Warning: Lots of spoilers ahead.
One of the spookiest aspects of any dystopian artwork is the idea that the characters used to be like us. Citizens of the Republic of Gilead on The Handmaid’s Tale used to be Americans. What happened, and how did they give up on “We, the people?”
The set designers are constantly throwing us subtle clues that things are off in the flashback scenes, as in Season 2’s Emily-centered second episode, “Unwomen.” Why is the enormous lecture hall that Emily teaches her biology class in so sparsely populated? It could be that she’s a relatively young, untenured professor and not yet an academic star. Or it could mean a loss in respect for scientific disciplines among students, since Emily comes across as and engaging, energetic teacher.
Life In the Colonies Really Sucks We have our first sighting of Emily (previously the first Ofglen) since midway through Season 1. She’s now an Unwoman, assigned with other undesirables to clean up the contaminated, radioactive wasteland in the Colonies. The unwomen spend their days using pickaxes and shovels to break through a seemingly endless supply of hard, steaming ground to reach ashy, powdery soil which they then shovel into sacks to be carted away. Aunts in gas masks (guardians, horses and aunts have protection from the contaminated air, but the unwomen have none) yell at them and stick them with cattle prods if they don’t work fast enough. It’s a deliberate waste of human life, besides being a brutal, unsustainable use of the workforce. Also, how bad to you have to be at being an Aunt to be assigned to the colonies versus a cushy Red Center assignment like Aunt Lydia’s? Were the colony aunts inadequately creative at being mean?
The Interrupting Guy In Emily’s Lecture Hall This flashback moment is shocking because it’s so normal. Jenna, a student in Emily’s class, raises her hand to politely ask a question, and a nearby male student cuts her off. He’s wrong, and Emily has to cut back in to correct him. It’s a sadly normal moment of mansplaining as played out in classrooms and workplaces around the world. But this is post-coup Gilead, and Emily is about to find her own teaching opportunities interrupted when her boss, Dan, tells her that she won’t be teaching next semester. When pressed, Dan admits that it’s because Emily’s phone image of her wife Sylvia and their son, Oliver, has brought her under suspicion from “the New Board of Regents,” and that he’s removed all the pictures of his own partner, Paul, from his office. The student was being thoughtlessly disrespectful, while Dan’s intent is to protect her. But the ultimate societal effect is that women are being silenced.
Ashes Of the First Amendment June’s hiding out in the abandoned Boston Globe headquarters, frozen like Pompeii. It’s simple to piece together what happened here: folders and messenger bags are scattered where employees dropped them, a single sensible beige suede ballet-slipper pump lies on its side in front of a desk that once belonged to a woman, likely an editor, who was probably someone a lot like June. Her desk displays a photo of a husband and a little girl Hannah’s age, a child’s pink “I Love Mommy” art project, Boston Red Sox memorabilia and a fresh copy of what was probably The Boston Globe’s final edition, bearing the headline “In the Aftermath: America’s Bloodiest Day.” Downstairs, June finds the mate to the suede office mommy shoe lying before a bloodstained, bullet-pocked cement wall, behind a row of nooses. Its owner didn’t have time to put on both her shoes before they marched her to a basement execution. Remember: June worked in publishing herself. She loves the written word. These were her people.
How Free Is June? Nick, not June, is in charge of whether they can get Hannah and go north. He’s an Eye, so he could find out where she is. Making a run for it would be dumb, for all of the reasons he cites. He gives June the keys and a gun, but gazes at her from the loading dock before she can drive. He ultimately respects her freedom, but the rest of the world won’t.
Steamy Office Sex At least they can reclaim their sexuality.
Ew. That’s a Fingernail Marissa Tomei appears as a Wife newly arrived in the colonies. She’s constantly praying, so she seems like someone who drank the Koolaid. The prisoners resent her as a wife and an oppressor, so one of them, Kit, rips out a bloody, misshapen infected thumbnail and leaves it on the soap in front of her while they’re washing up. It’s so gnarled that if you blink, you my need to rewind to make sure that it’s not a big scab.
Another Noose In a campus flashback, Emily sees Dan, hanging, above a sidewalk spray-painted with the word “FAGGOT.” Laying low and trying to work with the new Board of Regents did not save him.
“You’re Not Married” The first ICE agent at Logan International Airport was respectful. The second one isn’t. Just like that, Emily and Sylvia’s marriage certificate becomes meaningless by law. It’s a reminder: the time when same-sex marriage was unrecognized and women couldn’t live up to their career potential is within close living memory. Far too high a percentage of the population has not updated their attitudes towards equality, and was fine with the rollback in gender rights. The agents could say that they’re just doing their jobs, but they’re tearing a family apart by collaborating with a system that will destroy Emily for her ovaries.
“You Should Die Alone” It’s shocking that Emily would turn this cold, but people like the wife took everything from her — her child, her marriage, her career, her property, her clitoris, her health. So Emily exacts justice for her trauma because, “Every month, you held a woman down while your husband raped her. Some things can’t be forgiven.” It’s a chance to take something back. Mrs. O’Connor, claiming after the fact that she was not in favor of the university purges, is like the Becky who thinks she deserves a pat on the back for saying she liked Lemonade or the conservative politician who offers clichéd praise of Martin Luther King Jr. while urging cuts to aid programs for urban poor children, or the Poles and French who claimed, after WWII was safely over, that really they felt bad when their Jewish neighbors were hauled away.
Baaahston On My Mind Luke and June are Bostonians, linked to a proud city with a specific cultural and historical identity. The inclusion of the audio from the Red Sox 2004 World Series victory over the closing credits is a touching reminder of the trauma of having one’s identity wiped out and forbidden. Has the Liberty Trail been removed so that women won’t read the history? What happens to the piece of your identity that home occupied when the things that made it home are obliterated?
Degrees of complicity are everywhere in “Unwomen.” Who was the most complicit in allowing this hell to evolve? Dan, for cooperating with the Board of Regents by trying to hide Emily in the lab? The Wife, for comfortably occupying her privileged position until the rules of the society she never effectively questioned caught up with her? The layers of airport security blocking Emily from her flight to Montreal? Nick, a recruit to the Sons of Jacob and later the Eyes? Would Nick or his drunk brother back in Michigan have cared that an LGBTQ woman lost her university position?
How much did someone like Nick care about the rights and lives of women like June, Moira and Emily? But he’s now essential to June’s survival. At least her office refuge gives her a space to mourn where nobody can see. She hasn’t been free, as a handmaid, to express her trauma or to reconnect with spirituality outside the theocracy’s dictates. Her homemade memorial to the massacred Globe journalists finally allows her to grieve for the world they all lost. In the votive candlelight glow of June’s tribute, the everyday accouterments of their white-collar desks acquire a noble spirit, becoming standards of her world’s lost hopes and ideals.