the past, June is at work when her assistant – Terry – a man! – brings her her purse because it’s been buzzing. It’s Hannah’s school, and June is upset to have missed the calls. She calls back immediately to find out that Hannah wasn’t feeling well and had a fever of 101. June admits that Hannah had been feeling a bit unwell, but she’d given her Tylenol and she was fine when she left for school. Hannah isn’t at the school anymore, but has been sent to the hospital! The woman on the phone (Christina Collins) tells June that the State insists a child be fever-free for 48 hours – it’s clear that she is afraid of crossing the “State.”

June rushes to the hospital where Hannah is fine – probably just a virus. They’re waiting for bloodwork and have some questions for June. It’s clear that the nurse (Ericka Kreutz) has a problem with June not having taken Luke’s last name. I found this exchange both hilarious and disturbing. As someone who didn’t change my name when I got married, I actually experienced the same behavior when I lived in a small town – not that very long ago… The nurse’s questions seem to pertain more to June than Hannah – is Hannah her biological child? What arrangements do you have for when Hannah is sick? She then suggests that June medicated Hannah to hide her fever so that June could go to work! Children are so precious that they have to make sure that they are in a safe home environment…

This scene in the past is nicely juxtaposed with the most uncomfortable internal exam ever. It’s a wonderful contrast between the loving, normal home that Luke and June provided for Hannah, with the home that June’s baby will be given to – Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Fred (Joseph Fiennes) will clearly be hideous parents! What kind of horrible role models will they be? Will Fred be able to love a child who is not his? Will Serena be able to control her temper? What kind of world are they bringing a baby into?

Serena threatens June – all her smart-girl bullshit is finished! Fred comes in declaring it a happy day for all of them. Hardly for June. Not to mention, she is completely ignored – except for her uterus. It’s referred to as Serena and Fred’s baby – more specifically Mrs Waterford’s baby. June is cut in half by the curtain – only her uterus is included in the conversation. Serena pauses on the way out to kiss her forehead and tell her God bless you.

Other people move about the room, emphasizing June’s lack of privacy and that she is just a brood animal. However, as the technician (Sam Asante) leaves, he tells her “God speed, JUNE!” June finds a key in her boot as she gets dressed. There is a red square on the key, and she follows red squares left as clues to guide her out of the building. As June runs down a darkened corridor, the music again crescendos. The wavering light and her frantic breathing help to convey her sense of urgency and despair. Just as the final episode ended, June once again must take a leap of faith and climb into a waiting van without knowing anything about where she is going. I thought this was a really nice way to let us know what happened to the other handmaidens, but then get us back on track a bit with where the novel left off.

At the Waterford’s, Fred is scrambling trying to find his missing baby and handmaid, while Serena is forced to sit powerless and helpless on the sidelines. She has once again been denied the gift of a baby. She goes to wait in June’s old room, becoming the waiting Handmaid. Is she self-aware enough to consider that if she’d treated June better, she might have stayed? What if she’d given her access to Hannah instead of threatening her?

In the past, June arrives home with Hannah. Luke is watching the television in horror as the news reports on an attack in the Capitol. It’s the beginning. Like all sick children, Hannah wants her mom, so June takes her to put her to bed. June wants to know what is happening and is drawn to the television, but Hannah insists that she cuddle in bed with her. Luke stays in the other room to watch – it’s also a nice parallel to the relegation of women to the sidelines, merely as child bearers and caretakers and men to all the other roles.

June is dropped off at another location by the man (Joel Rinzler) driving the meat truck and told to stay out of sight. Someone will come for her. She hugs him, but he doesn’t hug her back. One has to wonder how many women he’s tried to save who didn’t make it. Nick (Max Minghella) comes and he does hug her! He’s brought her a change of clothes. It’s too dangerous to move June out of the city, but it won’t be long.

In a nice parallel to the scene in which Aunt Lydia burned the handmaid’s hands – the ones that held the stones – June burns her handmaid’s costume. The tunnel out of the hospital and this burning of the old are all lovely visual symbols of rebirth. She isn’t the Offred anymore, but she also isn’t the June of her memories. She also cuts her hair as another rebellious act. And then, in a final, horrific and bloody act, she cuts out the earring that marked her as a handmaid. It’s an anointing of blood that stains her white underwear as she reclaims herself and removes the last of the state’s ownership.

The voiceover tells us: “My name is June Osborne. I am from Brooklyn, Massachusetts. I am 34 years old. I stand 5, 3 in bare feet. I weigh 120 pounds. I have viable ovaries. I am five weeks pregnant. I am free.” We end with a classic women’s anthem from Annie Lennox. Have I gushed about the music on this show enough yet? I don’t think I have…

“Unwomen” splits the focus between Emily (Alexis Bledel) and June. The episode features guest appearances from Clea Duvall (Sylvia) and Marisa Tomei (Mrs O’Connor), both of whom are terrific – and so is Bledel! I really hope we get to see more from Duvall in future episodes. The flashbacks in this episode give us some insight into Emily’s background, but June’s own experiences in the present also shine a light on the past. We also see that the “State” has no shortage of ways to punish women and that Aunt Lydia may not have been wrong in telling June that a fast death is preferable to the colonies.

