Spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale Season 2, Episode 2.
In one of the more gruesome scenes of The Handmaid's Tale — and that's really saying something — June harms herself in a particularly stomach-churning way. In Episode 2, armed with a pair of scissors, June cuts the tip of her ear on The Handmaid's Tale, causing a huge stream of blood to pour down her neck. But, why?
Well, if you think back to some of the flashbacks viewers encountered in Season 1, it's revealed that Aunt Lydia had tracking devices implanted in all the handmaids' ears — that cuff that was roughly stapled into June's ear apparently could provide her exact coordinates to anyone looking to hunt her down. “You are so very precious — we wouldn’t want to lose you,” Aunt Lydia tells her. So it only makes sense that in order to fully escape from the Waterfords' home, June needed to separate herself from them completely, and that meant digging that horrible GPS device out of her skin by whatever means necessary.
It's just one more sacrifice June — and any handmaid who ever wants to escape, really — has to endure in order to truly make progress toward breaking her chains and getting away to a better life.
The moment she cuts out the device, though it's short-lived, is a meaningful one. In order to escape her glorified slavery, she has to mutilate herself to remove something that was put there by her oppressors themselves. It drives home the point of how much ownership the commanders and their wives have over the handmaids — not only are handmaids forced to have sex with commanders and carry their children against their will, but they also have an implant in their skin like a suburban couple might have placed in their dog. Viewers, along with the handmaids themselves, are made painfully aware that they're considered property, and they're obligated to be returned if they go missing, like a stolen car or a cat who's wandered off.
While the treatment — and surveillance — of women in Gilead is a part of an imagined future, Margaret Atwood, the author of the 1985 book on which the show is based, has made it clear that it's all rooted in history. And though the stories might seem more poignant during some times than others, she says it's not too far off from reality, even if it's presented on an escalated level.
"The control of women and babies has been a part of every repressive regime in history. This has been happening all along. I don’t take it lightly when a politician says something like a pregnancy can’t result from a rape because a woman’s body knows it and rejects it," Atwood told TIME magazine in a 2017 interview. "There’s an undercurrent of this [type of thinking]. And then it rises to the surface sometimes. But The Handmaid’s Tale is always relevant, just in different ways in different political contexts. Not that much has changed."
In addition to removing a device that was so crudely stapled onto her body, June also distances herself from her former life by burning her handmaid's uniform, setting the red dress and bonnet aflame in a furnace while she awaits further instruction from the mysterious group working to help her. She manages to shed the skin that's oppressed her for so long, even if it's hard to believe it'll be for good. It seems clear that June's escape from the Waterfords, featured in The Handmaid's Tale's two-episode premiere, might not be permanent. Whether or not she's taken back to the very same environment from which she just escaped, or if she spends the next stretch of episodes continuing to run and hide, she's got her work cut out for her. But at least for now, her oppressors are not watching her every move.