It’s an impressive feat: The creators of The Handmaid’s Tale have somehow managed to take TV’s darkest thought experiment and make it even more harrowing to watch. The first two episodes of the second season, which premiered last night, are the first to go beyond the material in Margaret Atwood’s book, and they are a ceaseless cavalcade of grisly feminist torture porn to rival our greatest misogynist auteurs: horrifying, nauseating, and uncannily familiar in equal measure. “It’s not wall to wall brutality, but it’s that intense,” as Margaret Atwood told the Cut the other day.
The most horrifying moments of the show continue to be those that present a warped nightmare version of a world very similar to our own: The Boston Globe offices turned into a massacre site; Fenway Park turned into an executioner’s field; the airport customs line turned into, well, the airport customs line. Is it appropriately haunting, given the subject matter and its uncanny real-world parallels, or does it veer too far into televisual sadism?
Here’s our rundown of the moments that made us reach for the fast-forward button with our eyes covered, so you can ponder that question for yourself. (Of course, spoilers abound.)
Gallows in Fenway Park
The opening scene of season two is our first clue that we’re in for a particularly rough ride this season. After refusing to stone their friend Janine (Madeline Brewer) in the finale of last season, the rest of the Handmaids are escorted to a darkened, overgrown Fenway Park, which has been turned, like any pre-Gilead site of pagan delight, into a site of state-sponsored terror. A long row of nooses is set up across the outfield; the Handmaids — quivering in terror, screaming and sobbing through their gagged mouths, wetting themselves in fear, chased by barking dogs — are lined up to be executed. It’s one of the most upsetting and visually unsettling things I’ve seen on TV all year, one made no less traumatic when we find out that Aunt Lydia is just punking them. “Let this be a lesson to you,” she bellows, as we see her strolling across the bases in an ominous wide shot. (The Kate Bush music cue is a nice touch, though.)
The hand on the burner
But those rebellious Handmaids aren’t getting off that easy. After Aunt Lydia pulls her dramatic fake-out, she leads her charges into a dimly lit school cafeteria, where we see one of the Handmaids get taken into the kitchen, with the others presumably soon to follow. There, she has her hand shackled to a stove top, as Aunt Lydia turns the heat up high. Perhaps even worse than hearing her screams is watching Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss) — exempt from punishment due to the fact that she’s pregnant — being forced to sit and eat soup while she listens to her friends being mutilated. (Of course, it’s all her fault, as Aunt Lydia takes pains to remind her, given that she was the one who incited the mass refusal to stone Janine.)
As June prepares to escape, she has to figure out a way to deal with the microchip that Handmaids have embedded into their ears like wayward house cats. Her solution? Cut off the top of her ear with a pair of scissors, Reservoir Dogs style.
The bloody fingernail
June’s ear isn’t the only body part that’s shed in the new season’s first two episodes. In season two, we’re taken to the colonies, a postapocalyptic, radioactive wasteland where “Unwomen” like Emily (Alexis Bledel) are forced to spend their days cleaning up toxic waste. This is a more traditional horror setting than the well-manicured mansions of Brookline, Massachusetts, and The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t skimp on the visual unpleasantness. Atwood has said that she got all her inspiration for the book’s dystopia from real historical events, and it’s hard to ignore the visual echoes of familiar nightmare spaces like concentration camps, Russian Gulags, and slave plantations. Poisoned by radiation, the Unwomens bodies begin to visibly decay, from their scabby lips to their raw, chapped skin. At one point, we watch a woman peel off a bloody fingernail and leave it resting on a bar of soap.
The university hanging
And you thought we were going to make it through the first two episodes with just an almost-hanging? Cue the flashback: When Emily’s boss at the university tells her that she won’t be teaching next semester because she’s gay (as is he), she thinks he’s overreacting to the regime’s scare tactics. When she sees his body strung up in a noose from the university walls, as students gather around in horror and fear, she realizes it’s time to flee. Just like the protest scenes from last season, it’s these uncanny flashbacks — to a world much like our own, teetering on the brink of destruction — that are likely to leave the bitterest taste in viewers’ mouths.
The border-control scene
In a scene likely to be particularly triggering for anyone who has ever been pulled into that little back room at JFK, the second episode shows what happens when Emily, her wife (Clea DuVall), and son attempt to flee from Boston’s Logan Airport. The airport is a claustrophobic nightmare in itself: Thousands of people rushing to cross the border, as ICE agents patrol menacingly, detaining travelers without the right papers. Given the many contemporary news stories that this plays on — about the refugee crisis, ICE’s immigrant roundups, and people being held at airports during Trump’s travel ban — the scene hits uncomfortably close to home. After being offered a conditional boarding pass and a dash of hope, Emily is taken to an interrogation room, where ICE agents rip up her marriage license, interrogate her about her fertility, and tell her that she won’t be crossing any borders today. Her wife and son, who aren’t American citizens, are forced to go on without her.
The Boston Globe massacre
In perhaps my least favorite scene of the whole series, June finds herself in hiding at the old Boston Globe offices. She’s rooting around the reporters’ desks and looking at their old mementos — a novelty mug, a Red Sox pennant, family photos — when something awful catches her eye. We watch her face contort in horror, and then the frame reveals what she’s seeing: a row of nooses, next to a wall pockmarked by bullets and sprayed with blood. This is presumably where the publication’s employees were lined up to be killed when the regime began its purge of the free press. “Do you know what this is? Do you know what happened here?” she tells Nick, through tears. “It’s a slaughterhouse.” The fact that the specifics of the massacre are left up to the imagination just renders the scene even more chilling.
The poisoning in the colonies
Back in the colonies, exiled Gilead Wife (Marisa Tomei) thinks Emily is befriending her when she arrives there, giving her antibiotics and showing her the ropes. Actually, she’s feeding her poison, so that she’ll die a slow and painful death as punishment for her crimes. When the woman begs for her to stay and pray with her, Emily spits: “Every month, you held a woman down while your husband raped her. Some things can’t be forgiven … you should die alone.” To be honest, given how awful the rest of the episode was, watching a regime collaborator get her just deserts was practically a moment of levity — although seeing her strung up on a crucifix the next morning was a particularly nasty finishing touch.