SPOILER ALERT: Warning, this article contains spoilers from Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale. Proceed at your own risk.
The Handmaid’s Tale continues to find ways to shock viewers. Opening the latest season with Handmaids lined up to be hanged in Fenway Park alone proves that this Hulu series isn’t holding back. For female viewers, the show’s shocks and moments of extreme discomfort can hit a little too close to home as it depicts events and issues that have happened in history around the world. These scenes aren’t always huge plot points; fear can often hide in the small details. So here are five moments from The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 that are rooted in reality and should make us very, very afraid.
The Salem Sign
In her journey to find a way out of Gilead, June briefly hides in a sign warehouse in Boston. She’s surrounded by normal signs that we see every day. But there is no use for these signs anymore under Gilead’s control. While in the warehouse, June runs her hands over a Salem, MS sign. This is a brief but significant moment as Salem, Massachusetts is the town notorious for burning women accused of being witches in the 1600s.
It’s been over 300 years since the Salem witch trials, but we still learn about this time in history because of its severity. As an archetype, witches are fearsome creatures because they are powerful and refuse to conform. Like the witches of Salem, June and Emily in The Handmaid’s Tale refuse to give up in their fight, even if they have to play along with their oppressors to survive.
Likewise, today’s growing feminist voices also refuse to be silenced, though the severity of our circumstances is nowhere near what the Handmaids are experiencing.
The Friends DVD
We’ve all had a day where we’ve watched old TV shows as an escape. June wasn’t able to do this as a Handmaid as she’s not allowed to access books or any form of entertainment. In her time when she was free, June found a Friends DVD from the fourth season and watched the episode “The One with Phoebe’s Uterus.” In the episode, Monica famously explains to a baffled Chandler about the seven (seven! seven!) erogenous zones.
Watching the old sitcom was more than just a source of comfort for June. The episode and the particular scene also acted as a symbol for the level of oppression June and other women like her are enduring in Gilead. What was once an unquestioned leisure activity, sitting on your couch and watching reruns of your favorite ’90s sitcoms, is now outlawed.
This strict control over entertainment in Gilead is similar to North Korea’s strict regime that dictates what TV shows and movies people can watch. Despite this, North Koreans still manage to smuggle in foreign shows and movies. The Handmaids haven’t figured out how to smuggle in DVDs yet, nor would they have any way of watching them, but they’ve at least managed to pass letters to the outside world. And it’s this small act of defiance that keeps them connected to the outside world and to their personhood.
“Take Back the Night” Rally
The second season introduced June’s mother in a flashback. She is a diehard feminist and has been fighting for women’s equality for June’s entire life. When June was a child, her mom took her to a protest where women burned the names of their rapists. This was an actual type of protest that was part of the second wave feminist movement.
Women feeling empowered to name their abuser is still a struggle. We only need to look at the bravery of those who have stepped forward in the #MeToo movement to see the difficulties women have faced in taking this step. Gilead forced June’s mom to work to death in the Colonies because she would not bend in her beliefs. The Handmaid’s Tale shows us the extreme of what could happen as a backlash to the progress we are making in feminism today.
June’s Boston Globe Board
While hiding out at the Boston Globe headquarters, June attempts to track the origin and growth of Gilead by going through old articles. On the wall, she posts some categories on cards, creating a doom and gloom vision board of sorts. One of the cards says “militarization,” while the other says “curtailing of civil rights.” What makes these categories so chilling is that we’ve seen this type of aggression and oppression in other powerful countries throughout modern history.
Soviet Russia’s military power was mighty and was used to invade other countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as well as suppress the rights of its citizens. One of the ways Soviet Russia maintained its powerful hold was through the secret police, similar to the Eyes in The Handmaid’s Tale. Human rights during Soviet Russia’s time were essentially nonexistent — there was no such thing as civil liberties.
Though the Soviet Union has fallen, Russia still has a poor track record for civil rights with the nation treating feminists as extremists and silencing other voices who speak out against the strict government regime. It gives us further pause, then, when the United States recently lifted military weapons restrictions for law enforcement agencies and continues legislation on women’s reproductive rights.
In this season, we learn more about Emily’s backstory, including a glimpse of her family. She has a partner and a baby, and when it’s clear that Gilead is dangerous, her family tries to flee to Canada. Emily cannot leave because her marriage, and therefore her claim to Canadian citizenship, is denied. The airport scene further breaks our hearts as we see a huge crowd filled with desperate families as well as the ICE agents whose job it is to stop citizens from fleeing the country.
This image tugs at our minds because it’s reminiscent of the aftermath of Trump’s travel ban. The ban led to families being separated at the airport for hours, and authorities detaining legal citizens for up to 30 hours to prevent them from re-entering their country. So, the ACLU and pro bono lawyers stepped in to help. Lower courts have since ruled that the ban is unconstitutional, however, unfortunately, the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale were not so lucky.
There’s still more to come from Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, and we’re sure that it will have even more small details that will make us question whether Gilead could happen. Hopefully, some light will shine at the end of this dark second season.