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Image courtesy of Channel 4.

Handmaid’s Tale: adaptation takes Margaret Atwood’s narrative to ever bleaker destinations

“June”, the opening episode of season two of The Handmaid’s Tale, picks up where it left off in the closing episode of season one. The central character, June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss), is forcibly taken from the house where she has been placed for breeding, as a response to her refusal to stone to death the tragic character of Janine/Ofwarren. The question of where she will be taken is answered swiftly. June and her fellow Handmaids are muzzled and, in a shocking and brutal scene, armed guards force the insubordinate women onto gallows and subject them to a mock execution.

The scene, ironically soundtracked by Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work, is a visceral act of physical and psychological violence that extinguishes the temporary satisfaction gained from June’s previously proud defiance. But June’s voiceover indicates that this act has galvanised her resolve: “Our Father who art in heaven – seriously? What the actual fuck?”

In season one of The Handmaid’s Tale, press and social media attention consistently framed the television series as an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. But now the majority of the storyline has been used, the new season offers the show’s storyrunners – unshackled as they are from Atwood’s original narrative – new possibilities and scope.

This follows what is becoming a popular trend in television drama. Recent examples of this include HBO’s The Leftovers (2014-17), and Big Little Lies (2017-) which have both continued beyond their opening season, despite using up the majority of the material in their source novels. Season two of Amazon Studios’ The Man in the High Castle (2015-), adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1962 dystopian novel, also became liberated from its literary source, while HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-) famously outpaced George R. R. Martin’s material in season six.

Right here, right now

For The Handmaid’s Tale, expanding beyond the source for season two has clearly been a conceptual challenge for the show’s writers, but one guided by actual current social and political events. Despite the first season being originally developed during the Obama administration, the second season was written and produced during Donald Trump’s presidency – and it shows.

The culture surrounding Trump’s election – his ill-judged travel ban on “enemy” country citizens, the rise of the alt-right movement that resulted in violence against people of colour, pervasive toxic masculinity that has galvanised into men’s rights activism and the Incel movement as well as the growth of the much-needed #MeToo movement – have all served to make The Handmaid’s Tale especially relevant and necessary.

The opening episode continues the use of flashbacks to highlight the world as it was before – with its creeping changes to society that see the rights of women, homosexuals, and non-Christians being exponentially eroded. As in season one, these scenes of creeping misogyny, homophobia and Christian conservatism contrast against the brutality of the “present” religious dictatorship.

Read more: How The Handmaid's Tale is being transformed from fantasy into fact

The heroism of June’s refusal to stone Janine at the close of season one is reframed in this opening episode. Her pregnancy makes her physically untouchable, unlike the other rebellious Handmaids. This detail is underlined in a gut-wrenching scene in which the Handmaid Ofrobert is tortured in front of all the Handmaids, while June is forced to eat soup “for the baby”. This is a significant narrative shift. Where June finishes the previous season in a state of empowerment, the second season quickly restrains her. Aunt Lydia spells out the folly of June’s actions:

Every Handmaid who followed you into disobedience will face the consequences. But not you. You are with child, you are protected … Such a brave girl aren’t you? Standing in defiance but risking nothing.

Casting off

The episode is dominated by June’s escape following a natal examination. This sharp pivot hints at a new narrative thread that may come to define the entire season. The claustrophobic intensity of her assigned home in season one looks to be replaced with running, evading recapture and attempts to be reunited with her daughter and husband. This first episode closes with a scene that sets up the narrative for season two: June removes and burns her Handmaid clothes and slices her own ear to extract the cattle tag.

This symbolic moment demonstrates June’s casting off that which defined her captivity, but also represents the painful sacrifices she must now endure for this freedom. Her closing voiceover calls back to the opening episode of the first season in which she stated “my name is Offred. I had another name, but it is forbidden now” before closing with “my name is June”. In the final moments of this opening episode of season two, she repeats and extends this reinforcement of her true identity:

My name is June Osbourne. I’m from Brooklyn, Massachusetts. I’m 34-years-old. I stand 5’ 3" in bare feet. I weigh 120 pounds. I have viable ovaries. I’m five weeks pregnant. I am free.

Warning signs

Hulu has renewed The Handmaid’s Tale for a third season, presumably a response to strong viewing figures for the second season’s opening episode, which have apparently doubled from season one. Naturally, like so many other adapted TV dramas, this show will move further away from its source as it builds on its origin story. But Atwood’s novel – like all great speculative dystopian fiction – is more than just a warning of what could happen in the future if totalitarianism goes unchecked and unconfronted. It is also a spotlight on that which is taking place now, incrementally, under our noses.

While the second and third seasons may dramatically move June’s story in radical new directions, it is the exploiting of the political and emotional relevance of Atwood’s allegorical novel for our current lives that must surely be its primary dramatic function.

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