If season one of The Handmaid’s Tale revolved around the profane rituals of life inside Gilead, this season looks into the dark places outside its walls: the landscape destroyed by war, the women not fit to serve as Handmaids in the city, the buildings and lives abandoned by the fleeing and the dead.
June is being moved again, and this time her drop-off advice is even less inspiring. “I come by here once a week,” says the elderly driver. “Check the rat traps and make sure nothing’s leaking too bad.” He offers her no instructions except to stay inside.
The building turns out to be — eerily, for this journalist — the home of the Boston Globe, not just shuttered but obviously shut down in some sort of raid. She glances through cubicles, finding the abandoned remnants of everyday life: coffee mugs, photos, kids’ art, and a single high heel, kicked off in mid-flight. The headline of the papers on the abandoned press reads, “The Aftermath … America’s Bloodiest …” leading us to believe that the government was entirely seized because of the D.C. attacks, or that something even worse came afterward. It makes sense that any coup bent on total authoritarian domination would dismantle the media, but in this case, the presses didn’t stop because of threats or coercion. The hanging nooses, the walls covered in bullet holes, the dried blood on the floor, and the matching high heel strewn on the floor confirm as much. This was the site of mass execution.
June’s breakdown is a long time coming. She’s not only opening the floodgates on her own trauma, but seeing, perhaps for the first time, the destruction of the world she used to live in.
So when Nick arrives, and he isn’t there to flee with her to Canada, June’s rage makes sense. She’s been captured by militant religious forces, her husband may be dead, her daughter was ripped from her arms, she’s been raped, humiliated, oppressed, and enslaved. Anything short of a run for the border feels too slow, too gradual. An exceptionally long sex scene lets June unleash some of that anger and wraps up with Nick panting, “I cant, I can’t,” and June’s pert response, “Try.” Our girl is back to form, which includes building an altar to the Boston Globe victims and finding her way back to her own God.
But really, this episode belongs to Emily, whom we last saw plowing an SUV over a Guardian’s body, trying to rack up as much carnage as possible since she already saw herself — marked by the Aunts as trouble, with her clitoris surgically removed — in a dead end. But it turns out that life can get worse. Much, much worse.
In Margaret Atwood’s novel, it isn’t clear if the Colonies are actually real. They’re a vague threat deployed to keep Gilead’s citizens, especially the Handmaids, in line. But their depiction here is even more brutal than what Atwood described. In a cold, dry, toxic wasteland, Unwomen (the term used to describe women who have violated Gilead’s codes and lose their status) stand toiling in the dust, shoveling dirt into bags without the benefit of the gas masks that the guards wear. It’s a foreboding place, like a Gulag that was bombed into radioactive nonexistence, and Emily’s face shows the wear of even a few weeks of toil.
Inside their barracks, conditions aren’t much better — the sights and sounds are like something from one of Dickens’s squalid homes for the poor — and it’s clear that whatever doesn’t kill the women in the short term will certainly dig into their bodies and grow like a cancer in the long run. Emily, whom we discover in the flashbacks was a university biology professor, has taken on the role of camp doctor, bandaging infected blisters and doling out bartered Tylenol. But her work only has minimal effect. The women are broken down, both physically and emotionally, and Emily is bandaging minor wounds while their insides turn to ash. Only the slightest hint of her former spunk rears its head when another Unwoman jokes that Emily’s work on her hands was the best manicure in town. “Leave me a good review on Yelp,” she lets out with a tiny crack of smile.
A bus of new recruits pulls up, and the first woman’s blue cloak marks her as a Wife (Marisa Tomei, whose work here is phenomenal). She receives the expected greeting from a group of former Handmaids: spit to the face, a “fucking bitch,” reluctance to let her take a cot. The first thing she does is to kneel down and pray, “Dear God, thank you for your good and generous blessings.” One gets the feeling that if she were smacked in the face with a chain, she’d thank God for his loving wake-up call.
