Television

'The Handmaid's Tale': Season 2, Episode 1 Recap – The Seven Most Terrifying (and Piercing) Moments in 'June'

handmaid's tale
George Kraychyk/Hulu

Alana Pancyr, Ann Dowd and Elisabeth Moss as Ofwyatt, Aunt Lydia and Offred in The Handmaid's Tale season 2 episode 1, 'June.' 

Warning: Spoilers Abound.

The unintentionally timely, horrifying, multi-Best-Drama award winning The Handmaids’ Tale returned for a second season on Hulu on Tuesday night (Apr. 24). At last, we know the answer fans have been craving for since Sean Spicer was White House Press Secretary: What happened to Offred after Nick ushered her away to that Tom Petty-soundtracked van ride?

The power of cliffhangers lies not in the what, but in the how of it all. Precisely what form of misery or freedom did Offred’s surprise van ride lead to? We know that Elisabeth Moss signed a multi-season contract, so the chances of Nick popping Offred in the head are slim. The book’s final page is in sync with the final scene of season one, leaving Handmaid fans in the same territory that Game of Thrones fans took six seasons to reach: the land of zero juicy book spoilers. With that, we give you the most memorable moments from “June”, the first episode of season two of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Fenway Park: Red Dresses, Not Sox. We open exactly where we left off, with Offred in the back of Nick’s van. And the van leads to… some kind of hangar space or indoor parking lot, full of muzzled handmaids. They’re all being hustled into the center of the giant room by armed guards and barking dogs. More suffering! Alma grasps Offred’s cuffed hands before being pushed away by the guards. The handmaids are brusquely led into a long, dark hall. Then, what appears to be a cattle car, followed by... Fenway Park. We know that it’s Fenway because the sign is still there, which in the context of Gilead means that the stadium is not in use, at least not for a coed audience: all written signs were removed elsewhere. But the Bank of America, Dunkin' Donuts and New Balance billboards are still in the background as Auntie Lydia later emerges to preach the so-called word of God, and there are tall weeds in the field, implying that baseball isn't being played here anymore. What do regular Gileadeans do for fun on an ordinary day? Was the cattle tunnel entry that the handmaids are pushed through the same one that the teams used to take? They’re all forced onto scaffolding with a noose for each handmaid. But it's a sick psyche-out.

Soundtrack Sidenote Bravo for the haunting use of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" during the hanging sequence, with the words "Just make it go away now" underscoring the moment when the handmaids realise that they aren't going to die by hanging today.

Flashbacks: Gilead Didn’t Just Happen: The real shocker in June’s flashbacks is that all but the last one take place before the Sons of Jacob stage their coup. There are three flashback sequences, but their timeline relative to the rest of the story doesn’t become clear until the third. To begin with, the first flashback scene appears be right after the takeover but before the women lose their jobs, because Luke is signing a form, on the line for “Husband,” so that June can pick up her birth control. Hannah seems nervous about going to school. Walgreen’s is open, sells deodorant and Tylenol, and fills prescriptions! June's decision to not pick up the pills and Luke’s acceptance is a sign of proto-Gilead creeping into their psychologies: why not just have another baby?

But we realize after the final flashback that the panic over the fertility crisis had already led to restrictions on a woman’s control over her body. June is addressed as “Mrs. Bankole” by school administrator and then the nurse at least three times, despite her correcting them, “June Osborne." Even though they are fellow working women, they are already acting in suspicion of her for being a working mother. Did the nurse and the school administrator read Serena Joy’s A Woman’s Place, or were they influenced by it? When the nurse at the hospital questions June’s parental fitness we can take it as a sign that the state is getting ready to split up families. But only when the news reports in the final flashback mention attacks on the Capitol and the White House are happening in the relative now of the flashback time do we see that the deterioration in women’s rights had already begun before the coup. It was this family's last day in the normal world, and it wasn't all that normal.