In the opening scene, June tries to come to term with her “freedom” and muses on how easy it was to become used to captivity, to submit. Like the first episode, she begins in a vehicle, being moved. She worries that she may not ever get out. Maybe only freedom is within you. She compares the Commander’s cock to cancer – both are a slow death. And this seems to be what her escape is too – and definitely what Emily’s life has been reduced to – a slow slide to the freedom death.

June is left in what seems to be an old warehouse or factory but is actually the offices of The Boston Globe. Because of course, the first thing you do is shut down the news and discredit it when you want to subjugate the population. There’s water and power, and the guy (Phillip Craig) who drops her off tells her he drops in about once a week. He’ll see her again – if she’s still there. Does he not know anything about what happens next? That would make sense from a security point of view – or does he not expect her to make it? June reflexively says “Under his eye” as a good bye, and he replies “After a while, crocodile” which is a wonderful contrast to how things used to be. June hears sirens and runs and hides, terrified.

I loved the way the colonies were shot in a yellow sepia with smoke billowing about. The men and horses are protected from the noxious fumes with gas masks, but one has to wonder how effective it can possibly be. One has to wonder what possible good bagging up the infected soil can be. The women are still subjected to forced prayer and ridiculous outfits.

We flash from Emily being forced to say religious nonsense, to the exact opposite of her in the past, lecturing on the term “bio” – she was a professional, an academic, and a scientist in the past. When a woman asks a question in Emily’s lecture, she is interrupted and shot down by a male student. Emily then tells him that he’s wrong and offers to send him a reading list of the proof. It’s a gentle reminder that even “before” there were still patriarchal forces at work against which women had to push back on a daily basis. Emily calls the woman as she’s leaving and tells her that she’s smart and she belongs there. The woman asks if it gets better in grad school, and Emily tells her no – just stick with it. And she’s not wrong. Some things are still that bad – in the past of the Handmaid’s Tale and our present…

Emily’s Department Chair, Dan (John Carroll Lynch) tells her that she’s going to get more lab time and time for her research – that’s the good news. Emily is worried that he’s giving away one of her classes, and he tells her that she’s not teaching at all next semester – but it won’t affect her tenure application – which would totally be a lie! He tells her that it’s cautionary. There’s been some complaint about a student seeing a picture of her with her wife and child on her phone. He tells her that he’s not asking her to hide her family… but he is.

The irony, of course, is that he is also gay. He’s trying to protect her – not “hide the dykes.” He’s also hidden the pictures of Paul, his husband. He’s had a few fights with him because Paul has called him a collaborator. Emily doesn’t want them to force them back into the closet. She insists that she’s teaching next semester. Emily has been fighting against society her entire life.

The women in the colonies are all sick, and Emily puts her training to use to try and help them. The living conditions are terrible. The women are barely holding on. Emily has managed to trade for some Tylenol (nice bridge between the last episode and this one). The woman she offers it to to bring down the fever of another tells her not to waste it. The woman can’t even keep water down. In contrast to when the State required Hannah to stay home from school for 48 hours after being fever-free, this woman will be forced to get up and work until she drops….

When Mrs O’Connor shows up, the others curse and spit at her as she spouts religious platitudes at them. It seems as if Emily is the only one willing to reach out to her. Of course, as a wife, she hasn’t been subjugated and tortured as the others have.

June explores the building, moving through the newsroom and finding the remains of the lives that were lived there. She finds an old DVD of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and sports memorabilia – and it’s a reminder of all the little things that have been lost. June is curious until she turns on the lights in the printing room and finds real reminders of the people who used to work there – and died there. She finds nooses hanging, which naturally remind her of her own recent experience – but these people weren’t spared because they were biologically valuable. She also finds a wall full of bullet holes. It’s a nice moment as June solemnly places her hand on the bullet holes in much the same way one would pay homage at a war memorial. But it’s these ghosts that freak her out and make her frantic to escape this new prison.

June has been wandering around, carrying a hammer for protection, but when she hears someone arriving, her first instinct is to hide. When she hears Nick’s voice, she drops the hammer and goes to him, but when he wants to know what happened – because she’s clearly upset – she tells him nothing. June just wants to leave. Nick points out that she’s a pregnant handmaid and they are searching for her everywhere.

Nick tells her to be patient. He can’t move her for a few weeks – but she wants out of this slaughterhouse. June is furious that Nick doesn’t know more. He points out that she started the ball rolling by agreeing to work with May Day in the first place, and he also reminds her that he’s risking his own life to help her. Even more unreasonably – though understandably – June wants Nick to find Hannah, so that they can bring her too. He’s an Eye after all! June becomes increasingly frustrated, realizing that she’s still not “free.” She’s every bit as much a helpless prisoner here as she ever was. When June demands the keys, Nick gives them to her. He does the right thing by demonstrating that he’s not her prison warden. He may want to keep her safe, but he’s not going to be her jailor.

In the end, June’s good sense prevails. She knows she can’t make it on her own. She takes back her power by dominating Nick with her body and the two have sex as the music once again crescendos. She escapes her prison sexually.

