The season two finale of The Handmaid’s Tale aired on Hulu on July 17. Season one almost entirely reflected the plot of Margaret Atwood’s book, so when it ended, the show’s writers were left on their own to both continue the story and expand the universe created by Atwood.
In season one, the show’s fictional Republic of Gilead is a recently-created theocratic nation with an authoritative and oppressive government that has been formed in a rebellion against the now-weakened United States in the wake of an infertility crisis. The state secret police (known as the Eyes) and law enforcement patrols (the Guardians) terrorize the populace with brute force on the streets, an almost nonexistent legal system, and public executions.
Most women cannot bear children, but those who can are forced to become Handmaids, women enslaved as the new society’s breeders. In what is known as the Ceremony, the Handmaid must submit to rape at the hands of a Commander, one of the highest-ranking men in Gilead, while the Commander’s wife participates. A group of women called the Aunts manage the Handmaid’s “assignments” and oversee their pregnancies.
The show is both popular and critically acclaimed, in part because it implicitly criticizes both the current rise of the right wing in the United States (and around the world) and the intensified oppression of women in the form of attacks on reproductive rights, denial of proper health care, and widespread sexual harassment. At a variety of protests against anti-woman government policies, women have appeared wearing the Handmaids’ red-and-white costumes, and it has become a widely recognized visual reference.
Season two reveals a more complex caste system, much of it derived from the source material. There is a sector of workers referred to as Econopeople who may keep their children as long as they adhere to Gilead’s oppressive laws and do not challenge the regime’s authority. There are also Unwomen who have been sent to the Colonies to work and soon die in a toxic wasteland created by accelerated environmental destruction.
But season two also creates and develops additional aspects of the caste society. Through flashbacks of June’s attempt to escape, we see that the Econopeople are those who seem to have remained neutral in the fights between Gilead and the United States and have thus avoided execution. They are safe as long as they profess Christianity, show obedience to the regime and do not challenge anything about the new order. The introduction of this additional caste in Gilead allows us to see new reflections of our own society and the oppression under which we function.
Those who can read Spanish will find articles on season one published in La Izquierda Diario last year.
The Rise of the Right
The Handmaid’s Tale includes a sketchy backstory about how the Sons of Jacob—a right-wing organization—began a rebellion against the U.S. government, one that was ideologically based on fundamentalist Christianity and gender essentialism. This resulted in extreme and repressive laws directed almost exclusively at those who in some way are out of step with these ideals, either before or after the rise of Gilead.
We find out that not all fertile women are forced to become Handmaids, only those being punished for this lack of submission. In the eyes of Gilead, June committed adultery when she started a relationship with a married man (who later married her, and they had a child together); her best friend Moira and new friend Emily (Ofglen in season 1) are “gender traitors” because they are lesbians; and Handmaid Janine was presumably sexually open—or she at least didn’t fit the puritanical standards of Gilead.
Scenes in the show also depict various LGBTQ characters in the early days of pre-Gilead oppression, arguing about how to respond to the heightened attacks on LGBTQ rights. One of them advocates hiding and “returning to the closet”—and is promptly hanged with a homophobic slur written on the ground beneath him. Emily, who is a university professor, refuses to hide, and after the alluded-to “university purges,” she tries to escape to Canada with her partner and son, but she is separated from them and forced to become a Handmaid. The show starkly reminds us that LGBTQ oppression, unchecked, can quickly intensify and lead to violence. It also sends the message—intentionally or not—that hiding from these issues and trying to blend into a heteronormative society does not offer any safety.
There is also a depiction of the anti-intellectualism used by oppressors to enforce a backwards religious regime and keep the highest-ranking officials in power. There have been attacks on universities and occupations in which women have any kind of respected role; it is made illegal for women to read or write, and this is punishable by the cutting off of a finger “for a first offense.”
“Gender traitors,” intellectuals, and any other woman who resists the theocracy to what is considered a dangerous degree is labeled an Unwoman. Most are shipped off to the Colonies, but some are offered the option to serve as forced, imprisoned, and unpaid sex workers for high-ranking officials in illicit clubs like Jezebel’s.