Worst Creative Bootcamp Training Ever Auntie Lydia elaborates on one of Commander Waterford's statements from last season during a grueling day of punishment. Virtually any of the handmaids who she tases or forces to hold rocks in the rain would choose in a heartbeat to go back to what she calls the "days of anarchy." Aunt Lydia is so scary when she’s being fake nice, especially because she believes she’s genuinely being kind. Offred has a reprieve due to her pregnancy, but is forced to sit still and eat soup while the other Handmaids are handcuffed to a flaming stove. The later parts of the punishment seem engineered to deprive June of female friendship, setting her up as a target of resentment for the other handmaids. Surely, they're likely to hate her after watching her eat soup while their hands were burned, when their punishment stemmed from her and Ofglen II's insubordination.

Do You Want to See Your Baby? No, Your Baby The monitor is for the Waterfords, not for June. The doctor who kindly offered to impregnate June last season is showing the Waterfords an image of the baby, which in fact carries DNA from neither of them, while June, the real mother, is behind the curtain. While June is powerless here, she gets one good dig in when Serena Joy castigates her earlier in the scene: "Don’t get upset, Serena. It’s bad for the baby." Earlier words bounce back throughout the episode .

Red Dot Scavenger Hunt Help comes in an unexpected place: the doctor's office, where June finds a key with a red dot on it, after an orderly, the last left alone in the room with her, bids her, "Godspeed, June." The red dot on the key is followed by another red dot, and another... and then the back of a butcher's truck, driven by the same butcher who previously gave her the package of letters. So June’s journey leads to... more journeys, always boxed in, with the cute butcher’s diagram on the side of the truck a little too on-point: women in Gilead are like meat. It's curious how many times in this episode Elisabeth Moss is shot enclosed framed inside a tight, square outline; a noticeable exception is in the flashback to the offices of the publishing company she worked at, where she's finally seen in a broad, sunny space. But even there, there's a window frame.

Ear Tag Ouch After burning her Handmaid outfit, and cutting her hair June removes her red ear tag using a scissors, and there's enough blood to create a Carrie Halloween costume. The scene is grisly and hard to watch. It makes sense for her to remove it by any means available -- she'd be caught more easily with it in. It's also liberating to see her lose the puritan bun. All of the women in Gilead appear to have long hair. Pre-Gilead June sported a highlighted lob, so her two actions with the scissor function as an identity reclamation. Her closing voice-over monologue, beginning "My name is June Osborne," echoes her opening monologue from the pilot. The key here is that the title is “June”, as season one’s title was “Offred”: the pilot was named for the forced Gileaden name, while the season two premiere bears her true name. But there’s something doubtful and robotic in her voice when she concludes with,  "I am… free." The situation is still fraught. And how free is she, really? They're looking for her everywhere. 

So far, there's no catch-up with Luke, Moira, Emily or Rita, no explanation of how Mayday planned the escape or what stings Nick pulled, no sight of Ofglen II or any indication of how she may have been punished for speaking out against Janine's stoning. It's an Offred/June-focused episode. Janine's fate is discussed, but she hasn't appeared yet. There are plenty of questions still awaiting answers this season.

On another note: The whole handmaid approach to raising the birthrate can’t be that successful if Aunt Lydia is ringing bells for a successful conception. The OB-GYN observed of the Commanders: “Most of these guys are sterile,” prior to his offer to impregnate June himself. How many of the babies in the framed photographs on his wall may have actually been due to the doctor's proffered "help" to handmaids like June, scared of being sent to the Colonies if they didn't conceive? And, come to think of it, we haven’t seen too many handmaids get pregnant through the Ceremony.

The only named handmaids to get pregnant in the series are Offred, Janine, and poor, chained Ofwyatt with the burned mouth; we don't know how many of the children at the Mexican ambassador's dinner may have been taken from their real families, like Hannah, or may have resulted from desperate liaisons outside the ceremony. If Gilead wanted a scientific approach to solving the fertility problem, they would look into whether the fertility decline had anything to do with plummeting sperm counts, then sequester the men who’d successfully fathered children, and we'd be in an alternate universe where, thanks to a tyrannical matriarchy, June is in Canada while Luke, AKA Ofserena, is forced to jump Madame Commander Waterford's bones each month. But Gilead operates on faith, not science.