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The Handmaid’s Tale recap: understanding the purpose of that graphic self-harm scene

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Kayleigh Dray
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Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is finally back on our screens – but one scene in particular has left some viewers confused…

Fair warning: This article contains spoilers for episode one of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale (and drops some heavy-handed hints about what’s to come later, too).

As fans will already be aware, the first series of The Handmaid’s Tale finished on the same intriguing cliffhanger as the book: Elisabeth Moss’ character, June – or, to use her Gileadean name, Offred – is ushered into the back of a van, with no way of knowing if she’s on her way to freedom or capture.

Now, in tonight’s UK season two premiere of the despotic drama, we finally know what happened next. And, tragically, it wasn’t quite the happy-ever-after we had all been hoping for.

Instead of salvation, the van speeds June to a dilapidated baseball ground. Instead of welcoming Mayday agents, she’s greeted by armed guards, sour-faced aunts and barking dogs. And instead of being the heroic handmaid plucked from Gilead’s bosom, she’s one of many: all of the brave women who refused to participate in Janine’s execution at the end of season one have been brought to this same mysterious location in their own vans, too.

Within moments, June and her friends have all had muzzles strapped to their faces and been led to an overgrown field, where a gallows is waiting for them. The women are then forced to step up onto the platform and have each of their heads shoved into a noose. And, as the beautifully mournful tones of Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work play out around them,  the handmaids are seen struggling to come to terms with this brutal, final moment of their lives. 

Some sob. Some reach out for one another’s hands, in a bid to offer a fleeting moment of comfort. One woman, giving in to abject terror, relieves herself in front of everyone. June, however, spends a long moment looking up into the sky, seemingly at peace with her fate.

Then, one of the soldiers who rounded up all the handmaids pulls the lever, and… nothing. “Let this be a lesson to you,” warns Lydia, confirming that this entire horror show has been hastily thrown together as a punishment for last season’s particicution rebellion.

To put it in June’s own words: “Our Father, who art in heaven — seriously? What the actual f*ck.”

The events that come later are every bit as frightening, as it quickly becomes apparent that this psychological torture is not the full extent of the handmaids’ punishment.

They are returned to the Red Centre, where they are made to kneel while holding rocks in their outstretched arms in the pouring rain. And, while June’s pregnancy means that she is quickly bundled up in clean clothes and given a hot dinner, she is ordered to eat it in full view of her friends as, one by one, they are handcuffed to the kitchen stove and forced to hold their hands in an open flame. This means that, while June’s punishment does not leave her scarred, or burned, or horribly disfigured, it does something far worse: it tears apart her friendships, sets her apart from the others and renders her ‘An Other’. The camaraderie discovered by the handmaids at the end of season one is over: now, each is on her own in this awful, awful world.

This goes some way towards explaining what comes later: June, lying in a Gileadean hospital examination room, has her unborn baby examined under full view of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).

However, when the Waterfords step outside for a moment, a male nurse turns to June and calls her by her real name as opposed to her handmaid name, Offred. On full alert, she searches the room, and quickly discovers a key hidden in her boot. We join her as she creeps through stark-white hospital corridors, following red marks as Hansel and Gretel did breadcrumbs. Confidence growing with every step, she soon sprints down a staircase and disappears into a darkened passageway in the building’s basement, at the end of which she discovers an idling meat truck.

After a long journey, June arrives at a safehouse, where Nick (Max Minghella) is waiting for her. He quickly reassures her that she’ll only have to wait a little while; she’ll travel soon, once it’s safer. Then he grows curt, ordering her to cut her hair and change her clothes.

June strips off her red uniform, shoving it into a stove. She haphazardly hacks off her hair with a pair of old scissors (as we can see from her flashbacks, pre-Gilead June always preferred short her anyway), scooping up handfuls of blonde hair and shoving them into the stove as well. But then, holding the scissors just a beat longer than the audience might expect, June suddenly begins hacking at her upper ear cartilage, silently enduring the pain as blood drips all over the side of her face.

But why?

Why did June cut off her own ear in The Handmaid’s Tale?

You may have forgotten that little “red tag” attached to each and every single handmaid’s ear. As Aunt Lydia explained herself back in season one, these cuffs are something like rudimentary tracking devices — each of which can provide their exact coordinates to anyone looking to hunt them down.

“You are so very precious — we wouldn’t want to lose you,” Aunt Lydia told June at that time — a statement which June remembers vividly. She is all too aware that she and her fellow handmaids are considered property. That they’re obligated to be returned if they go missing, like a stolen car or a cat who’s wandered off. And that an act of self-mutilation is 100% necessary to escape this brave new world’s regime of sexual slavery.

As it turns out, this is a blood sacrifice which our heroine is more than willing to pay.

“My name is June Osborn,” she says, tossing her own severed flesh into the burning stove. 

“And I am free.”

Next episode: Unwomen 

Image: Channel 4