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Today we’re discussing the season 2 premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale: June. Cold opens, freedom, silence, and a little bit of Fenway never hurts…
“My name is June Osborne, I’m from Brookline, Massachusetts. I’m 34 years old. I stand five-foot-three in bare feet. I weigh 120 pounds. I have viable ovaries. I’m five weeks pregnant. I am free.”
I am going to do my best Matthew McConaughey impression as I type this. You won’t get the benefit, but just go with it – “Alright, alright, alright.” Now this is what I’m talking about.
In my last article, I kind of got on Bruce Miller and The Handmaid’s Tale for wanting to embrace the more macro parts of the show, such as the overall rebellion against Gilead, as opposed to the more micro bits like June’s specific struggle. While I don’t think we’re in the complete clear yet, if this premiere is any indication, Miller seems to have corrected course a bit. This was all June, and, it was frakking good.
I love when a show flexes it’s muscles – whether it be great camera work, excellent score, awesome acting, or allowing something to breathe. There’s no bigger flex than this scene in LOST, or even this scene in Game Of Thrones. Two totally different tones, two totally different styles, but it shows you what those shows were really good at doing. I’m happy to say The Handmaid’s Tale has flexed it’s muscles in a big way with the opening to season 2.
Opening up on sirens (call back to season 1), heavy breathing, no dialogue, no score, and June being enveloped in darkness before being ushered into a run down and dilapidated Fenway Park with all the other Handmaids was breathtaking. It was frenetic, terrifying, cold, and coarse in a way that only The Handmaid’s Tale could pull off. The obvious morsel to pick out here is that they’re being brought to Fenway Park – a staple of the city of Boston, something that is now just as historic as Fanueil Hall, the Old North Church or The U.S.S. Constitution. It’s a place of warmth, happy memories for anyone from this area, and it’s a physical representation of America’s purity and old tradition. It’s the pastime. To see it so disheveled and abandoned, is quite an odd experience – especially for someone like me who is a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation.
So while seeing Fenway in that state is a shock to the system for me, the real genius behind the writing and the way Mike Barker shoots it, is the silence. No words, no score, nothing. Just cries, shouts from the Eyes, sirens, and June’s breathing. Mirroring my favorite scene from the Handmaid’s Tale, June has her mouth covered, and I’m pretty sure she is aware of her impending death – especially after the protest for the sake of Janine’s life.
Now, there’s an argument to be made here that some of the tension is sapped out of the scene because we know Nick told her to trust him when she was taken away at the end of season 1. We also know that the show isn’t going to kill their main star right at the beginning of season 2, so the likelihood of her death is very small. My response would be the tension is not borne from whether we think June is going to die, but, rather, what about everyone else? Sure, we know Janine and some of the other Handmaid’s but they’re not essential to our story. More importantly, they are not aware they have what’s called “plot armor”, and how the show needs a group of Handmaids to follow in order to fulfill the show’s purpose. But it’s the small moments, the looks of terror, the muffled screams, the desperate eyes, and the tears of these women that THINK they’re about to die that creates the tension. They’re preparing for the end.
This scene also works really well because while they prepare for death, we are not comforted by June’s voiceover. Voiceovers are present, for the most part, to inform the viewer of information they wouldn’t otherwise be able to know from the current lines or what’s on screen. It’s a tool often over-used (I’m looking at you, Outlander), but it does provide a sense of encouragement to the viewer because it gives you the feeling that the story is in good hands. The showrunner is taking you on a journey, and you just have to go along with it. But it ain’t here for us this time, and that’s a really good thing.
I know I’ve gone on about how great the opening scene was, and even though they didn’t actually hang all the Handmaids, this scene was near perfection. The only gripe I have is the use of “This Woman’s Work” while the Handmaid’s gather up on the gallows. Listen, I get why it was used, and there’s a great argument for it’s powerful impact here. But, it took me out of the scene.
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Trust me, I also know how uppity that phrase is. I hate when people say X “took me out of the scene/movie”. It’s like they’re trying too hard. So, 30 lashes for me. HOWEVA, Barker’s shots, coupled with Miller’s clear intent to keep us viewers solely in the hyper real perspective of June and the Handmaids seems to be undermined by the inclusion of music from nowhere. If it were me, I probably would have just stayed with no sounds, music, or anything until the floors give out, the Handmaid’s drop a couple of inches and we are treated to June’s first voiceover of the season after this whole mindf*ck went down. “Our Father, who art in Heaven. Seriously? What the actual fuck?” It’s at that point we’re back in story-mode, and out of the the hyper real perspective.
But, hoooo boy. What a beginning.
The rest of the episode is good – whether it’s the stuff with Aunt Lydia passive-aggressively putting June in her place (thank you so much to the writers for acknowledging the notion that June wasn’t all that brave when she didn’t stone Janine. She knew that she was protected because she was pregnant, and nothing could happen to her.) Or even the really great contextual flashbacks of how slowly and steadily women’s rights were being stripped from them even before the advent of Gilead. Making sure Luke had to sign his name to paperwork that allowed June to get Birth Control? Really? Wow.
Is it more disturbing that the nurse only called June by her maiden name, or that Gilead was started not just by random terrorist attacks, but a highly planned and concerted strike against the American institutions? I felt violated by that nurse asking June inappropriate questions and alluding to the idea that she maliciously medicated her kid before school.
These flashbacks give us a really good context into how Gilead started to take form, but the current scene introduce us back to this world where, theoretically, the person watching would have been absent from for the better part of a year. In my case, I’m bingeing it and I can honestly say that it’s still just as effective for me. The second most effective part of this episode is that it facilitates what the show needs overall – a new beginning. June is now free.
June being free, and escaping the very sterile world of the Waterfords and Gilead’s patriarchy is the exact kind of lifeblood The Handmaid’s Tale needs. We could probably only take so much of the Waterford’s house going forward, and it puts the writers into a creative corner so-to-speak. This baby is coming, June is free, and how can they get the baby out in a proper manner but also keep the show going at the same time? Was it a little tiresome to be at the Waterford’s house so much? Sure. But, watching a show where June is free in Canada, or just roughing it in the backwoods of Roxbury probably isn’t all that compelling either.
So this move raises the stakes, has a deep impact on the plot, but also alters the dynamic of the relationships that we all know are going to rear their ugly heads again in the future. If June goes falls within the clutches of the Waterfords at some point again, what will that be like? Will she be transferred to the Red Center just like that girl Aunt Lydia showed her? Better yet, what position does this put Serena and Fred in when it comes to their standing within Gilead? Letting a Handmaid escape?! Lastly, who is helping June? We know that it’s Nick – he’s there to comfort her when she arrives at The Boston Globe building of all places. But, he couldn’t do it alone. No chance. So there is a network of people helping her get out, and it will be interesting to know who the hell is behind it.
Covered in blood from her own personal surgery, and standing free, this season has begun in spectacular fashion with June. Not Offred. But, June. Let’s hope they stick with June for now, and not get stuck with plot machinations to get her back into a rebellion.
Mary & Blake certified: A
Apropos of nothing:
- Seeing all the Boston references definitely makes the show more real for me. Between Fenway and The Boston Globe, this was a big deal. Especially since the driver said the building had been abandoned since the war. Meaning, free press, freedom of speech, and government accountability/ oversight, have been gone since the war. Sometimes this show hits us over the head with it’s metaphors, musical choices, or straight up references. But this was a small, possibly overlooked bit of writing that makes this show as great as it is. It tells you more about the world than any kind of explanation, or history lesson of how Gilead came to be ever wished it could.
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