'The Handmaid's Tale' Hits The Ground Running In Its Bleak Season 2 Premiere

(We're going to kickstart our weekly The Handmaid's Tale review by answering one simple question: Who suffered the most?)

Praise be, The Handmaid's Tale is back. Who's ready for some soul-crushing entertainment?

The second season of the harrowing Hulu series returned yesterday with a two-episode premiere, "June," and "Unwoman." I'll be recapping the events of both in my first weekly spoiler review of this season (though check out my spoiler-free review of season 2 as well). Season 2 is off to a strong start with the almost sadistically cruel season 2 premiere, featuring two of the strongest actresses on the show flexing their dramatic chops in a series of sadistic narrative twists.

Who Suffered the Most? June and Emily

For the first time in The Handmaid's Tale history, it's not all about June/Offred. Not that June isn't a fascinating protagonist — in fact, Elisabeth Moss gets a stellar showcase for the first, eponymous episode of season 2, "June." But in the second episode of The Handmaid's Tale season 2, "Unwoman," we get the chance to move beyond June's very narrow perspective into Emily's (Alexis Bledel). But any excitement you may have at seeing another character's past will be quickly cut short by the reminder that this is the most disheartening show on air right now.

In the season 2 premiere, we get a peek at the ominous pasts and bleak futures of both June and Emily. It's a study in contrasts: June has a terrifying brush with death before she gets spirited away by Nick in an escape attempt that is no less frightening. But while June gets a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, Emily's prospects are as hopeless as can be. Condemned to the radiation-poisoned Colonies, Emily can only do back-breaking labor as her body slowly disintegrates — though she does get a small chance for petty vengeance with the arrival of Marisa Tomei's Mrs. O'Connor.

A Sudden Shock and a Slow Burn

Season 1 of The Handmaid's Tale ended with things looking pretty dire for June. The season 2 premiere picks up immediately after a newly pregnant June had been carted off in a van by the Eyes, Nick (Max Minghella) assuring her that things will be all right. But it's not a chance for escape like June — and us viewers — had been led to believe. No, this is a march to execution.

June finds herself joined by all the other frightened Handmaids at Fenway Park, which has been converted into a gallows. Forced into a muzzle, June is led to her hanging rope, eerily calm as her fellow Handmaids alternately cry and piss themselves. But as Kate Bush croons "This Woman's Work" (that tonal dissonance! Those pop feminism vibes!) and the rope is placed around June's neck, the despair sets into her eyes, which turn skyward, hoping for some kind of miracle. And it comes: but not as a miracle, as a cruel joke. The entire ploy was a power move by Aunt Lydia, as a way of frightening the Handmaids into submission after they had openly defied her by refusing to stone Janine to death. June is saved again when Aunt Lydia learns that she is pregnant, who joyously declares it a miracle.

Now that The Handmaid's Tale is no longer bound to Margaret Atwood's book, the show is making bold moves beyond the novel. And it seems the first of those bold moves is to up the ante on the torture. Honestly, it becomes a lot. First, the scene where the horrified Handmaids have a brush with death at the Fenway Park galleys goes on for so long that it's akin to mental torture. Next, Aunt Lydia parades in front of June the pregnant and mentally unhinged Ofwyatt (Alana Pancyr), dragging her chains across the vast room where she's been imprisoned for her suicide attempt. Then Alma (Nina Kiri) is brutally tortured right in front of a stone-faced June, her screams piercing through the screen as Aunt Lydia sets fire to her hands. It's horrible. It's exhausting. 

What’s in a Name?

"June" is the first time we really see June take ownership of her identity. No longer is she simply Offred (though her embrace of herself does make it confusing for the person writing these reviews) — she's taking back her agency and old self.

It's her name that becomes a code word for the ultrasound technician that helps her escape from the hospital, and her name that becomes her mental anchor as Aunt Lydia tries to break down her free will.

This rebellious, petulant June is more in line with the go-girl feminism that this show is so fond of, and already feels less tonally dissonant than the first season. This June is generous with her "fucks," will roll her eyes at Aunt Lydia's demands, and will openly retort back to Serena Joy. The connection between Offred and the June of the flashbacks is becoming clearer when the June of the past irritatingly corrects a hospital worker that she's June Osborn, not Mrs. Bankole, just before the June of the present declares, "My name is June Osborn... I am free."


The peek at the Colonies in episode 2, "Unwoman," is the most dystopian imagery we've seen yet in the series. The dusty barren, radioactive landscapes feel like something out of Mad Max, with the "unwomen" in grey babushka outfits and the superiors donning gas masks and aprons. And the first unwoman we see: Emily, fresh out of her genital mutilation and sent to die in the labor camps. Emily has taken on the role of the caretaker of the other women, using her knowledge as a former biology professor to treat their illnesses and decaying limbs.

It's her caretaker status that helps her ingratiate herself to the newest arrivee at the Colonies: a disgraced Wife played by Marisa Tomei. Mrs. O'Connor is a true believing, formerly esteemed Wife who immediately gets ostracized by everyone at the camp except for Emily, who tends her to her blisters and gives her antibiotics. But this is just a scheme by Emily, who is still raging against the machine that enslaved her and raped her. In a shocking twist that reminds us that Alexis Bledel's baby face is an amazing mask for Emily's unforgiving nature, Emily poisons Mrs. O'Connor in cold blood, tying her up in her blue Wife's dress and hanging her body in a display of defiance that delights the other unwomen and angers the superiors. It's the most brutal show of rebellion that we've seen from our side yet, and yet it feels so deliciously justified. Even if it wastes Marisa Tomei.

“Welcome to the Fight. It Sucks”

Episode 2 is the strongest episode of the first half of season 1, primarily because of its bold pivot to Emily's point of view. As compelling of a protagonist as June is, her perspective can feel suffocating, and in this episode, it becomes infuriating.

Dropped off at the abandoned Boston Globe — which miraculously still has running water and electricity — June is horrified to see that it became "a slaughterhouse" where the employees were suddenly herded to the basement and shot. Meeting with Nick, she demands to be taken out of Gilead immediately, but he balks. After several angry outbursts and feeling helpless for the first time since her escape, June tries her biggest power move: lots of kinky sex. It may or may not have worked, but at least we got a steamy five-minute sex marathon out of it — and a rare consensual one at that! But June eventually makes her peace with her temporary home, building an altar for the murdered journalists and muttering her own prayer for them.

While June is spinning her wheels at the Globe, we get to learn more about Emily who, let's be honest, is the most fascinating character of this episode. Her life as a biology professor — defending her female students from mansplaining cohorts, discussing the fight for LGBT rights with her colleague — is endlessly fascinating, and I wish we could get more of it. But her flashback's arc feels very complete, briskly moving from the first signs of oppression, to her coworker's lynching, to her detainment at the airport just as she's about to migrate to Canada. "Unwoman" is a promising sign of an expanding world and expanding worldview beyond June's, and I hope that we get to see more of the Handmaids' pasts in the future.

Tale Tidbits:

  • Fun fact: My cousin who works as a teacher confirmed that the rule that kids must be fever-free for 24 hours is true today, though it probably doesn't have the same foreboding implications.
  • Ann Dowd. ANN. DOWD.
  • I counted at least 12 "fucks" uttered between these two episodes. Hulu is not here to play.
  • You get Marisa Tomei on the show and barely use her for one episode?!
  • Friends will be there for you, even in an abysmal totalitarian future.
  • There's probably something to be written about The Handmaid's Tale's fascinating relationship with religion, but I am not that person to write it.