Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen the first few episodes of series two of The Handmaid’s Tale, you may want to save this post for later…
I’m slightly late to the party on series two of The Handmaid’s Tale – mainly because I’ve had to work myself up to watching it.
The first series was intense, but early reviews suggested that the absence of original source material for season two had left space for extra helpings of horror, cruelty and nervous tension. Gulp.
The reviews weren’t wrong – and yet I found myself strangely affected by one of the less graphic scenes in the first episode: the moment where June is admonished by a doctor-slash-social-worker for sending her daughter to school dosed up on Tylenol.
As everyone who watches the show knows, the flashback scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale are somehow the scariest: they are the ones where we see an apparently normal society sliding towards totalitarianism.
Small but significant things seem to have changed in the pre-Gilead storyline we follow during this episode: June needs her husband to sign off on her prescription for the contraceptive pill (soon to be outlawed altogether, one must assume). Luke also seems to hold all the financial cards, now: there’s mention of an allowance that June needs advanced to her, as though she is a child or a nineteenth century lady requesting more pin money.
For now, though, June is still working, still wearing makeup and still looking hot in a short floaty skirt and high heels.
Her daughter, Hannah, seems keen to get to school and is out of the door ahead of her mother, who – in an uncomfortable twist – hangs back to chat with Luke about trying for another baby.
Present day June – Offred the Handmaid – is pregnant by Nick, the Waterfords’ chauffeur. Their baby has been made to order by the regime.
Pre-Gilead June is at work. She has a job in publishing. She’s sitting in a window trying to concentrate on a manuscript brightened by a multitude of tiny post-it stickers. She’s working through edits to someone’s book draft, assessing whether or not it’s coming together.
A colleague brings June her bag; it’s been vibrating.
Hannah has spiked a temperature at school, and – as if to highlight the hysteria that increasingly surrounds children in this soon-to-be dystopia – she’s been taken to hospital because June couldn’t be reached.
Hannah turns out to be fine. June, though, is escorted into the corridor by her daughter’s doctor.
Clearly a proponent of the emerging order, the doctor asks June a series of questions about her work / life balance – ultimately challenging her openly about whether she knowingly violated school policy by sending Hannah to class unwell.
The balance of power between the characters is chillingly ambiguous. June won’t kowtow to the doctor and refuses to be shamed for returning to work when Hannah was 10 months old. She repeatedly insists on being called by her correct surname, Osborne.
Yet it’s clear that June is uncomfortable; there is a creeping fear in her stomach that we, too, can feel. We already know that the regime will take June’s daughter away from her – and perhaps this is the point at which June, suddenly and for the first time, realises she is no longer in control when it comes to her family.
When she arrives home, June finds Luke watching rolling TV news. “Terrorists” have attacked Congress and The White House.
As a woman, a mother – heck, as a human being – The Handmaid’s Tale is always a difficult watch.
Scenes of rape, torture and the tearing apart of families are frequent. We see women blamed for the fertility crisis that allowed Gilead’s leaders to gain a political foothold.
Women are slut-shamed, their freedoms circumscribed and, it seems, their bodies progressively co-opted by the state until, finally, those with viable ovaries are dressed up in red cloaks and white wings.
All of it is tough to sit through. But something about this episode, and that scene in the hospital, felt so close to home that it hurt in a whole new way.
What mother among us hasn’t sent a child to school or nursery after a dose of Calpol and wondered whether they’d make it through the day? Who hasn’t questioned that decision, trying desperately to balance the importance of their child’s education, their little one’s health and the demands of their job?
Who hasn’t seen the school or nursery’s number flash up on their phone screen and felt a strange mix of panic and irritation? In that split-second, you’re terrified something awful might have happened – yet you’re simultaneously dreading the conversation you’ll need to have with your boss if you’ve got to head home early.
Who hasn’t felt guilt or shame for returning to work – whether after 10 weeks, 10 months or several years?
Who hasn’t felt judged by friends, family, acquaintances or strangers who’ve asked searching questions about how they manage motherhood alongside working, living, still being them?
It’s vital that June alone is the subject of the doctor’s opprobrium. In the society she’ll soon belong to, it seems that nothing is the fault of men.
Yet in our own world, too, many of the responsibilities of parenting – an arguably disproportionate amount – fall squarely on the shoulders of mothers.
I found myself thinking of Mother Pukka’s Flex Appeal campaign, and of the valiant Pregnant, Then Screwed, as I watched fictional June rebuked for wanting to maintain a life and career of her own alongside mothering her daughter.
Sometimes the line between truth and fiction is fine – and I know I’m not alone in worrying that, in this world of Trump and pro-life campaigners, feminim is as vital a force as ever.
Like June – played by the frankly astonishing Elisabeth Moss – we must all refuse to be judged by those who seek to shame us as women and as mothers.
Tough as it is to remember, our way is okay.