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The Handmaid's Tale: Unwomen

I was hoping this episode would be less upsetting than the premiere. Oh, well.

Every episode featuring Emily has been a kick in the gut, and "Unwomen" is no exception. Like Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel conveys worlds of emotion with her eyes and expression, and Emily's life of rebellion and suffering is practically unbearable to watch.

The Colonies, who knows where, is a radioactive hellhole where women who have permanently displeased the Republic of Gilead are worked until they die. The burning beige landscape with the octagonal white shelters looked like Mars, with ragged women shoveling dirt into burlap bags for some reason as they coughed painfully and their fingernails dropped off, as vicious aunts in gas masks poked them with their ever present cattle prods and led prayers forcing them to thank God for his grace. Even here, Emily found a role for herself. She can't be part of the Resistance here (one assumes), but she can make the rounds with a shabby first aid kit and help the other prisoners with bandages and rubbing alcohol.

And yet, Emily is far from a saint. When a new prisoner who used to be a "Wife" (Marisa Tomei) arrives, the other prisoners reject her and treat her cruelly. The Wife responds by expressing her continued faith in God, assuming that eventually He will deliver her from this new evil. And in a sense, that is what happens. The Wife takes Emily's help at face value, in the form of expired antibiotic tablets to keep her from getting an infection from the contaminated water, and those pills turn out to be poison. Emily leaves the Wife's body to be found on a cross in the yard. No religious symbolism going on there at all, folks.

The Wife was hoist with her own petard. She was part of the ruling class of Gilead, and thought she was better than the Handmaids and the Marthas. Guess not. At one point, since the Wife said she cheated on her husband because he was deeply involved with his Handmaid, I was imagining all of this happening to Serena Joy. Too much to hope for, I suppose.

Emily's current deadly dilemma was framed by flashbacks to her life as a professor experiencing the death of education. A lecturer in cell biology and wearing cute glasses, Emily was happily married to Sylvia (the wonderful Clea DuVall) and they had a two-year-old son named Oliver. Emily's gay boss Dan (John Carroll Lynch) had decided to move Emily to the lab full time next semester because openly gay teachers weren't acceptable anymore after "what happened in DC."

Still determined to fight for her rights, Emily stayed in Nazi Germany too long. When do you make a decision like that? When do you stop believing that things will eventually return to normal? After her boss Dan was lynched with the word "faggot" painted on the ground beneath him, Emily and Sylvia decided it was time to get on a plane. But in a frantic crush at Logan Airport, it became clear that while Sylvia had a Canadian passport and could leave with their son, ICE could detain Emily, who was Oliver's natural mother and a U.S. citizen with a functioning uterus. That last scene where Emily and Sylvia said a soundless goodbye in the middle of the noise and the crowd was exceptional, because when you have two exceptional actresses, all you need to do is set up a camera and frame their faces.

What happens in the Colonies is so awful that I kept thinking that it would have been better if the soldiers had stood those women up against a wall and mowed them down. So of course, we got that in June's half of the episode, this time featuring the death of journalism.

After being smuggled in a truck, June was abandoned by an unhelpful male Resistance member in a huge, empty office building that used to be the Boston Globe. With only a hammer to defend herself, June explored the offices, reading the story of what happened in the objects that were left behind: the last issue of the newspaper, the abandoned desks, some ghastly empty nooses, one high heel left on the floor with its mate by a cement wall covered with bloody bullet holes.

What could June do? She hid. She waited. Eventually Nick showed up and June lost it. She was so angry and so desperate to escape and find Hannah that she wouldn't listen to reason, even though Nick told her that as a Commander's pregnant escaped Handmaid, everyone but everyone was out looking for her. I was honestly afraid that she would indeed take off and would almost certainly get caught and promptly chained in a basement until she gave birth, like Ofwyatt.

Instead June channeled her anger into a whole lot of sex with Nick. Too raw for tenderness, she bit his neck, she wore him out, with her again on top. She took the power in their relationship away from him at least temporarily, because that was all she could do. What is sex in this totally unequal world? At least it is something that June can choose now. I'm relatively certain that Nick would still help her escape even if she never touched him again.

June couldn't do anything about the slaughter of the journalists except acknowledge that it happened, so that is what she did. She created a shrine with candles, photos and personal objects, right there on the wall where they died. I found it moving that, in an episode that emphasized the religious hypocrisy of the Wife in the Colonies, June prayed to God for the dead at that memorial wall. The Republic of Gilead may have perverted and twisted religion into her own oppression, but the comfort of God still exists for June. I liked that.

I especially liked that the most moving piece that June put on the memorial wall was the pride rainbow flag. It was like a small acknowledgement and tribute to Dan's lynching and Emily's continued suffering. And the photography throughout continued to emphasize darkness with tiny bits of light. I especially liked the opening scene shot from above of June lying on the floor of truck, a small spot of light in the dark, like God was watching over her when no one else could see.


— The bits of popular culture they occasionally use in the story is jarring. This time, it was a DVD of Friends, the scene where Monica and Rachel are describing womens' erogenous zones. It contrasted oddly with the extended June/Nick sex scene and pointed out how utterly trivial and unimportant female pleasure has become.

— I liked the scene where Emily told her female student not to let the male student make her feel stupid. The female student wondered if it got better in grad school. Take it from me. No, it doesn't.

— Those poor horses.

— At the end of the episode, Janine arrived in the Colonies in a school bus. I thought it was appropriate in an episode about the death of education that a school bus was used to transport unwomen.

— This week's most obvious reference to today's political climate was the all powerful ICE agent at the airport who simply declared that Emily and Sylvia were no longer married.


June: "Wear the red dress, wear the wings, shut your mouth, be a good girl, roll over and spread your legs. Yes ma'am, may the Lord open. What will happen when I get out? I probably don't have to worry about it, because there probably is no out. Gilead knows no bounds, Aunt Lydia said. Gilead is within you, like the spirit of the lord. Or the Commander's cock. Or cancer."

June: "Under His eye."
Driver: "After while, crocodile."

Emily: "Leave me a good review on Yelp."

Emily: "So you thought it was time to hide the dykes."

Dan: "Welcome to the fight. It sucks."

The Wife: "I fell in love. Do you think that matters?"
Emily: "To who?"
The Wife: "To God."

The Wife: "You will suffer. You will suffer. You will burn in agony for all eternity."
Emily: "Every month, you held a woman down while your husband raped her. Some things can't be forgiven."

The Wife: (dying) "Pray with me."
Emily: "You should die alone."

I've decided that it's probably better to watch this series in bits. Get up and take breaks. Stop it and scribble. Too much of it at once could probably be detrimental to the health.

Four out of four reviews on Yelp,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

1 comment:

  1. I watched the first and 2nd episode back to back. I should not have done that. This show takes such an emotional toll on me.


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