The Handmaid’s Tale Steps Deeper Into Darkness

The second season of the show is looking less and less like fiction

Still from the TV Show "The Handmaid's Tale" showing group of women walking in radioactive field
Photography Courtesy Bell Media

The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale closed last year on a question mark. Throughout the show’s ten episodes, based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, we’ve watched characters try to navigate an eerily realistic totalitarian society. The Republic of Gilead has overthrown the US government, promising to fix environmental disasters and collapsing birth rates. The dystopian nation publicly hangs dissidents, forbids women to read, and forces those who are fertile into sexual servitude. One of these handmaids, June—or Offred, as per Gilead’s hyperpatriarchal naming system—is our protagonist, a woman whose only lifeline is her belief her daughter, Hannah, is still alive and that she will get her back.

In the last moments of the first season’s finale, we watch as a now pregnant June steps through the double doors of a waiting van. We’ve recently seen her rebel, both leading the other women in a refusal to stone a fellow handmaid and, perhaps more dangerously, helping the shadowy Mayday resistance—an action that could now be her salvation or, if she’s been exposed, her end. Neither we, nor June, know what comes next. The show’s star, Elisabeth Moss, plays the moment perfectly. The questions of June’s fate unspool silently, drawn across the pale planes of her clenched face. June has trusted her life to strangers, she reminds us, because they’re all that’s left. “And so I step up,” she says, her concluding line the same in both book and screen versions, “into the darkness within; or else the light.”

If you’re among the viewers who assume the show will end in the light—as many readers of Atwood’s novel have been led to believe—that final moment brings comfort. But, in that lull, it can be easy to forget: Gilead doesn’t provide comforts—a truth of which we are, in season two of the show, forcefully reminded. I recently watched advanced screenings of the first two episodes in the upcoming season, which premieres in Canada on April 29 on Bravo. If the episodes are any indication, the second season will delve deeper into the light and darkness in Gilead, urging us to see it as a place that’s neither one nor the other but somewhere murkier, somewhere in between.

In the first, brief scene of the second season’s lead episode, “June,” we return to our hero in the back of the van, staring defiantly forward. A light shines behind her, through a metal slot, and she turns, caught. Someone slams the slot shut, and June is plunged back into darkness. Bullet casings tumble across the floor. The van halts. Doors open on armed men violently corralling muzzled handmaids into line, a stark contrast to the open maws of circling German shepherds. It’s soon evident that these are all the handmaids who joined June in refusing to stone their fellow handmaid, Janine, to death. Once gathered, the women are led through a tunnel. As it turns out, this is Fenway Park, and there, before the handmaids, are three hangman’s gallows stretched across its green outfield. Nooses hang like necklaces.

What happens next is a reminder that, when it comes to Gilead, viewers are never given the security of an upward trajectory, a progressive sense that things are getting better. The first season was so wildly popular, in part, because it skewed brilliantly close to our current reality. When the show debuted in April 2017, a few months after Donald Trump’s inauguration, its fictional future felt prescient. Worse, it felt imminent. If you were afraid of the current political climate, The Handmaid’s Tale assured us, you had a right to be.

After all, in Gilead’s dystopia, the enemy is neither technological nor supernatural: it’s us. We are reminded of this again and again as the second season further explores Gilead’s origins. In one chilling pre-Gilead scene from the first episode, the school sends June and her husband, Luke’s, daughter, Hannah, to the hospital. The girl has a light fever, which violates the school’s attendance policy, and neither June nor Luke can be reached at work. When June eventually arrives to retrieve her daughter, a female nurse insists on calling June by her husband’s surname, despite June’s correction that she doesn’t share it. With saccharine politeness she asks June whether she works full-time. If Hannah is sick, does June have to miss work? Yes, June answers. This prompts the nurse to ask whether June drugged Hannah to bypass the school’s fever policy. The disturbing undercurrent here is, of course, that mothers should stay home—an old prejudice that we know Gilead will soon take to the extreme.

As the second season progresses and we amass information about the “how”—how June, and the women in her world, went from freedom to captivity—it becomes easier to connect the dots from our present reality to our proposed fictional future. These “before” scenes force viewers to confront the slight off-reality of The Handmaid’s Tale in a way the show’s more brutal moments cannot. After all, last year, in the real world, we saw the resurgence, and consequent mainstreaming, of white supremacy. Anti-feminism has surged forward. Throughout North America and parts of Europe, we have seen what happens when we can pluck our hate out of closed-door conversations and make it public, hurl it at our intended targets. This is modern-day Canada and the US; this, the show contends, is our descent into Gilead.

We cannot place all blame on one man whose hair looks like a windswept toupée. The first season pointedly revealed that the ruling women of Gilead—the wives, and particularly June’s mistress, Serena Joy—played an active role in ushering in the new world order. They wanted, as do many women now, a return to domesticity and purpose within the home. The second season seems set to remind us that Gilead cannot be laid at the feet of one person; the show does not provide us with a leader to topple, a vessel for our outrage. Nothing about Gilead can be explained away so easily. This place doesn’t exist because of a few scary men, or even a few scary women. It exists, the show argues, because we were complicit. We forgot that evil isn’t relegated to fairy tales. We have erroneously treated the it as extreme, hysteric, Biblical. But evil is ordinary.

At one point during the second episode, June wonders “What will happen when I get out?” She quickly corrects herself, deciding she won’t have to worry about it. “There probably is no out,” she wavers. “Gilead knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.” The précis for this season promises us we will see the show’s characters “fight against—or succumb to—this dark truth.” Certainly, the episode itself continues to ponder questions of human nature, goodness, and blame when, also in the second episode, we finally get a glimpse of the long-threatened colonies, a nuclear wasteland where Gilead ships non-compliant handmaids and other women.

There, we discover the fate of Alexis Bledel’s character, Emily (Ofglen, if you must), a one-time resistance member and June’s former shopping partner. As we later watch Emily do a horrible—or, conversely, laudable—thing to a new member of the colonies, a woman who used to belong to Gilead’s ruling class as a Wife, we’re reminded that The Handmaid’s Tale’s genius rests in its ability to provoke its viewers into wondering what they would do, in this too-near world: Would we—to quote a statement carved in Latin into June’s closet by a previous handmaid, and repeated as a symbol of hope—not let the bastards grind us down?

If the first season ran parallel to our world, the second, once more, mirrors us back to ourselves. As June and the other characters reckon with “the darkness within” there is a blurring between hero and monster. What brings some characters peace is retribution, violence, pain. In one of Emily’s final scenes, the former Wife asks her why she is being so kind, the implication being that the Wife doesn’t deserve it—or maybe she just can’t believe Emily still has the capacity for kindness at all. As I followed the show deeper into Gilead, I wondered the same thing.

Lauren McKeon
Lauren McKeon is deputy editor of Reader's Digest Canada and the author of two books, F-Bomb and No More Nice Girls.