Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale
Season 2, Episode 2: “Unwomen”
Directed by Mike Barer
Written by Bruce Miller
* For a recap & review of the Season 2 premiere, “June” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Baggage” – click here
June (Elisabeth Moss) is further on her journey towards freedom. In the back of a truck, she hears sirens in the street, other noises, and she’s awaits whatever comes next. Is it really freedom? Can she ever truly get away from the misogynist nation-state of Gilead? She’s brought to the next place where she waits, again. It’s a tense, unsure time for June, as she can only hold on and see what happens. She hides away in the dark with a flashlight and a hammer.
A far cry from the Colonies, where supposedly undesirable women – Unwomen – deemed useless as Handmaids are sent to work themselves to the bone. This is where we see poor Emily (Alexis Bledel), still hanging on in those rough conditions. The whole place is toxic, from the very ground itself to the working conditions, a full-on concentration camp for women.
In the midst of it, we jump back to before Gilead. Emily was giving a lecture in an auditorium about the “human microbiome.” She watched young women in her class dealing with mansplaining; a poignant commentary from where we stand, particularly given the student’s hopes that it “gets better” in grad school, when we all know it doesn’t (and not just in this fictional story; it’s a constant barrage of ignorant men in real life, too). Afterwards, Emily discovers from her boss Dan (John Carroll Lynch) she won’t be teaching classes next semester, being sold on it like the purpose is for her best. When, in reality, it’s the misogynist crackdown of government bureaucracy on the lives of the individual women in American society. Interesting to see Dan, who is labelled by his own lover as “a collaborator,” and how he represents the older generation. He thought the fight for gay and lesbian equality was over, and people like Emily were “spoiled.” In the face of infertility and terrorism, the religious Right really clamped down on homosexuality. Dan’s only seeing it too late.
Any of this sound familiar? Great writing. I know that people would love to see more women writing on this show, I totally get that. We can at least give Bruce Miller credit for doing good work, though.
June has a look around the building where she’s holed up. She walks through some halls, checking out one of the offices. Outside, helicopters fly overhead; inside the place is barren, no sign of any people or activity. Everything’s been left as it was on those fateful last days of society, before Gilead rose. To see June able to move freely, go where she wants, even if it’s confined to one building, is refreshing for the viewer, as it surely is for her. Until she finds a room where there’d been executions – firing squads and hangings.
Soon, Nick (Max Minghella) arrives. He tells her she has to stay there, to keep out of danger. It’s tough for her to be there amongst all the death, in constant remembrance of a massacre. The whole problem is Gilead’s got eyes everywhere; neither Nick nor Mayday know everything. She just wants to go North. Reluctantly, Nick lets her go. She just can’t bring herself to leave. They have their first free sex instead, and it’s a watershed moment for her because she’s able to enjoy it, assert a little dominance, for once not being raped/used as breeding stock.
In the Colonies, a woman being scorned by all the others, spit on, yelled and cursed at, arrives to take her place there discarded by Gilead. This is Mrs. O’Conner (Marisa Tomei), a Commander’s wife. What exactly is her punishment? Perhaps she committed adultery? That’d be something the Commanders would hypocritically condemn. Mrs. O’Conner lives in a vastly different world than the one she was used to, both in the real world before and even Gilead.
We also hear more of the “university purges,” the anti-intellectual crackdown which usually always accompanies the rise of fascism (except for the intellectuals willing to sell their soul; in real life, think of Heidegger and others). There were some shocking, vicious things occurring on campuses leading up to the purges, such as Dan being hanged, FAGGOT spray painted under him on the cement. This prompted Emily and her partner Sylvia (Clea DuVall) to take their child and try to head for Canada. Things got tricky on the border with ICE, seeing as how they weren’t seen as a ‘typical family.’ Suddenly, gay marriage was “forbidden.” This resulted in Emily left behind.
In the Colonies, Emily acted as if she were helping Mrs. O’Conner, but slipped her something nasty. She reminds the Commander’s wife: “Some things can‘t be forgiven.” Thus is the fate of the women who were complicit in the patriarchy’s violent misogynist practises. Maybe it looks cruel. To me it looks like justice. When things are this far gone, death without torture for those committed grave wrongs against women is a mercy. Mrs. O’Conner’s dead body is left on a cross for the guards to find. Meanwhile, the punished women of the Colonies smile. Doesn’t last long, really. There are always more women being dumped there, like new arrival Janine (Madeline Brewer).
Sadly all June has to watch is Friends. Almost like a further torture post-Gilead having to spend time with Ross Geller, PhD. She has other ideas soon. She goes around collecting items from the offices, from baseball memorabilia to shoes to stuffed animals and pictures. She matches pictures and pieces of lives to the bullet holes downstairs at the firing squad wall, building a makeshift memorial to those who lost their lives.
Lord, this episode hit me hard. Emily’s story is one of devastation, like so many others. Watching it up close – plus with Lynch and DuVall, a couple of my favourite actors – was just so intensely emotional. So much more to come for Season 2!