The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Episode 2: Unwomen Recap

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Episode 2 is Emily’s episode, the episode of the Unwomen, the gender traitors, the sinners and the resisters. We follow Emily and Janine to the Colonies to get a look at what Gilead is like in another part of the country. And we watch Emily’s back story as a wife, mother and university professor. Emily fights for freedom of expression and sexuality, while June is taken to stay at the former offices of the Boston Globe newspaper, where the entire staff was executed for their part in maintaining the American right to freedom of expression. They each deal with the enormity of the loss of this freedom in their own way.

June rides to freedom, or at least her next hiding place, in the open flatbed of a delivery truck and muses about the meanings of freedom, both symbolic and practical. She wonders whether the Resistance can really get her out, or if the infection that is Gilead is so deep inside her that she’s no longer capable of escaping it.

The truck driver brusquely deposits her at a large office and industrial site that he says has been empty since before the war. He’s charged with maintaining  and checking it once a week. She has water and power, but should stay inside. Someone will come for her eventually. He was charged with getting her there safely and nothing more. He’s that particular New England combination of down to earth friendliness and gruff curmudgeon.

Out in the Colonies, the Unwomen spend their days digging up the radioactive crust that’s formed on top of the ground after nuclear bombings during the war. They dig up several inches of dirt below the crust as well, shoveling it all into bags with the radioactive symbol on the side. The aunts wear gas masks to protect them from breathing the radioactive dust, but the Unwomen work with their faces unprotected. Their faces are covered with blisters.

The Unwomen wear baggy robes of blue-grey, with heavy coats and head scarves of the same color. The head scarf has a white band at the front, giving them a look reminiscent of nuns. They are Brides of the Nuclear Wasteland instead of Brides of Christ. Virtually all of them will give what’s left of their lives to this endeavor.

The Unwomen are given a break from digging, during which they are expected to pray: “Let us sing unto the Lord. The Lord is great and he is merciful. The sinners and the wh*res are blessed with his grace, so great and kind is He. May He bless us with His mercy forever and ever.”

Emily drifts off mid-prayer to dream about her previous life as a college professor. She remembers lecturing about biomes, which can mean a biosphere as large as a planet or as small as the bacteria colony on the back of an insect. She has the class smell their own armpits to help demonstrate that they are also biomes. A black female student asks a question about bacteria and competition, but before Emily can answer, a while male answers for her, telling the other students the female student is wrong. Emily has to correct him and tell him that he’s the one who’s wrong.

After class, Emily stops to tell the female student that she’s talented and should keep trying hard. The student notices a family photo on Emily’s phone, with her son and wife. The student seems positive, but other students who are walking by can see the phone, and her disgruntled male student can be seen nearby.

Sometime later, Emily’s supervisor Dan informs her that she’s not going to be teaching during the next semester. He frames it as giving her the opportunity to exclusively focus on her research, but she clearly liked teaching and was good at it. When Emily presses Dan to tell her why this is happening, he explains that the Board of Regents are concerned that she’s not maintaining a healthy learning environment. In other words, someone turned her in for having the nontraditional family photo on her phone. And for being a woman in charge of men.

After the coup in DC, everyone is afraid. Dan just wants to cooperate until it all blows over. He took down the photos of his husband as well, and now his husband has left him. Dan can’t believe that the oppression his generation fought so hard to end has returned. Emily doesn’t think they can be forced back in the closet and insists she’ll teach the next semester. Dan welcomes her to the fight.

Back in the Colonies, the Unwomen walk back to their quonset hut/tent city for the night, as the aunts ride on horseback next to them and use cattle prods to keep them moving and in a straight line. Once they’re back in the dorm, Emily moves through the women, administering what medicinal treatments she can. She’s traded for some medications and has a small herb garden to make other treatments.

That night, while she’s out working in the garden, a bus arrives with a new crop of women who’ve been sentenced to the work camp. One of them, played by Marisa Tomei, is a former Commander’s wife, still in her teal clothing. She makes a show of being sweet and gentle, while the rest of the women are resentful and intolerant of this representative of their oppressors.

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June wanders through the large building she’s waiting in. She looks at the signs of individual humanity left behind in cubicles, and begins to notice the signs of struggle amongst the everyday items. Then she goes to the printing press room and finds a row of nooses still hanging. Opposite that, bullet holes and blood stains on a cement wall mark where the bulk of the Boston Globe staff were executed by firing squad. They were executed before the war even started, if the truck driver who brought June to the building is right. Shutting down the free press and freedom of speech was among the early steps the Sons of Jacob took, so that no one knew for sure what was happening, and it was difficult to organize in groups to stop it.

