The Handmaid’s Tale – A Brutal Life for Unwomen – Review, Episode 202

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In many ways, as devastating as episode 1 of this season was, I found episode 2 even more so. We knew June and the other Handmaids would be punished for their refusal to stone Janine. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. But then we had the hope of June’s assisted escape, even though we didn’t know where she was going. Episode 2, though, brought us to places of brutality, acts of depravity and unrelenting cruelty.

We get so comfortable with walls. It doesn’t even take so long. Wear the red dress, wear the wings, be a good girl, roll over and spread your legs, yes ma’am, may the Lord open.

June

And suddenly, June’s walls are in a different location. And they have bullet holes and blood stains. But as difficult as this is for her, being alone, completely unsure of what comes next, with Nick – and the ghosts of Boston Globe employees – as her only companions, the silence and lack of commands can give her space to mourn for the life that she, and her ghosts, have lost over the last few years. You can see her begin to take back a little bit of her own self – collecting the personal possessions of those who presumably were slaughtered in the printing plant, lighting candles, saying a prayer that is heartfelt rather than corrupted.

 

THE HANDMAID’S TALE — “Unwomen” –Episode 202 — Offred adjusts to a new way of life. The arrival of an unexpected person disrupts the Colonies. A family is torn apart by the rise of Gilead. Offred (Elisabeth Moss), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

And Nick seems to understand, at least a little, that June needs to be in control. She’s had no control over any aspect of her life for several years. So he gives her the comfort of sex, but lets her take the lead in a way she hasn’t been able to do. And when she insists that she’s leaving on her own if he won’t take her out of there, he hands over the keys to the truck and his gun. Does he know that she’ll quickly recognize the futility of her actions? He must know that if she leaves, and he has to walk back to town without car or weapon, it could cause serious problems for him. But by letting her make her own choices, he shows that he trusts her, that he understands that the treatment she’s received is wrong, that he’s willing to face whatever consequences may come his way for her – and their child’s – safety.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE — “Unwomen” –Episode 202 — Offred adjusts to a new way of life. The arrival of an unexpected person disrupts the Colonies. A family is torn apart by the rise of Gilead. Nick (Max Minghella) and Offred (Elisabeth Moss), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

I’ve wondered a few times during Season 1, and now in this episode, about Nick’s personal level of commitment to Gilead. Is he going along to get along? He was obviously a lost soul when he was recruited. Did he have unvoiced objections? Did he think, “whatever… this is life now”? We’ve never seen him do anything overtly harmful, like the guards in the baseball stadium. Yet he’s enjoyed a fairly high level of trust with Commander Waterford – how do they vet the commitment of their recruits? Is he really a good man caught up in a horrible situation? What is the extent of his personal rebellion – is he involved with Mayday, or only as it relates to June? I hope we get more answers to the Nick mystery this season!

Emily

Emily’s journey has been even more brutal than June’s. She had as much to lose as June did – a partner, a child, a job – but she also had the burden of being gay, which is a crime in Gilead. And, as she saw firsthand, a crime punishable by a cruel and public death. There was some speculation in our Handmaid’s Facebook group (link below) that she was outed by the female student she stopped to talk with in the hall, but that would have resulted in Emily’s being taken, and possibly killed. Instead, I’m sure it was common knowledge, as it frequently is among co-workers, that she was gay, and that her department head was also – and he was hung. Of course, gay men serve no purpose in Gilead – they’re offensive, and would never be recruited, so the only way to deal with them is death. And Emily wasn’t taken until that horrible scene in the airport.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE — “Unwomen” –Episode 202 — Offred adjusts to a new way of life. The arrival of an unexpected person disrupts the Colonies. A family is torn apart by the rise of Gilead. Dan (John Carroll Lynch) and Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

How heart-wrenching was that? On the verge, possibly, of escaping, with her wife and their child, who had the benefit of being Canadian citizens. I caught immediately the purpose behind the questions about whose egg was it that produced the baby, hers or a donor – if she had been clear thinking and knew to say it was a donor, she might have been on that plane with her family. Instead, she was grabbed up to become a Handmaid, lesbian or not – she was fertile. And we know how that worked out….

THE HANDMAID’S TALE — “Unwomen” –Episode 202 — Offred adjusts to a new way of life. The arrival of an unexpected person disrupts the Colonies. A family is torn apart by the rise of Gilead. Sylvia (Clea Duvall) and Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

One thing we repeatedly heard that viewers wanted to see was the Colonies – and it was worse than we could have imagined. Treated as subhuman, not worth any type of human dignity or respect, made to dig and bag – to what end? – highly contaminated soil, hit with a blast from a cattle prod when they paused, or looked around, or spoke.

If this is a nuclear site, as the effects on the women make it seem, no amount of digging up the top soil will help. This doesn’t seem like an area that can be returned to any useful purpose – and the leaders of Gilead must know this. So it’s the ultimate punishment – at least death on the wall is relatively quick. This reveals the depths of Gilead’s loss of humanity. And it turns even the compassionate and caring into vicious and vindictive prisoners.

That’s the case with Emily, for sure. She has retained a lot of her humanity, even through losing a wife and child, a lover, body parts, freedom. She’s become the camp doctor. And apparently, justice dealer. It was a shock to me, too, when it was obvious that she had poisoned the Wife – sure, the woman was now in the same position as Emily, forced to dig dirt that would slowly kill her, but that wouldn’t satisfy Emily’s need to get some kind of revenge on the soulless Gilead regime. She didn’t care that Gilead had grabbed up one of its own – as a wife in Gilead, Emily felt, she shared the blame for the current situation. And allowing her even one more day of life, as awful as it was, was an affront to the women who had been victimized, dehumanized, and brutalized by this woman’s complicit hypocritical piousness and her husband’s horrifying compatriots.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE — “Unwomen” –Episode 202 — Offred adjusts to a new way of life. The arrival of an unexpected person disrupts the Colonies. A family is torn apart by the rise of Gilead. Janine (Madeline Brewer), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

The bleak, monochromatic scenes – dusty, dirty, ugly – are amazing. There’s no way someone can see this and not be horrified by what Gilead has done. And then Janine gets off the bus, still in red, and you know that this burst of mad Handmaid will soon be worn down as well.

Is there any coming back from the Colonies? Any redemption, any resistance? I can’t believe there could be – but we can still have hope, even if they don’t.


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Erin Conrad