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THE HANDMAID’S TALE gets 9.5/10 Oppressed women fighting back

Season 2 epsiodes 1 and 2

Created by Bruce Miller
Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Max Minghella, Yvonne Strahovinski

9.5/10

CW: rape, misogyny, brutality and violence

Anyone who watched season one has been eagerly yet gingerly anticipating the second one after a foreboding cliff hanger in the final episode. Buckle in, because this is not for the faint of heart. It requires multiple content warnings, and perhaps a stiff drink and someone to hold during the first episode. It is difficult to even list all the content warnings because the opener is 27 minutes of pure savagery on the soul and will leave you bruised and battle scarred. Remember the first episode of season one where they beat the rapist to death? Times that by a hundred barbaric screen moments, and you’re probably halfway there.

When we last left June (Elisabeth Moss), she had recently led an open but gently apologetic rebellion against the sadistic, sociopathic Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) when implored to commit the most heinous of atrocities against their fellow handmaid, the downtrodden and broken Janine (Madeline Brewer). Afterwards, their empowered and committed march home was cathartic and hopeful, and we were all dreaming of a future Gilead where there was a merciless uprising from these brutalised women. However, only the blind would think it would go unpunished. And the punishment is meted out across 27 minutes of some of the hardest television to date. It is relentless and detailed and the viewer is right there with the downtrodden, abused handmaids through every moment.

Queen that she is, Kate Bush has never seen her musical brilliance utilised more perfectly than with this rendition of This Woman’s Work. Heart-wrenching is an oft overused descriptor in reviews, but it doesn’t even begin to describe how this plays out for an audience. This is harrowing, horrific and stomach churning. We as viewers are right there with them, trying desperately to hold a handmaid’s hand for comfort and coming up empty as she is herded like so much livestock while being bound and gagged, then desperately panicking as the scene plays out. It is unflinching drama at its finest and most gripping, but positively soul destroying as you bear silent witness to atrocities we can see as a possible future.

We left Moira (Samira Wiley) as an embattled, war torn survivor who had blessedly made her escape to Canada, Emily (Alexis Bledel) unheard of since her castration for being a ‘gender traitor’ in season one, and Janine an unknown casualty following her suicide attempt. Questions are answered, the mysteries of The Colonies revealed in the starkest of ways, and there is a sense of uncomfortable completion following all the unanswered questions hanging in time from season one.

It is terrifying because this is our truth, sitting right there waiting to happen at any moment. Read up on the horrors of the FOSTA bill in the US and you will not miss the parallels. Women are being silenced already, their rights ripped away under the Trump government, and sex workers are already losing their lives. Watch season one, episode three’s protest scenario and fight me if it doesn’t resonate hard. The future is now. “This is what I feel like – the sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter” – June, season one.

In the opening of season two, we see replayed the foreshadowing of episode four with the invisible obstetrician behind the curtain. He is the key to her salvation and emancipation. And a series of men follow suit, including the kindly butcher of season one. These men are committed to the cause of the women, and while they don’t get a cookie for helping break chains, their commitment to Mayday is applauded. Allies are always welcome.

The Handmaid’s Tale is nothing short of absolutely brutal viewing, and not recommended to binge watch, just for the sake of  viewers’ mental health. The tale of a not too distant dystopian future whereby women are oppressed under a totalitarian regime hell bent on control (sound familiar?) and forced into sex slavery, where they are raped by their masters while their mistress holds them down, is a difficult watch for anyone, but heartily recommended for all if you have the wherewithal. It’s very tough viewing, but the payoff and insight into the fears women face every day are worth it.

Their quiet courage is inspiring, the character arcs of strength and resilience under the most terrible of conditions and most stifling of blatant misogyny is mesmerising, and the director’s ability to truly make you empathise with the characters is a work of art. If you aren’t moved by it, you may want to check your pulse. The thematic content of power, control and oppression may seem extreme to some in its delivery, but women will see elements of our daily collective experience reflected within, and it can be a raw and harsh mirror to look into, as you stand naked and exposed.

The blaming of women for tempting men when raped, for instance, or the assumption that it is the woman at fault if she is unable to conceive, the pressure to be silent and to not challenge men for fear of retribution, and the assumption that women who enjoy sex are harlots, all ring too true in this world. It’s dangerously heartbreaking.

What do we learn from the tale? That it is dangerous to be silent and therefore complicit. While it is not the safest path, challenging the paradigm by speaking up and shouting it loudly is absolutely necessary, lest we wait for someone else to do so, with help that may never come. When we see oppression, we need to speak up and we need to call them out. It is never safe for us to let it slide, as it will only worsen without being kept in check. The Handmaid’s Tale is a war cry for us to rally against power structures before they are our downfall.

NATALIE GILES

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