June Osborne is free. The final expression of the first episode of Season 2, forcefully exhaled by our protagonist survivor is true and not.
She claims an essential piece of freedom: freedom to and from her body. It is one match struck in June’s journey on The Handmaid’s Tale to BURN. IT. ALL. DOWN.
Each scene of The Handmaid’s Tale 2×01 “June” is achingly crafted. It is instantly clear why this show has won and will continue to win so many awards.
It is literature on screen. It is a weeping cry into this broken world. It feels too perfect to review.
As breathless and dumbfounded as I am after “June,” it is necessary to unpack the rich and deeply affecting episode.
Head in A Noose
Plot-wise, the opening five minutes of “June” shows the punishment the handmaids face because of their refusal to stone Janine to death.
Impact-wise the first five minutes of “June” is a god damned horrific symphony.
As the handmaids, including June, are ushered blindly towards an unknown torture, we feel the panic and helplessness. The rushed cinematography glances at the faces just long enough to deliver confusion and fear. There is no peace.
The use of overhead shots, combined with tightly focused and panning ones serves to force the audience to fear what is going to happen. This is the Superbowl of public punishment and shaming.
June remains clam and we later see on the episode how she built this reserve slowly. Swallowing her fear in order to survive for Hannah.
The handmaids are ushered onto the hanging display.
All their mouths are covered by a muzzle. The actors use only the upper portion of their faces to show their feelings. It is truly incredible because sitting here picturing their faces is bringing me to tears.
One handmaid, Alma, pisses herself. The mix of shame and fear on her face, once so defiant and bold, is devastating.
June looks on with an almost dreamlike gaze, disassociated but not so gone that she can’t reach out and take the hand of the woman next to her. The gesture, a simple final posture of defiance against the complete stripping of humanity Gilead is forcing on the women is, again, devastating.
The tense music shifts as the women have their heads placed in the nooses. It turns to a light, nearly joyfully song. It sounds like a prayer.
The wordless scene grips our souls in a sorrowful panic. How can this total control be? How can they fight it? Please, just bring these women death if that is their punishment– this torture is just too cruel.
The Handmaid’s Tale‘s expert cinematography, lighting, acting, and music combine to make us feel in our bodies just a fraction of what Gilead’s oppression feels like.
It is so intense my finger hovers over the mute button in case I just can’t take it anymore and I need to dull my senses.
Honestly, the opening sequence of “June” is the powerful scene I have ever seen on television.
Circle of Life
As I suspected would be the case from the Season 2 trailer, circles are a significant motif on “June.” We see circles used in the formation of bodies during the punishment scenes in particular.
The circles act to symbolize the life-giving bodies of handmaids. Through the repeated use of circle imagery, we come to viscerally understand how Gilead has annihilated the autonomy of all the handmaids.
A circle represents a state of no beginning and no end. It is an endless cycle. So too is Gilead’s control over the women in Gilead.
Gilead’s control over handmaids’ bodies is like a circle: complete, never-ending, and impossible to escape.
While we see the circles being used directly against the handmaids, with the circle formation during the rock-holding torture, the hearse-like black vehicles circling the handmaids and even the once innocuous circles of a basketball court in the shot of the handmaids being tortured while June eats soup, handmaids aren’t the only women impacted by Gilead’s control.
On “June,” both Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy are oppressed by the misogynistic system of Gilead. And the depiction of both of these women, neither directly experiencing the torture of being a handmaid (in fact, both have levied some of the torture) serves to highlight how deep and enmeshed the oppression is.
When Aunt Lydia breaks down, weeping before ringing the bell, it is unclear why she is crying. The reason for her tears remains elusive, but the crack in her harsh exterior and show of emotionalism from someone who just led the Superbowl of public shaming is illustrative.
All the women of Gilead are doing what they can to survive within a system that controls them. While Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia are “better off” than the handmaids, they suffer.
This is a deep lesson in how oppression works. Just because you benefit from a system or your safety is secure, relative to someone else, that does not mean you are not also a victim of the system.
The Handmaid’s Tale is showing us the reality of living in an oppressive system better than any television show ever has. The small moments, whether Serena sitting in a room where June used to sit, or Aunt Lydia weeping while pressing a bell’s rope against her face, or June taking a bit of soup, embed in the viewer an understanding of the depth of control and victimization.
Gilead’s control is all about bodies. Gilead controls what handmaids eat, what they see, what they wear, whether they can kill themselves. Their bodies are not their own.
The image of June at the doctor’s office makes her look like the magician’s assistant, getting cut in half by the powerful manipulator. That is purposeful. Everything about the handmaid’s bodies is out of their control.
So, for June. Her declaration of freedom is also all about her body.
My name is June Osborne. I’m from Brookline, Massachusetts. I’m 34 years old. I stand five-foot-three in bare feet. I weigh 120 pounds. I have viable ovaries. I’m five weeks pregnant. I am free.
Each sentence is a testament to the existence of her flesh. She names her identity, where she has lived, her age, her height. It is what she has been prohibited from doing: naming her body as her own.
The flashback sequences give a sense of the drip, drip, drip, loss of autonomy June has experienced in her world. Hannah is sick, and we see June defending her ability to make choices regarding her daughter’s health and care.
We see June, fearful and frustrated as she learns about another emergency in the city, take a deep breath and put on a brave face for her sweet child. Hannah also delivers a tragically simple exclamation.
I don’t feel good. I hate this day.
Hannah still has the freedom to feel good or bad. She has the freedom to hate something that is crummy. She represents the extent of the loss June and all the women in Gilead experience. Handmaids have the freedom to rest when they feel bad stolen from them– it is a warning to all of us that we take for granted the most simple of freedoms that a patriarchal system can take away.
The theme of control and choice will circle back in future episodes. I imagine we will see June’s freedom grow as she steps out into the ash of her future.
His Divine Light
The first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale masterfully uses light imagery. The episode starts off right where Season 1 ended with June in the back of the Eye’s vehicle. She caresses the stubby beams of light in the car, almost as if she wants to capture them, save them for a darker time.
That sets up the idea of light as hope. In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, hope is frightening and violent.
We see beams of light piercing through walls like bullets. Hitting the handmaids, but never quite lighting their way.
We see floodlights washing over the handmaids in nooses. They may feel hope. But it is so combined with fear and despair, that being able to see is in itself a new source of pain.
That is the “hope” of The Handmaid’s Tale. It pushes all the characters towards survival. But, it leaves us wondering if survival is at all a good thing or if death is the true sweet surrender that would finally bring peace.
On The Handmaid’s Tale, hope is more a weapon than a cure.
What did you think about the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2? Join the conversation in the comments section below!
The Handmaid’s Tale is now streaming on Hulu, with new episodes available every Wednesday.