Infection is apparently a way of life in the Colonies. Even the water is contaminated, Emily explains to the Wife, offering her alcohol to scrub her hands. The Wife, alone and justifiably disliked, wants to worm her way into Emily’s good graces, so she explains that she wasn’t in favor of the university purges, assuming that is why Emily has been sent here. Like a new prison inmate who doesn’t know the drill, the Wife too readily answers Emily’s question about why she’s been sent. “I was weak. I committed a sin of the flesh. And my husband was so busy with the Handmaid, he didn’t even notice.” Emily listens with a seemingly sympathetic ear, and there could be a flash of commiseration when the Wife half-jokes that her husband was probably promoted after she was caught in her affair.
Emily then offers what she says are expired antibiotics to combat the E. coli in the water. “You are truly a lamb of God,” the Wife responds before asking why Emily is being so kind to her. “A mistress was kind to me. Once.”
In flashbacks — in some of the most heart-wrenching, devastating scenes that this epic encourager of emotional self-flagellation has given us — we’re shown Emily’s life in the immediate time before Gilead. A university biology professor, she’s pulled aside by her dean, Dan, and told that she’ll be gaining some extra lab time next semester, meaning she’ll be teaching in the classroom less. But Emily sees through the babble. It’s cautionary, Dan explains: The new board — ostensibly some religious body that has been put in place — is concerned that she “isn’t maintaining a healthy learning environment.” In other words, she’s a lesbian, and her students know about it, courtesy of the photo of Emily, her wife, Sylvia, and their son that’s on her phone.
Dan recommends that she “lay low” for a while, which Emily interprets as an appeal to crawl “back into the closet,” and hide who she is, something she is unwilling to do. Dan explains that he’s taken down all the photos of his partner, Paul, from his office (a move that earned him the title of “collaborate” from Paul), but she’s still hopeful that this crackdown on the LGBTQ community is a blip on the radar, something to endure. The conversation asks a larger question: In the face of such a mighty, violent foe, is it more honorable to flee or fight? To stay alive and live to battle another day, or to stand your ground and force the enemy to face you?
We know, however, that this conversation comes after the attacks on D.C. — things won’t improve. And they don’t. Dan is strung up by a noose over a university path, the word Faggot spray-painted at his feet. He’s a warning sign — one that Emily heeds. Emily and Sylvia (Clea DuVall, who I’m praying returns in later episodes with more to do) head to the airport, baby in tow.
The check-in area is overflowing. Crowds extend out the doors and soldiers patrol the crowd with machine guns. The rules for who can exit the country and how they can get out are suddenly Byzantine.
If you’ve wondered to yourself, as I have, Why didn’t more people just flee America when they realized what was happening? the airport scene answers that question. And if your anxiety has kept you awake with thoughts of whether or not you should get your baby a passport, just in case, or keep a “go bag” somewhere by the door, you’ll feel unhappily justified in your neuroses by what awaits Emily and Sylvia. If it took you two hours to get through this scene — pausing and then unpausing, pacing a little, and then calming yourself back down — you aren’t alone.
Even though Emily makes it through check-in after wielding her and Syl’s marriage license, her passport won’t allow her to leave the country under normal circumstances. The scene looks typical enough by normal standards — a beige cubicle somewhere in the airport — but in this case, an egotistical ICE agent has been given license to assert his authority and take an extended power trip. And this is how Emily realizes that the protections of bureaucracy — demanding a lawyer, insisting on speaking to a superior — no longer matter, because bureaucracy only exists when the government is interested in serving its citizens.
Emily’s marriage license, he declares, is no longer valid. “You are not married. It is forbidden.” And in one fell swoop, her life is declared null. The next silent moments, as she walks Sylvia to the escalator, hugs her son, and tearfully presses her lips to her now non-wife’s, are the best — and emotional worst — of an already outstanding episode.
Back in the present day, the Wife is sick, vomiting and shaking, covered in sweat. She realizes that the pills Emily provided weren’t antibiotics, but some sort of poison. Yet she’s still claiming that God will save her. Emily won’t let that happen. “Every month,” she reminds the Wife, with the cold stare of someone who might be dead inside, “you held a woman down and your husband raped her.” This Emily is vicious, and now we can see why. “You should die alone,” she mutters before walking away.
The Wife, in a sick parody of the Lord she thought would come save her, ends up strung high on a cross.