As June is reeling from her discovery, she hears someone coming, so she hides, holding a hammer to use as a weapon. She’s not going down easily this time. But it’s Nick, not the Guardians. June assumes that he’s come to take her to the border, but he’s just visiting.

Nick tries to explain that it’ll probably be weeks before they can get her out, because the hunt for her, a pregnant handmaid, is so intense. June tells Nick that she’s living in a slaughterhouse and can’t handle waiting for weeks. June isn’t in the mood to be reasonable and starts an argument. She wants to get Hannah and drive through Maine to the border, now. Nick tries to explain why that would be suicide.

June ends up demanding that he give her the keys to the car so that she can leave on her own. Realizing that she needs to be in control of something in her life, Nick gives her the keys. He also gives her his gun, which was really brave in the middle of an argument. She takes it and gets in the truck.

Once she’s in the driver’s seat, she comes to her senses, and changes her mind about leaving. Nick was right that she needed the decision to stay to be her decision, since she’s had so little control of her life for so long. This is what makes him better for her than Luke. I’m not sure that Luke ever read her that well.

June has a determined look on her face when she comes back onto the loading dock. Someone’s going to pay for her continued stay in Gilead, and unfortunately, Nick’s the only one there. She grabs him by the hair and pulls his head back. He lets her, though he’s uncomfortable. She kisses him, and a very driven sex marathon follows. June’s going to take back her body and her life, one way or another. The man involved is going to answer to her whims.

Mrs O’Conner, the Commander’s wife sent to the Colonies, is having a hard time keeping up with the work pace set by the aunts. She prays out loud to try to gain sympathy, but Aunt Sarah roughly informs her that God doesn’t care about her prayers any more. Each day, she’ll fill 10 bags with radioactive dirt or she won’t eat. O’Conner tries to get out of working by pretending that she can barely lift a shovelful of dirt. When that still doesn’t get her any leeway, she gives up and works quickly.

That evening, Emily tends to O’Conner’s blistered hands. O’Conner tries to make nice by saying that she didn’t agree with the university purges and she had a master’s degree, herself, before the war. She was sent to the Colonies because she had an affair of her own while her husband was busy having an affair with the handmaid. She doesn’t know what happened to him, but he wasn’t punished.

Odds that the handmaid has had her previous sins forgiven and is now the wife, making their children fully legitimate? Also, Putnam lost a hand last season for the same crime of having an affair with the handmaid. The Commanders’ corruption is going mainstream.

O’Conner goes on to tell Emily that she was in love, and she knows that will matter. Emily asks who it will matter to? And O’Conner answers that it matters to God. Since she was in love, God will forgive her, protect her, and deliver her from that terrible place.

The rest of those sinners and wh*res deserve to be there and experience God’s wrath, of course.

Emily decides that O’Conner deserves a little extra punishment medicine and pulls out a vial of expired antibiotics. Since the water is contaminated they are all at risk, all the time, but Emily will do God’s work by helping O’Conner along to her grave. When O’Conner asks why Emily is doing this, Emily says that a mistress was kind to her once. Uh huh.

In flashback, Emily looks out of a 2nd story university window to see a crowd gathering and the word “F*gg*t” spraypainted on the sidewalk. She rushes outside and finds that Dan has been lynched and hung as an example.

Since Dan’s strategy of cooperation and waiting for things to blow over aren’t the answer, Emily tries to get her family out of the country. The airport security process has been beefed up in order to stop people from leaving that Gilead wants to keep. The ICE agents also tell them that the guidelines are changing every few hours so it’s impossible for them to keep up.

That morning, Emily had been told that they should be able to leave as long as they traveled as a family, and that her marriage was still legitimate. The first ICE agent also sees the marriage as legitimate, but still has to pull Emily aside. She’s sent to the next higher level of security. Syl could go straight to the boarding area, but stays with Emily.

The next ICE agent immediately tells them that their marriage is no longer valid, because same sex marriages are forbidden, and that Emily won’t be getting on a plane that day. They harshly question her about the details of Oliver’s conception and birth. When she tries to protest, they become physically rough with her. Emily sends Syl and Oliver to Montreal without her.

In the middle of the night, O’Conner becomes ill, writhing on the floor with an upset stomach and vomiting. Emily checks on her, making sure O’Conner took her pills. At first O’Conner doesn’t think the pills are working, then she realizes that Emily has poisoned her. O’Conner continues to spout religious nonsense about God saving her and coming for Emily.