In Gilead, no one is exempt from punishment. “Adulterers” who do not immediately repent and accept a punishment for it are executed, high-ranking women who question male dominance are maimed, and even Commanders who “sin” have a hand removed. At the same time, the hypocrisy of the system was highlighted in season one, as Commanders go to sex clubs to engage in forbidden non-procreative sex with the imprisoned women.
“They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”
At the end of season one, we begin to see the resistance grow. In season two, these glimpses of a slowly-growing network of resistance continue and recur more often.
After rebellious Handmaids are terrorized into submission by a mock execution, one of them, whose tongue was cut out by the regime, bombs a Red Centre (a building where Handmaids are forced to accept their new role). The bomb destroys the building, killing Commanders and Handmaids. Because of the sudden loss of so many Handmaids, the Gilead officials are forced to return some of the former Handmaids from the Colonies. Each handmaid has been renamed by Gilead to indicate which Commander controls their life, but when June and the other Handmaids discover the reason for the return of their friends, they begin whispering to each other, sharing their real names. Doing so challenges the authority that has dehumanized them in so many ways.
Once the Handmaids have discovered that they are not completely disposable and replaceable, they recognize that they can act as a group to assert their humanity to each other in front of the Eyes, even if only quietly and subtly.
But there is organized resistance as well. The most dramatic example of this before the season finale is when a group of Americans who have escaped to Canada (including June’s husband) publish on the internet the letters of dozens of women who have been forced into sex work at Jezebel’s. The letters tell their stories and expose an aspect of Gilead’s horrific oppression of women.
Canada had decided to sign a lucrative trade deal with Gilead, ignoring the country’s violent oppression. But when the packet of letters from the women of Jezebel’s reaches the Americans living in exile, Moira is frustrated not to have received something more destructive. She exclaims in frustration, “I thought that package was gonna have… something to make Gilead go boom.” Her roommate quietly replies, looking at the letters, “This could go boom.”
And it does. After the American refugees upload the letters to the internet, a demonstration erupts at the Canadian foreign ministry, and the ambassadors from Gilead are told to leave the country. Protesters surround their car, banging on the windows, and holding signs. This moment in the series strongly resembles the #MeToo movement, showing the power of online communication to expose sexist oppression and create public understanding of what happens behind closed doors.
In the series finale, it is revealed that a group of Marthas—women who serve as maids and cooks in the households of the wealthy—has established a kind of Underground Railroad to help women escape Gilead. In a daring rescue, the Marthas pass June from house to house, perfectly timing their movements to evade detection. The escape is uplifting to watch, albeit so streamlined and coordinated that it is out of step of the raw believability of the rest the show.
The Children Are Our Future
The central plot of this season revolves around June and her determination to escape Gilead for the sake of her baby. She refuses to allow her child to be taken from her and raised as a part of Gilead’s oppressive and brutal system, so she continually tries to escape to Canada.
The Handmaids produce children for Gilead’s wealthy, high-ranking families—who, by having children, will have an honor and privilege held by very few in their society. Handmaids thus serve the theocracy as a whole, since the ruling class must reproduce itself. Raising children themselves, the members of the totalitarian regime can carefully indoctrinate them. They must, after all, be invested in maintaining the system that keeps them in power.
The show illustrates this point by showing us, through flashbacks in season two, that before the rise of Gilead, June’s best friend Moira was so deeply in debt that she agreed to engage in literal reproductive labor by serving as a paid pregnancy surrogate for a wealthy couple. Later, we see the idea taking root that working-class women are unfit to raise children—June sends her daughter to school with a low-grade fever and is scolded at the hospital for trying to raise a child while working. This is a common sentiment in U.S. culture today, not just the product of fantasy writers’ speculative minds.
