UNWOMEN (HANDMAID'S TALE RECAP)
Welcome to the Colonies, and hello to poor Emily, last seen behind the wheel of a sedan, straight crushing oppressors’ heads.
This episode features three storylines and I'll talk about them one at a time.
I’ll start with June’s story because it was the least interesting of all of them. We open on June in the back of a truck, musing on her new freedom and if it will really take. The whole city is looking for her, and she is delivered by a taciturn man to a warehouse, which turns out to be under the offices of The Boston Globe, which has been defunct since before the war. June is anxious to move on, but the man doesn’t have any idea of when she’ll be moved next. She begins exploring her new environs, wandering around the newsroom and poking through cubicles. There is evidence of some sort of catastrophe, with bags and shoes strewn about. She makes it to the presses, which are indeed stopped, and then makes a terrible discovery: a row of nooses and a blood-stained and bullet ridden wall. She finds the mate of the woman’s shoe there, and the show does something interesting: we have a whole little story of this disaster, told only through objects. The Walking Dead used to be good at this type of storytelling, and it is a cornerstone of a post-apocalyptic narrative. We can see the journalists and workers being rounded up, terrified, stuffed in the basement, and hung and shot. The burgeoning Republic of Gilead clearly purged the fourth estate first. June is very freaked out about it, and no doubt suffering from some PTSD.
Nick shows up and she angrily demands to be taken away from there. She wants to go north. He tells her that the whole city is looking for her, and they get in a big fight, which culminates in her taking the keys and his guns and getting into his car, seemingly ready to find Hannah and flee to Canada. June stares at Nick, and gets out of the car. The two engage in some rough sex--June pulls his hair and bites him. And then they fuck and fuck so much. Like I said, I have never understood June’s horniness for Nick. It’s like this Atwoodian statement about connection and intimacy? But it has never resonated with me. This extended sex scene doesn’t resonate with me, either. June is basically trying to fuck him to death, which, cool! I guess.
After the fuckfest, she watches a DVD of Friends (in which Monica and Rachel teach Chandler about pleasuring a woman) until she gets the idea to memorialize the Boston Globe staff. She gathers up important knicknacks and takes them to the basement, where she arranges them and says a prayer. It’s nice. But her story doesn’t move forward and the sex was gratuitous. YMMV.
The other two storylines revolve around Emily, the former Ofglen, who was very hard done by last season. Emily is in the Colonies, forced to labor with the other unwomen (lesbians, troublemakers, old women) in the toxic waste dump. The Colonies are urine yellow, and the women fill bags of contaminated dirt as Aunts in gas masks look on and shout orders. Even the horses wear gas masks in this most super of all Superfund sites, but the unwomen are unprotected. Most are ravaged with burns and sores, hair gone in great clumps. Emily acts as a doctor, dispensing what little medicine she has to those suffering. And really, everyone is suffering.
Emily is outside gathering some mint when a school bus pulls up with new unwomen. First off the bus is a Wife in her blue garments. The captions name her as Mrs. O’Connor, and she’s played by Marisa Tomei. The other prisoners don’t take too kindly to the Wife, and she spouts all kinds of religious platitudes, just like an unlikable character in one of my short stories. The Wife seems to think that she will be delivered from her fate. Emily offers her some kindness, and O’Connor spills her guts: she’s there because of a sin of the flesh. Ignored by her husband in favor of the handmaid, she committed adultery and was found out. She insists that she loved the man, and asks about Emily’s past. When Emily tells her she had been a college professor, O’Connor assumes that she was picked up in the University Purges. O’Connor didn’t think that was right, and she herself had an MFA (bwaah bwaah bwaaaaaaah) in Interior Design (wah wah) before the whole thing.
Emily gives her some antibiotics, (and I was like, what? They seem in short supply!) and tells her the water is contaminated. That night, Emily comes across O’Connor in the bathroom, puking and miserable. Turns out that Emily gave her some slow poison and is like, fuck you, Wife. O’Connor dies and is tied to a cross out front. As the Aunt screams at them, another school bus pulls up, and out hops poor Janine. The two embrace before they are pulled apart by an Aunt.
So, there you have it. Some Colonies action. We never see them in the novel, but of course we’ve outgrown it, so here we are. I’m still confused about what happened to create them to begin with. I’m also, and okay...this is super nerdy and OCD of me...confused about the relative health of the vegetation. There are trees and grass. I know they slapped that yellow filter on the whole thing, but it doesn’t look particularly desolate to me. Keep in mind, I’m a desert creature. I’m curious about the Aunts that are stationed there. Are they bad Aunts being punished? Because gas masks don’t really protect against radiation poisoning, which seems to be common among the unwomen. I was not pleased by the women’s prison vibe that was thrown out. Perhaps this is a corrective to Orange is the New Black, in which the privileged white woman gets what she deserves instead of multiple chances to redeem herself and learn from her queer, women of color peers. Emily kills the Wife, and she does it with the guise of kindness, which makes it crueler in the end. But then, she is a Wife, central to the patriarchy’s structure, and is also a venial creature. Plus, she’s also annoying as f. So bye bye, Marisa Tomei!
Last but not least, we have Emily’s backstory. We begin in a fairly empty lecture hall, where Emily defends a woman from some mansplaining. In the hall, the young woman asks if it gets better in grad school, and Emily is like hahahahahhahaha no. She meets with her department head, played by John Carroll Lynch, who gingerly informs her that she’s not going to be teaching next semester. The new board of regents (as a faculty member, no phrase creates more fear) thinks her status as an out and married lesbian is creating an unhealthy learning environment. Over the course of the conversation, we learn that her boss is gay, but has removed all pictures of his husband from his office. His husband accuses him of being a collaborator (my kind of drama queen, that Paul) and he tells Emily that he had felt like her generation was spoiled: able to live in the open with no need for the closet. But since the attack on DC, that has changed dramatically. Emily leaves the conversation swearing that she will be teaching in the fall.
The next time we see her, she finds her department head lynched and the word FAGGOT sprayed on the sidewalk under him. She decides it's time to get out of the country with her wife, Sylvia (played by Clea Duvall) and their son, Oliver. The airport is pure chaos as mobs swarm, trying to go anywhere. The family is rerouted to another desk, and the formerly friendly tone of the men handling the case evaporates. Sylvia is a Canadian citizen and can take the kid with her, but Emily is not allowed to leave. Furthermore, their marriage has been invalidated. It’s forbidden by the LAW. When Emily tries to argue, she’s shoved down in the chair and questioned about her son: did she use her own egg?
Sylvia and Oliver get on the plane, after a long and heartbreaking goodbye between the two women. Emily is left alone, and we know the outlines of the rest of the story. This is the most affecting part of the whole episode: to watch the confident college professor get knocked down by a society that’s suddenly shifted is horrific in its own way. It’s not the blood and piss of the first episode, but it creates that nightmare, Kafkaesque feeling I mentioned in my first recap. We see, too, that Emily was always a fighter, and her involvement in Mayday makes even more sense.
In my first recap, I asked some questions about what point this show serves, especially when it seems so focused on the degradation of the characters that it veers into sadism. What do we take from it? What purpose does it serve? We’ve seen June’s path through the beginnings of Gilead, and we can see how mother and wifehood distracted her from seeing the signs until it was too late. The same thing can be said for Emily, although her path out of Gilead could have been easier--the women are informed that the regulations had changed that morning, meaning that with her wife’s Canadian citizenship if they would have left two days before they would have all made it out.
Maybe that’s the purpose this show serves: it reminds us that we need to pay attention to the signs and leave when it is time to go. If we wait too long, it will be too late.