In The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Startling Season Premiere, Two Opposing Definitions of Freedom

(Episode 2.01)

TV Reviews The Handmaid's Tale
In The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Startling Season Premiere, Two Opposing Definitions of Freedom

At first, it seems Offred (Elisabeth Moss) was foolish to trust an Eye, but then again, she didn’t have a lot of good alternatives. The truck in which we saw her leaving the Waterford house has delivered her, along with the rest of the renegade Handmaids, into a dark tunnel. (It looks a hell of a lot like the kill-line of an abbatoir Temple Grandin did not design to minimize panic in the cattle.) They emerge into a floodlit stadium—it’s Fenway, now with red robes instead of Red Sox—full of hangman’s nooses.

Has Gilead gone clown-shit crazy even for Gilead? Will they sacrifice several dozen fertile women?

You know how at the end of the Season One finale the rebel Handmaids all swagger down the street to the hot-damn growl of Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good?” How startling the song is, there, in that world?

It has its photonegative twin in the beginning of the Season Two premiere, one that will startle anyone who was awake in the ‘90s: the high, thin, keyboard-forward white lady wail of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” At first you think: Nah, too on-the-money, it’s ham-fisted, come on. A crooning regret-revelation as a woman maybe dies in childbirth and oh, the unfinished business and the barbarity of having to be this tenacious to bring life into the world?

But it doesn’t stop. The scene doesn’t end and the song doesn’t end, and, in that way Kate Bush songs sometimes do, it transits from a bit much to strangely poignant to making you want to curl up in a ball and sob as the close shots move from panicked face to face and always back to Offred’s, eyes lifted in—what? Prayer? Resignation? Terror? Remorse? Relief?

It’s a fake-out. They all drop, just inches, just enough to make them think it’s real. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) comes out with her hellacious microphone and starts preaching. We see Offred’s face, framed by the limp noose, and the look in her eyes now is unambiguous hatred. “Our Father,” she intones in a pious-sounding voiceover, “Who art in Heaven… Seriously?” And with the title card coming down like a guillotine, “What the actual fuck?”

The recurring image in this opening episode is rope. From the terrified women wreathed in nooses to the bizarre image of Aunt Lydia in seemingly ecstatic tears as she gazes up at what looks like another noose just long enough for us to realize it’s a bell-pull; to the links of the handcuffs that tie the other Handmaids to the stove and blister their hands for their defiance in refusing to stone Janine; to the defiant, pregnant Handmaid who’s now chained to a bed in the Red Center because she tried to drink drain cleaner; to Offred in the freakishly white doctor’s office where an ultrasound shows where an umbilical cord is being fastened to her body from the developing fetus (“Congratulations, Mrs. Waterford.”); to the slaughtered animals hanging from the ceiling of the meat truck (secondary image, animals being led to slaughter) in which she’s spirited away by a clinic worker who leaves the exam room with a quick, “Godspeed, June” and prompts her to find a key hidden in her boot. She’s brought to a warehouse, where Nick (Max Minghella) is waiting,

“There is more than one kind of freedom, girls,” Aunt Lydia says in her creepy stentorian voice as the Handmaids kneel in a drenching rain, forced to hold out the stones they refused to throw, tasered if their arms give out. “Freedom to, and freedom from. In the days of anarchy you had freedom to. Now, you have freedom from. You are protected. Don’t take it lightly.” In the flashbacks during which we see the crackdowns and violence in the lead-up to the creation of Gilead, it becomes clear just how nuanced a statement that really is.

Alone, confined to the warehouse with no certainty on whether, when, or how she’ll get out of Gilead, and with a her only ally a known Eye she really only hopes she can trust, June seems trapped like an animal all over again. But as she burns her clothes and cuts her hair and, in a wrenching and bloody sequence, cuts the red tag from her ear, her last voiced-over words are “I am free.”

Free to? Free from?

Read Paste’s review of the second episode of The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two here.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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