June’s first child, Hannah, was taken from her and her husband by soldiers in the early days of Gilead. Hannah has been given to a wealthy family and assigned a different name, and she is now a child of the theocracy. One episode late in the season shows a heartbreaking reunion between June and Hannah in which Hannah is at first unsure who June is. She then recognizes her and asks why she didn’t try harder to get Hannah back. “I waited for you,” Hannah says, as her mother tries to explain that she couldn’t protect her.
This painful scene was particularly timely. The episode aired on Hulu on June 20, the same day Google Trends data showed a peak in interest in the forced separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. On June 17, representatives of the Department of Homeland Security had said the agency “would not apologize” for these inhumane acts against families. There was a public outcry, and on June 20, President Trump signed an executive order to stop separating families at the border, “abandoning his earlier claim that the crisis was caused by an iron-clad law and not a policy that he could reverse.” Trump’s backpedaling did not, however, reverse the damage already done. While 1,569 children have (to date) been reunited with their parents—with the entire families remaining imprisoned—559 are still separated from their families, alone in the hands of ICE.
On the show, the reunion lingers as June gives a crying Hannah some last words of advice and comfort. “And love your parents, and you do whatever they tell you. Okay? Because I need you to be careful, and I need you to keep yourself safe,” she says. One can easily imagine immigrant parents saying something similar to their children. But while Hannah and June illustrate the tragedy of children torn from their parents, they do at least get to see each other again (before the armed police of Gilead put an end to their reunion). Many immigrant parents and their children may never have this opportunity.
Weaknesses of Idealism
The show is not without its problems.
With the United States in ruins, Canada has clearly become the major economic power in North America. The country is depicted as a liberal paradise where hundreds of U.S. refugees have escaped to and where they have received food, comfortable apartments and social services. It would seem that that the Canada of the show has temporarily suspended its capitalist interests in favor of humanitarian ones. And in the scene in which people protest the Gilead ministers, their demonstration of only about a hundred people manages to dissuade a powerful government from carrying out what seems to be an extremely lucrative trade deal with Gilead. If only it were so easy!
Recognizing the impossibility of an event like this means acknowledging the hypocrisy of the governments of liberal nations like Canada, who performatively welcome refugees from around the world even as they make capitalist deals behind the scenes. Only huge uprisings can deter these plans, and even then, popular outrage only serves to make the deals more clandestine. In other words, while it’s possible a large protest could induce the expulsion of foreign ministers, it’s extremely unlikely this would actually affect trade.
But perhaps the show’s most dramatic missed opportunity is the absence of class-based oppression, which seems to have been replaced by sexism—a thoroughly liberal (and incorrect!) idea. While the homes of the Commanders and the Wives are certainly luxurious, there is no discussion of where their wealth comes from, and the castes in the show are seen only in terms of social status. It is never directly addressed that it is only those who challenge the political order of Gilead in one way or another who are forced to become Handmaids, nor whether the Econopeople are oppressed economically as well as socially. The working class that keeps Gilead running—and therefore has the power to grind it a halt—is either not depicted or nonexistent.
There is an unlikely scene in which the wife of a wealthy Commander is sent to the Colonies with no concern for her status—as if to assert that, when it comes to women, the rules are the same for the wealthy and the poor, which is as unlikely in this fictional society as it is untrue in our own.
Even more dramatically, racism is all but nonexistent in the show. There is no mention of the power dynamic between People of Color and white people, as if a religious fundamentalist government could be above such concerns. If anything, an especially oppressive government would be even more determined to exploit the already-present divisions based on race and class.
The Necessity of Fightback
For all its weaknesses, The Handmaid’s Tale reflects aspects of oppression today—family separation, sexual violence, lack of reproductive freedom—and shows how they are connected. And since there will certainly be more seasons to come, there is time for class and property relations to gain a more central role and for a more unified resistance to take shape.
The show’s popularity reflects the national and international mood that has manifested in the growing women’s movement that has taken to the streets in Argentina to demand the right to abortion and in the huge turnouts for International Women’s Day in Spain and Poland. It reflects a growing resistance to Trump-era policies and to the rise of the right. Above all, The Handmaid’s Tale warns us that our rights are in danger and that we must organize to protect them.