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Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Handmaid's Tale: The most compelling hour of TV so far in 2018

Blessed day. The most harrowing show on television is back and no, before you ask, I’m not talking about Love Island. I am, of course referring to The Handmaid’s Tale, which returns to Channel 4 for a chilling second season. Based on Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed novel, the hit series cleaned up at every award ceremony going, and became a worldwide phenomenon. Arguably the most culturally and socially relevant series there ever was, The Handmaid’s Tale resonated with audiences for several reasons, but there was a lot of questions surrounding the second season — with specific focus on whether or not there was a need for it. Could a second season possibly live up to the masterpiece that was the first?


In a word: yes. The premiere episode is not only excellent, it’s one of the best episodes of television we’ve seen all year. Why? Because it’s relevant. Because it’s extremely well written and acted. And because, despite its science-fiction-esque premise, it feels every bit as real as the first season. The very first scene in the episode — aptly titled “June” — takes us back to the disturbing dystopian world of Gilead, and it’s like we’ve never been away. Without so much as a moment to reacquaint ourselves with these characters, the handmaids — including Offred (Elisabeth Moss), our protagonist — are faced with the consequences of their sins. In case you’ve forgotten, they were taken away to be punished after they refused to stone Janine (Madeline Brewer) to death.
The terrified women were all brought to the deserted Fenway Park stadium, where they then realised they were being rounded up for the slaughter. Adam Taylor’s wonderfully haunting score did little to settle our stomachs during this intense opening, as the girls discovered they were about to be hanged. There have been fewer harrowing moments on television, as Offred — or should I say, June — comes to terms with her fate. She doesn't say a word — she wasn't able to — and yet her expression conveyed exactly how she was feeling. 

It's a testament to Moss' phenomenal acting ability. Tears streamed down all of the women’s faces, but they were not permitted to speak to one another, nor could they comfort each other, because of the muzzles covering their mouths. Even when facing death, they were still not seen as human beings. "This can’t be," I thought to myself, "she can’t die." You see, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t like other shows on TV. It’s a show in similar vein to that Game Of Thrones, where every character — even your protagonist — could die at any given moment. Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” plays as the nooses are placed around the handmaids’ necks. I don’t think there has ever been a more apt use of music in a television series before, as the lyrics of Bush’s haunting melody perfectly reflect these brave women and their unfortunate circumstances. 

Less than ten minutes in and I had experienced every emotion there is. It's a tough show to watch and yet you can't take your eyes away from the screen. Bruce Miller’s wonderful script really delivers on every count. As for Moss, well if she doesn’t win another Emmy for this scene alone then she’ll have been robbed. The harrowing episode is beautifully directed by Mike Barker. As always, the cinematography in this show is top-notch. The crisp colours pop, and the up-close shots — or depth of field shots, if you’re nerdy like me — of Moss’ face intensify June/Offred’s inability to escape, as well as making our protagonist look even more uncomfortable, given the unusual closeness of these angles. The dull colour pallet gives The Handmaid’s Tale a bleak yet aesthetically pleasing finish and, if anything, adds to the horror of Gilead in this episode more so than before.

The evil Aunt Lydia is back to her old tricks, and Ann Dowd delivers another great performance in this episode. Lydia had no intention of hanging the girls, but simply wanted to instil the fear of God in them. Upon learning of Offred/June’s pregnancy, she had the handmaid taken to the medical facility to get checked over. Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) scolded Offred for her disobedience, but this time Offred wasn’t taking any crap from her mistress. She repeated the advice Serena gave her in Season 1, which was to not get upset as it’s “bad for the baby”. Resisting the urge to shout “Take that, Serena” or “You go, girl” or something else equally uplifting at Offred’s response was tough-going for me, especially because it was clear that it wasn’t really Offred doing the back-talking; it was June. In this scene, the dynamic between the handmaid and her mistress changed almost immediately; June calling Serena by her name instead of “Mrs. Waterford” signified a change in power. It was June who was now in control. By carrying this baby, she has something that Serena wants. The threat of death hasn’t discouraged June’s rebellious nature at all. If anything, it’s encouraged it. Moreover, Moss’ delivery of the line was superb.

As June collected her thoughts in the cold examination room, she discovered a key in her boot. This key was used to unlock the nearby door, and with that June actually managed to escape. This was certainly a curveball that I didn’t see coming. But that’s the great thing about The Handmaid’s Tale. What’s is also really interesting about this show is the effect it has on viewers. Even after everything she had endured, there was a small part of me that wanted June to go back. "What if she gets caught?" I thought. "Imagine the punishment she will face." And yet, the other part of me wanted her to run like her life depended on it. Because it did. Because it does. Despite thinking you’d have to suspend belief to buy into the dystopian future of Gilead, the horrifying reality is that you don't. Why? Because it’s not unrealistic at all, and that’s mainly down to the excellent characterisation and storytelling employed by Miller. That’s how good his script is.
As suspected, it was Commander Waterford’s driver, the ever loveable Nick (Max Minghella), that orchestrated June’s escape. He had her transported to a safe location, and then instructed her to remove her uniform and cut her hair. It wasn’t just the uniform that June was discarding though, it was Offred too. She was bidding farewell to the caricature she had become — the shadow of her former self. Offred is gone and June is finally free. The symbolism and subtext in this show are as strong as ever.

The concluding scene saw our protagonist use the scissors to cut the red tag out of her ear. It was perhaps the ultimate “Screw you to the powers that be, as she was removing the hold they had on her both physically and metaphorically. It was a grotesque, almost vomit-inducing scene as the blood spurted from her ear, and yet it never felt gratuitous at all. We needed to see June reclaim her freedom — no matter how gruesome. No matter the cost.

Despite how hard I try, words are simply not enough to describe The Handmaid’s Tale. “June” is one of the strongest hours of television I’ve ever seen, confirming that the hit series managed to avoid the dreaded second season syndrome that has befallen some of the world’s greatest shows. And the standard only continues to improve as the season progresses. The Elisabeth Moss-led drama is truly unlike anything else, and it evokes feelings in the viewer unlike any other show that has come before. It’s a series that makes you realise just how powerful television can be when it’s at its best, and how we can all take heart in knowing that, no matter how real the show is, this is not our reality. Well, not yet anyway. And for that we can say, praise be.  

Contributed by Stephen Patterson
 The Handmaid’s Tale continues Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4.

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