Warning: The following contains spoilers for the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale's second season. Read at your own risk!
In the months leading up to The Handmaid's Tale's highly anticipated return, the show's producers warned that shocking twists and hairpin turns were coming as the series moved beyond Margaret Atwood's novel and Offred (Elisabeth Moss) would attempt to escape the hells of Gilead. But no one could have foreseen a moment as horrific as the one that opened the second season.
After rebelling against Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) at the end of Season 1, Offred and her fellow handmaids were rounded up, handcuffed and silenced with brown leather gags before being led through a dark and cramped tunnel that emptied onto the historic baseball diamond of what had once been Fenway Park, the oldest ballpark in operation in Major League Baseball and home of one of its most storied franchises, the Boston Red Sox. Like many of the men who'd stood on that field before her, Offred was wide-eyed when she realized where she was, but it was not for the same reason: as she exited the tunnel and turned around, she saw that set up in the outfield were several gallows in preparation for a mass hanging. And as the familiar, haunting sounds of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" began to play, the women were led to their deaths.
Or so they thought. The bottom dropped out when it was revealed that the bottom wouldn't drop out, because the entire thing was an elaborate staging meant to strike fear in the hearts of the young women who'd disobeyed Aunt Lydia's orders at Janine's (Madeline Brewer) stoning. To echo Offred's own reaction: what the actual f-ck, Handmaid's Tale?
The episode's eight-and-a-half-minute cold open is perhaps the most shocking and horrifying moment of a show that's nothing but shocking and horrifying moments. It's some of the best acting work of the entire series, because each woman is forced to convey their terror through what is largely a silent performance. Eyes brim with tears as the women shake and even piss themselves in fear. It's an unforgettable moment that likely only hints at the horrors yet to come, but as executive producer Warren Littlefield notes, there also had to be consequences for the handmaids' resistance in the Season 1 finale.
"Janine was not stoned to death; the handmaids united and and dropped those rocks, so you knew that a regime like Gilead had to deal with that. And that began to inform where we would go [to open the season]," Littlefield tells TV Guide.
"[Showrunner] Bruce Miller and the writers are very attuned to what happens in the world," he says of the choice to use Fenway. "You can look at fascist regimes in various parts of the world and see that they use public spaces — soccer stadiums, iconic places — for torture and mass death as a statement. So, Bruce's feeling was OK, we're in Boston, so let's do it at Fenway, and that's the way he wrote it. And I said, 'Well, I think if we want to do this we're gonna have to get some help.'"
Littlefield reached out to Tom Werner, a well-known television producer who is now part owner of the Red Sox organization that has called Fenway home since 1912, and luckily he embraced the idea. "I think it gives us another level of 'oh my god,'" says Littlefield of seeing the iconic stadium onscreen in that moment. "The fact that it's not a nameless, faceless location, but that, in fact, it's Fenway, adds to the horror of what unfolds in that scene."
Littlefield is not wrong: the use of Fenway is a reminder of a world that used to be, and to see a stadium so closely linked to America's favorite pastime abandoned and staged for mass murder in Gilead absolutely adds to the alarming nature of not only what has already happened but what is about to happen. But Moss and the rest of the cast cast didn't actually make the trip to Boston to film the sequence at Fenway; the show's special effects unit filmed the park for a night while the main unit filmed the women in Ontario, Canada. Through the magic of post-production the two were seamlessly blended together, but as Moss remembers the two-night shoot, it was the hardest night of filming in her 29-year career.
Dressed in nothing but the now-iconic dress of the handmaids, Moss says the brutal cold of the shoot was the main issue, but as a result of the experience she will forever be bonded with the other women who spent their nights in the frigid temperatures right beside her.
"They are so strong, so brave. They were just as cold as I was, but frankly, they do not get paid the same amount of money to do it, and they don't get the glory. Those women were incredible," says Moss. "I have said this to them, if I turn my head left or I turn my head right in a scene, I know that I am going to have an actor there to play with. And they did the real work that night."
"It's always a little frightening when you've got a noose around your neck," she continues. "You know it's fine. You've seen it. You trust everybody, but you can't help be nervous when there's a noose around your neck and you're standing on a gallows. So, it was very challenging, but when I first saw it, I was just so blown away and so grateful that all that hard work was not for nothing. I think it's so powerful. I truly think the first 10 minutes of this episode is better than anything I've ever done."
Having watched the scene in question multiple times now, it's safe to say that Moss and the rest of the cast and crew knocked this one out of the park.
The first two episodes of The Handmaid's Tale Season 2 are now streaming on Hulu. New episodes are released every Wednesday.
Additional reporting by Lindsay MacDonald