Emily grabs O’Conner’s arm and says, “Every month, you held a woman down while your husband raped her. Some things can’t be forgiven. It’ll take a few more hours.”

Emily stands up to walk away, and at that point O’Conner drops all pretenses. She grabs at Emily’s clothing and says, “You’re a monster. You’re a f*ck*ng monster!” But then she goes back to her facade, begging Emily to pray with her.

Emily: “You should die alone.”

She walks away.

In the morning, someone has taken O’Conner’s body, put the teal cape back on it, and set it up in the garden like a scarecrow. Aunt Sarah yells that there will be consequences, but the Unwomen all look pretty happy at the sight.

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Another bus arrives with fresh recruits. Emily must catch a glimpse of a red uniform on the bus, because she goes closer, and is there to greet Janine when she comes out. They are soon torn apart and Emily is sent to dig dirt, but Janine knows she’s not alone there.

June watches a Friends DVD that one of the Globe employees had at work. They’re talking about women’s sexual pleasure, seemingly a thing of the past.

Then June collects candles, personal items and photos that belonged to the employees and takes them down to the place where they died. She sticks the photos to the wall, and makes an arrangement of the candles and items on the floor to form a memorial shrine for the dead martyrs.

Then she says a prayer for them: “God, by whose mercy the faithful departed have found rest, please send your Holy Angel to watch over this place. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen”

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There’s so much death, memory of death, and death waiting to happen in this episode. It’s a striking contrast between what Gilead says it is, and what it actually is. They advertise themselves as the country that’s dedicated to making conditions perfect for mothers to give birth to healthy babies, and tout their birthrate far and wide. They say that they’ve created life-giving conditions that foster natural motherhood and infants who thrive to adulthood.

But I’m willing to bet that their overall death rate is one of the highest in the world as well. They have no value for life, once the child is a teenager. They are much more of a death cult than a religion devoted to mothers and babies. They single out women in particular for execution and torture much more than men, but men receive their share as well. They kill body parts by using amputation and mutilation as punishment. They devise inventive ways to kill quickly or slowly. They force parent and child separations. They force adoptions of stolen children, surely one of the cruelest crimes there is.

The threat of execution and the forced separation of families, equaling the death of the loving relationships in a person’s life, hangs over everyone at all times for what would be small infractions in most other cultures. There’s no joy in life in Gilead. There are very few rewards. Just waiting for death. It’s a death cult.

Time for a fun historical/science fact: The first atomic explosion in history took place not far from where I live, on the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. Ground Zero is now called the Trinity Site, and is open to visitors once a year. The explosion melted the top layer of white sand into a radioactive green glass, known as Trinitite. In 1953 the government scraped the Trinitite layer off of the sand and buried it somewhere else. When you visit, you can still find small pieces of Trinitite that were left behind in the blast crater. The Trinity Site in a the middle of a restricted military zone and is set aside as a memorial to this day.

Gilead must hope that they can dig enough poison out of the ground to make the land livable again. But why are they having people dig the dirt up by hand, instead of using construction equipment? Surely it’s more expensive in the long run to support starving, sick women digging up dirt one shovelful at a time than to use bulldozers? This seems like a sign of just how much they hate women, and how evil they are. Rather than do important work quickly and cheaply, they’d rather send in slaves and make them suffer and die slowly and painfully. The Colonies are the Gilead concentration camps. The poison just acts more slowly than the Nazis’ did.

I’m surprised that Emily’s son Oliver was allowed to leave with her wife, Syl. They would have had to break international law to detain Syl, since she’s a Canadian citizen. Gilead has tried to maintain normal international relations, so it wouldn’t be worth it for them to ruin that for one gender traitor of dubious fertility. But they also were keen to keep the children in Gilead, too. Either Oliver has dual citizenship as the son of a Canadian citizen, so they had to let him leave, or Gilead hadn’t started detaining children yet, or both.

It’s always shocking to see how little the other castes, especially the Commanders and their wives, understand of just how horrible the lives of the handmaids are. Even the Marthas have very little sympathy for them. Almost everyone has it bad in Gilead, but the handmaids have it the worst, outside of the Colonies.

After a few moments of silence, the audio of Boston’s professional baseball team, the Red Sox, winning the World Series in 2013 at Fenway Park plays over the end credits. It’s the same Fenway Park where the handmaids were almost hung in episode 1. Totalitarianism hurts everyone. Gay marriage doesn’t exist in Gilead, but neither does baseball. We’ve seen no evidence of any organized entertainment outside of Jezebel’s, which is technically forbidden, and the exciting state-sanctioned Prayvaganzas and public stonings.

 

Images courtesy of Hulu.

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