In the fields of the colonies, Mrs O’Connor begins to discover a new world. When one of the Aunts zaps her with a cattle prod for taking a break, she tries spouting scripture at her. The Aunt tells her not here and get back to work. When she goes back to work, the Aunt zaps her again for being sloppy – and because even the Aunts don’t like the women who subjugated them too after all. Finally, the look on the Mrs O’Connor’s face registers something other than acceptance – she’s annoyed.

That night she washes her hands, thinking to prevent infection, and Emily tells her that all the water is contaminated. Burst blisters mean infection. Emily offers her alcohol – it stings, but it works.  Mrs O’Connor asks her if she’s a doctor. Emily tells her she was a college professor, and Mrs O’Connor asks if that’s why Emily was sent there, and tells her that she wasn’t in favor of what happened to the Universities. Having an education doesn’t make you a criminal – but having an education does make it harder to subjugate someone with “fake” news! She tells Emily that she had an MFA before the law changed. However, there’s a big difference between a degree in Fine Arts – in interior design! – and one in Science. Mrs O’Connor confides that she’s been sent to the colonies for an “indiscretion.” Apparently, she “fell in love” while her husband was busy with the handmaid. She wonders if it matters to God that she trespassed because she was in love – will God forgive her? Emily gives Mrs O’Connor some antibiotics to help her – and explains that it’s because a Mistress was kind to her once. And she really had me going here. I really did think that Emily was helping her.

Of course, the cut to the past is ample evidence that Emily doesn’t believe that love will triumph. We see that Dan – no doubt in despair about his own relationship and the knowledge that being gay will “no longer be tolerated” – has taken his own life. If God cared about love, would “He” have let this happen? Emily is devastated and immediately sets about rescuing her own love and family.

The scene at the border is so reminiscent of recent events in the news of families being torn apart at borders – it’s relevant, shocking, and heartbreaking. The speed at which things are changing – showing how so many of the women could have been rounded up so quickly – is demonstrated by the border agents. The regulations and rules have changed since that very morning, and seem to change again as Emily tries to work through the system and get to freedom. Even the attitudes of the agents change. By the time Emily gets to the final agent, her marriage is no longer recognized by the state.

Just as June’s questioning in the first episode by the nurse is clear that they are screening for viable handmaids, so is Emily’s questioning by the border guard (Mark Wiebe). He wants to know who gave birth to the child and whose egg it was. He then tells them that their marriage is no longer recognized by the state. Again, recent events make this a frightening possibility of recent legislation is repealed. We can only hope that more people will stand up to prevent such atrocities.

When Emily physically stands up and tries to protest – and demands a lawyer, another agent forcibly pushes her back into her seat. She is clearly shaken and scared at this point. Sylvia remains silent throughout, holding the baby. Perhaps in shock? I kept feeling like there was more love on Emily’s part, and this is one of the reasons that I want a lot more about this character. The music comes up and we see the two part in silence. They kiss as they are pulled apart by circumstances. Bledel is wonderful as she says goodbye to her son and then watches her life leave her behind.

Back at the colonies, Emily finds the Mrs O’Connor in what passes for the washroom, and she’s dying. Emily asked if she took the pills as Mrs O’Connor continues to pray. She says she did but doesn’t think they are working – but they are. Mrs O’Connor is still sure that God will save her and punish Emily! Emily reminds her that every month, Mrs O’Connor held a woman down while her husband raped her. Some things can’t be forgiven. Mrs O’Connor is a true collaborator. Mrs O’Connor still appeals to Emily to pray with her, but Emily insists that she deserves to die alone and leaves her. It’s Emily’s way to honor the lives of the handmaids.

The next day, Emily prepares to go into the fields with the other women. Mrs O’Connor has been displayed on a cross – like a crucifixion. But she will be mourned by none – neither the Aunts nor handmaids there. It’s almost a reward of sorts when Janine then comes off the bus. At least, Emily has friends – she is not alone.

There’s a beautiful segue here to June watching that DVD of FRIENDS. The women are talking about erogenous zones and of course, the men have no clue about how many a woman has. It’s a beautiful segue from the previous scene, but also the previous scene between June and Nick, and it also underscores the differences between men and women and the lack of understanding that often exists. It also even refers back to the “ceremony” in which there was absolutely no consideration of a woman’s needs. It even speaks to why Mrs O’Connor would have strayed.

June is suddenly moved to collect personal effects from the various desks and erect a shrine to the dead. She covers the bullet holes with momentos and lights candles. Saying a prayer for the dead – unlike Mrs O’Connor, who only said prayers for herself. There is also a beautiful shot as she kneels and looks up at the pictures and mementos of the dead that parallels the shot from the beginning of the first episode when June looks up to Heaven when she thinks that she is about to be hung.

The season is off to a wonderful start with stunning performances by Moss, Bledel, Dowd, and Tomei. I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here and exactly which stories we will follow. I’d love to see Sylvia join forces with Luke and Moira. I’m interested to see how Serena and Fred will factor into the season too. What did you think of the first two episodes? Did Mrs O’Connor deserve to die? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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