If life truly does imitate art then Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a 35-year-old primer for modern America. Women may not utter “under his eye” as they pass each other just yet, but the second season of Hulu’s The Handmaid's Tale -- in which women are systematically raped and LGBT people (gender traitors) are routinely hung -- continues to be pop culture’s most searing rejoinder to life under this administration.
And as is true of life under Donald Trump, the women of the Handmaid's Tale season two (premiering April 25) are leading the fight in ways both personal and political.
“I think the potential for women to start a movement in Gilead (the authoritarian patriarchal nation in the book and series) or elsewhere is really there. Never underestimate the power of women together," Samira Wiley — who plays the lesbian former handmaid Moira — tells The Advocate.
Like the novel, the first season finale of the multi-Emmy and Golden Globe-winning series ended on a cliffhanger with Elisabeth Moss’s lead character Offred (June before the conservative revolution) being hauled off in a van at the hands of either the totalitarian regime’s highest order -- the “Eyes” -- or the underground resistance network, “Mayday.”
Neither the novel nor the series or the finale offered an easily digestible resolution or any indication as to how her story might play out. But since the show carries the story beyond what Atwood wrote in 1985, Offred’s fate, meted out after an act of resistance in which she refuses to stone to death a transgressive handmaid while inspiring other women to follow her lead, is revealed within the first few brutal moments of the second season premiere.
Still, Offred teems with resolve, as do fellow former handmaids Emily (Alexis Bledel), a "gender traitor" who pays for the sin of failing to bend to the patriarchy’s will through forced female circumcision and banishment to “the colonies” to work until she dies and Wiley’s Moira, who escaped Gilead to become something of a refugee in “Little America” (Toronto). The women may be geographically disparate, but their fight is singular.
“The strength that some of these female characters have and the solidarity that creates is really rewarding toward the end of the season. I can say that much,” Bledel tells The Advocate. “[The resistance] happens in a few different settings — the colonies, Gilead, and Little America.”
The marginalized women of The Handmaid’s Tale are shaped by their various pre-Gilead experiences. Early episodes in the second season reveal in flashbacks that Offred’s mother (out Tony winner Cherry Jones) was an activist and feminist years before the government began sorting women’s usefulness based on whether or not their reproductive organs functioned. Hearkening to the #MeToo movement in which survivors of sexual harassment and/or abuse banned together to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse, a young June attends a clandestine rally where women toss bits of paper onto a fire. On the papers are the names of their rapists, June’s mother informs her. In voice-over, young June marvels at the sheer number of those tiny pieces of paper floating on the fire like the remnants of a ticker-tape parade.
Both Wiley and Bledel say that they recognize the show’s sociological heft in relation to the current United States where abortion rights are on the chopping block and Trump’s education secretary met with men’s rights and rape denial groups before rolling back campus sexual assault protections last summer. Being off-book, or past Atwood’s story, as it were, adds a sense of wonder and excitement about where the story will take them but also an added responsibility to tell the stories that most need to be heard, they say.
“To start this second season knowing we are where we are [politically], it makes me feel like I have a heightened sense of responsibility to be able to get this story right and make sure the fans are still getting something that feeds them, something that is commenting on the now,” Wiley says. “This season is lined up with the Time's Up movement and the #MeToo movement. Obviously, our show is about a bunch of women getting raped against their will, so that fits in. It feels like this is more than a television show. It feels like I'm doing something that's important and I'm proud of it.”
Clea DuVall and Bledel
While Gilead’s crimes against women are at the crux of the series, the patriarchy’s homophobia also drives the narrative, as is the case with Bledel’s Emily. Her flashback sequences in the second season depict the incipient stages of the totalitarian government banning same-sex relationships. How the ripping away of rights and dignity plays out with her young son and wife (Clea DuVall) is staggering to watch, which makes Emily’s defiance while facing certain death in the colonies all that more poignant.
“[Emily's flashback sequence was] an opportunity to depict a loving family that just happens to be two women as parents to a little boy,” Bledel says. “She faces workplace discrimination, discrimination because of her relationship... To see that injustice play out and to really feel it in the way the show is dramatized, you really move through that story with her.”
But Emily’s story, as painful as it is to watch and as Bledel says it was to shoot, is as prescient as ever considering Trump’s helter-skelter decision to ban transgender people from the military, Mike Pence’s proclivity toward conversion therapy, and the administration’s attempts to erase queer people from the 2020 census.
Despite Emily’s myriad losses, she arrives at the end of the road — the chemical wasteland of the colonies where the “unwomen” go — with her thirst for justice intact. She becomes, concurrently, a nurturer, soothing the women’s chemical sores with balms and salves and also judge and jury, doling out guerilla-style justice to those who helped enslave her.
“What I found surprising was that in playing the character, because she’s such a fighter and she had the steely resolve, that somehow she keeps surviving these horrific traumas and fighting. Beyond surviving, she has the will to keep fighting her oppressors,” Bledel says of Emily’s unwavering will to resist. “Standing in the colonies [on set] the first day I was trying to kind of stand upright and feel where she’d be at. I was surprised to discover this sense of personal dignity that I thought she might still have.”
Without revealing too much of the season two plot, Wiley and Bledel alluded to their characters' desire for equity that propels the women toward a collective uprising that’s not entirely unlike the solidarity exhibited at the Women’s March and in the fight to upend a centuries-old culture of sexual harassment and abuse.
Wiley namechecks Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy, the icy wife of Offred’s commander and one of the architects of Gilead’s scheme to repopulate the planet by oppressing fertile women, as a character who could be useful to the resistance.
“I really think that these men have put it in Gilead a false sense of superiority in this caste system,” Wiley says. “What could happen if they [women like Serena Joy] could take off the blinders and see that we're all collectively oppressed?”
From the reaches of the colonies to Little America to the home base of Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale's women bind together to spur change, Bledel says.
“One of my favorite parts of the connectivity of the women’s resistance is that it exists in all of those places and it travels,” Bledel says. “That’s how it has to happen. And it does happen.”
Beyond the series' symbiotic relationship with the current state of politics that inspired real-life protesters to wield Gilead-themed signs at anti-Trump marches and women to don the show's signature red robes to make statements about women’s rights, the show’s stars say the series has also informed their sense of activism.
“I was thinking about Moira in that context [of the Women’s March as it was happening] and where she would be in the midst of all of that. She would definitely have a mic in front of her face. She would be on the front lines speaking up for people who didn't have a voice,” Wiley says. “Playing this character has helped me realize the platform that I have. Because I happen to be on a television show I have a voice that people will listen to. I think it's really taught me to not be afraid to stand up and and say what matters.”