Film & Television

The Handmaid’s Tale: Women Shine Brightest in Hulu’s Dark Series

The second season, taking its cue perhaps from another critically acclaimed streaming hit, Orange is the New Black, is fleshing out the residents of Gilead with elaborate backstories. Last season, we learned that Offred was once June, a contemporary working woman in Boston with a husband and daughter. This season, we’ll learn more about June, as well as histories of other characters. In a strange way, the flashbacks are even more frightening than the scenes in Gilead, because until the takeover, everything feels so normal. Small changes are noted — June suddenly needs her husband’s signature to get her birth control prescription filled; a gay man feels pressured to remove pictures of his partner from his office — but there is generally a sense that the worst can’t possibly happen. Until it does.

Beyond the subjugation of women (the wives of Gilead’s leaders are in many ways as restricted as their handmaids), which was painfully dramatized in season one, the most disturbing scenes early in season two revolve around the fate of the heretofore “free” press, and immigration officials deciding who can stay and who can go. Ofglen, who was once Emily, a college professor, is forced to stay at Logan airport while her wife and child, Canadian citizens, are allowed to leave. Her marriage is no longer valid (“It’s against the law,” she hears. “What law?” she demands, only to be told, “The law.”) and, more importantly, she has viable ovaries.

If women are inferior in Gilead, they are the exact opposite in the show itself. In fact, the two male leads (Joseph Fiennes as Fred Waterford, Offred’s commander, and Max Minghella as Nick, the Waterfords’ chauffeur and Offred’s potential savior) feel downright incidental. In addition to Moss and Bledel, the cast includes Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Waterford, Samira Wiley as escaped handmaid Moira, and Ann Dowd as the handmaids’ “Aunt Lydia.”

Aunt Lydia trains the young women and is ostensibly responsible for their welfare, their behavior, and their immortal souls. If this means employing corporal punishment (to the point of caning, burning, disfigurement or amputation), it hurts Aunt Lydia as much as it hurts her girls. Dowd, at 62, has been acting onstage and onscreen since a drama teacher gave her the confidence to walk away from a pre-med degree. “It never occurred to me that something that gave you such joy could also be your life’s work,” she remembers. And, she’s found a way to make Aunt Lydia human for herself.

“First of all,” she said in a recent interview, “If you’re playing a character, it’s a relationship. And you better not move in with judgment because you’re not going to get anywhere. You’re going to have a one-sided evil person, and then it becomes a horror movie where you can say, ‘Thank God that’s not real.’ She’s a human being. She loves those girls, she’s devoted to their wellbeing, and it’s up to her to make sure they have a meaningful life.” For inspiration, Dowd has turned to the nuns she knew growing up in a large Catholic family and New England Patriots coach Bill Belicheck because, as she explains, “He didn’t give a shit what anyone thought.”

Dowd won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress, and her work as Lydia is fast becoming iconic. In last week’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, host Michelle Wolf turned to Sarah Huckabee Sanders and quipped “I’m a little star struck. I love you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale.”

One has to assume that Sanders, like the handmaids in the season’s opener, was speechless.


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  • Andrea May 3, 2018 at 7:48 am

    Thanks Alex for this review. I re watched season 1 and now am deep into season 2. Disturbing, thought provoking and touching all at once!