Red capes, bloody ears, and Offred Rising: “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2 Makes its Debut
Prior to seeing “Hamilton” on Broadway, a few of my friends were insistent on not listening to the soundtrack before they set foot in the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
This (what I viewed as) lack of preparation baffled me; mostly, I was just annoyed that we couldn’t listen to the soundtrack while hanging out.
Similarly, I came to watch the premiere episode of Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” with zero context, apart from a vague idea of what the dystopian novel was about, and who Margaret Atwood is. I hadn’t actively avoided reading the book or watching Season 1 on Hulu, it’s just that there were other books and shows a bit farther up on my reading and watching lists.
As I grabbed a seat at The Wing (an all-female co-working space in New York City), the lights dimmed and the show began to air, to a very excited (some costumed, even) audience.
As the show opens, the women are being herded like cattle with masks over their faces.
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is a force. She’s force onscreen because of Moss, who inhabits the role so wholly that I can’t imagine someone else in it. She’s come a long way since playing President Bartlet’s daughter, Zoey, on “The West Wing.” (“Long way” only in terms of time elapsed — her acting on WW was equally good.)
“Our father, who art in Heaven. Seriously? What the actual fuck?” says Offred in a voiceover.
What the actual fuck is right. In Atwood’s speculative fiction world she created, the world has gone mad — but not so mad that it’s impossible to imagine such a reality taking place, which is why Atwood has referred to her seminal work as “speculative fiction,” in addition to “science fiction.” As Atwood told The Guardian in 2005:
“I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid.”
When Season 1 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was released on Hulu in April 2017, it came at a time when the world was — and still is — feeling uncertain, scary, and gloomy. The show shined a light on what can happen when oppressive forces rule, and entire demographics (in the case of the show, women) are subjugated. We also see the effect of a religiously-influenced government (in the case of the show, a Christian theonomy) and the havoc it can wreak.
In the Season 2 adverts I spotted in Manhattan subway stations, Moss is seen split in two — the images of her as Offred and her as June Osborne are interfaced (reminding me of the poster for the John Travolta/Nicholas Cage movie “Face/Off”). On one side of the poster, she is wearing her blood-red dress and oppressive white bonnet (which makes me think of a dog cone thing — the kind worn so dogs won’t irritate an existing wound). On the other side, she’s dressed in everyday clothes.
The show’s costume designer, Ane Crabtree, spoke to Vanity Fair about the costume selection process, saying of those infamous red capes (which can now be seen regularly worn at protests nationwide):
“We put up a million reds on different colors of skin, because we knew that this red had to cinematically look discordant when it needed to be, and [look] beautiful cinematically when it needed to, pending the story,” says Crabtree. Those who work in the design industry understand the perils of working with red, she adds, a color that often appears too gaudy or overbearing on film. Ultimately, Crabtree settled on a shade of red that resembles blood, as a metaphor for female menstruation.”
In episode one of Season 2, the audience jumps through time with Offred, as we see flashbacks (or flash-forwards?) to a different time in her life when she had a normal civilian life as a wife, a working mom, and a stylish lady who wore camel tan blazers and had highlights in her hair. In that life, she was known as June.
We also see her as a handmaid, being prodded like cattle with her fellow handmaids, being made to hold heavy stones tortuously, and witnessing the severe humiliation and torture of other handmaids. The juxtaposition of loneliness and isolation Offred feels, along with her being surrounded by a community of fellow oppressed women, is a powerful tool for the narrative.
So too can be said of the camera work, the weather (specifically, a downpour of rain as an indicator of the protagonist’s emotions — a literary device known as “pathetic fallacy”), the beautiful use of light — a literal interplay of the dark and the light Offred experiences, and the music — all enhance the show in subtle ways, creating a world that feels both familiar and positively bizarre.
The character of Lydia, who I gathered to be something akin to “head torture mistress/school marm lady,” says to Offred: “Such a brave girl, aren’t you? Standing in defiance but risking nothing.”
Lydia reminded me of a much more sinister version of Mrs. Trunchbull from the Roald Dahl book “Matilda.” “So willful,” says Lydia, “only in suffering will you find grace,” she says as she inflicts suffering on another, by flame-fueled means.
Of bodily harm: In a spectacularly grotesque scene, Offred does something to her ear with simple sewing scissor which will perhaps make you think — as it did for me — of Van Gogh. I won’t say anything more, so as not to spoil it (even though I likely already have if you know anything about the artist Van Gogh). We later see Offred running down a tunnel, guided only by her flashlight, and her fierce, bright determination — the same determination she showed when approaching her ear. After the tunnel run, we see her huddled in a trunk among slabs of meat.
The feminist undertones (well, and overtones) of the show, as well as its examination of what happens under regime-like rule, feel more timely than ever. To reference “Hamilton” again (because, why not?), one of the great things about both “Hamilton” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the synthesizing at play in each.
In articles written about “Hamilton,” it has been frequently noted that part of the genius of Lin-Manuel is his ability to — like Shakespeare did — synthesize; to mix the old (Founding Fathers history) with the new (hip-hop and other current music genres). The Atwood tale synthesizes archaic patriarchal ideals with a futuristic vision of what those ideals would look like in the extreme.
So, as for those friends who wouldn’t listen to “Hamilton” before seeing the show, I now understand what they were getting at: An experience unfettered by too much insight and backstory.
There’s a lot of value and beauty in approaching things from a clean slate.