It was a long wait, but the second season of the Emmy and Golden Globe winning drama The Handmaid’s Tale (Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on Bravo) finally returned Sunday night with a big two-hour debut. The story picked up maybe five minutes from the first season finale, after Offred (Elisabeth Moss) was escorted from the Waterfords’ house and ushered into that van, destination unknown.
To say the premiere zagged when we expected it to zig is a complete understatement. If your heart wasn’t in your throat during those first five minutes alone then you are made of steel, my friend. In fact the entire first hour was basically an anxious person’s worst nightmare, given everything that went down.
As though that weren’t enough, the second hour broke down the story even more with a deep dive into Emily (Alexis Bledel) and her new gig in The Colonies, with a backstory featuring guest star Clea DuVall (Veep) to boot. Trying to recap it all here would require several essays and probably some medication (this show really is dark), so instead let’s just look at all of the WTF moments—in order of airing—that basically blew our minds.
The hanging scene
I don’t think I’ve ever in my life been so captivated, yet horrified, at a TV scene as I was when Offred and the rest of the handmaids were rounded up like cattle, lined up in nooses in the outfield at the old Fenway Park and made to believe they were about to die. Between the tears, that eerie song and one girl even peeing herself, it was all too much. I obviously knew Offred wasn’t going to die (I thought her pregnancy would save her), but I believed the rest of the handmaids would plunge to their deaths. Not so—the entire thing was a warning from Aunt Lydia to all of the girls to never misbehave again. I’d say they got the message.
June’s birth control
In the flashback scene to just before things got really bad, June and Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) spent a nice moment together discussing whether June should go off her birth control so they could hypothetically try for another baby. That was fine and dandy. What sat with me was that to even get birth control June had to have a permission slip signed by her husband. While he questioned the need for a signature June seemed to take it all in stride, proving that sometimes little changes to the status quo can go unnoticed for a long time, but eventually they can also sneak up on you in a really big way.
Aunt Lydia’s torture
Apparently pretending to slaughter a group of women isn’t enough torture, not when you can also make all of the handmaids kneel down on cobblestone and hold rocks out the way Nazis made the Jews do it during the Holocaust. Sure, June was saved, but the scene (complete with the awesome bird’s-eye view shot of them in a circle), was memorable and rather artistic. The shots would almost have you believe this show is a romance, if the contents weren’t so damned harrowing.
Back to the past, June got a phone call from Hannah’s school when Hannah developed a fever of 101 degrees. But because it took school officials a while to get hold of June, they called an ambulance. That “overreaction” continued to steamroll, with June being questioned about giving her child Tylenol, working too much and basically being called an unfit mother. And here I thought present-day mommy shaming was out of control.
Once I learned that June hadn’t escaped in the season finale after all, I basically gave up all hope of that happening. So when Mayday stepped in and helped her secretly escape the doctor’s office following her checkup, I could barely breathe. I have a few follow-up questions, like how did no one else notice the red squares, and what was a truck full of dead cows doing at the doctor’s office/hospital in the first place? But overall that escape was pretty damned epic and unexpected.
That bloody ending
I once asked showrunner Bruce Miller to clarify the cattle tracker the aunts mark the handmaids with, and he confirmed that it’s a number—not an actual tracker. A tracker would be too high tech in this low-tech world. So June ripping hers out was a matter of self-identity, not something she did out of necessity. To me the move was bold, bloody and gross, and proved just how far this woman will go to escape the world she’s been forced into.
The Boston Globe stomping grounds
Given all of the fake news scenarios playing out these days, the fact that June’s hideout happens to be the former Boston Globe offices is just creepy. Old-school newspapers continue to be one of the few news sources that most people count on, so the fact that it was taken down in epic Gilead style felt totally eerie. Total and utter control, right? You can’t have free press ruining that.
Emily’s memorable return
Emily’s return was expected given the fact that Bledel was upped to a series regular this season, but how and why she’d return was anyone’s guess. Her debut was a pretty memorable one since it also coincided with the introduction of The Colonies. The radioactive wasteland in Margaret Atwood’s book was written as a place where “unwomen” were sent to clean up the soil before they died from radiation poisoning, but it was fully realized here with Emily—a character we could follow to that world. We only needed one look at Emily’s face to know that time had not been kind to her, even though not that much time had actually passed, and that she’s a lot worse off than the last time we saw her.
The treatment of the LGBTQ community
Emily’s backstory was a rich one, especially because it gave a new perspective on how gay people were treated as the Gilead regime began to take over. When Emily’s boss told her she wouldn’t be teaching again in the fall, it was a blood-boiling moment. But when her boss was later hanged for being gay? That was just awful.
Marisa Tomei’s debut
Given that The Colonies is a place for resistance members, freedom fighters and “unwomen,” it was pretty shocking to see a blue-clad woman get off that bus. Of course that woman was none other than Marisa Tomei as a character named Mrs. O’Conner, a devoutly religious person with a degree in Interior Design. She happened to find love with someone who wasn’t her husband so The Colonies (death) was her punishment. Naturally the other women did not respond well to her presence at the nuclear waste sight, and she was quickly shunned.
The execution site
Let’s go back to the Boston Globe for a moment, and specifically to the moment when June realized the basement had become an execution site where staffers were shot to death. That moment really hit home when June found the companion shoe to the one she stumbled upon upstairs in a mother’s cubicle. This regime was so intent on silencing the press that even mothers — the most coveted of people in this new world order — were killed on the spot for exercising freedom of speech.
The travel ban
Given recent events in the United States with Donald Trump’s travel ban, the flashback featuring Emily and her wife (DuVall) trying to flee the States and fly to Montreal really hit home. The fact that the law changed so quickly to stop recognizing gay marriage was a revelation, while the actual scene in which Emily had to say goodbye to her son and wife was simply devastating.
Marisa Tomei’s exit
What I love most about the Emily character is that just when you think you know her, she goes and does something completely unexpected. When you have a guest star like Tomei you expect her to be around for a while, but that wasn’t meant to be. Despite Emily’s explanation that she was being nice to Mrs. O’Conner and giving her “antibiotics” because a wife was once kind to her, Emily’s intent was always to kill the woman, and that alone is pretty shocking. It goes to show you what a world like Gilead can do to a person like Emily, who has suffered through so many terrible things. I do take some comfort in knowing that Emily won’t die alone in The Colonies now that Janine has made her official entrance in the radiation-infested “town.” And while I don’t expect either character to make it out of there alive, the fact that they’re there together means we’ll at least get to see a little more of them before death comes knocking.
And come knocking it will. This is Gilead, after all, and if the second season return taught us anything, it’s that mercy isn’t exactly on the table this year.
The Handmaid’s Tale airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on Bravo.