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

The Handmaid’s Tale ventures outside Gilead to its prison-camp Colonies for yet another rich, reflective episode…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This review contains spoilers. 

The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2, Episode 2

An episode like this one justifies the existence of screen adaptations. This uncompromising series as a whole does that, but particularly so this hour. 

It’s about square footage. Margaret Atwood’s single novel didn’t have the footprint to take us outside Gilead and into the Colonies. In the book, it was enough to know that lethal nuclear wastelands where dissidents were forced to work themselves to death existed beyond the borders. In the TV show—already confirmed to have thirty episodes and with the possibility of more—there’s room to see the place’s stories. Brutal stories like Emily’s, about the impossibility of mercy towards Gilead collaborators. Knuckle-in-mouth stories like whatever it is that’s going to happen to poor Janine. Maybe one day, hopeful stories – rebellion, revolt, freedom? 

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June struggled with her new-found freedom this episode. Holed up in the deserted offices of the Boston Globe (who needs the press when you have scripture?), she was as confined and powerless as she was in the Waterford home, but crucially, unwatched. When not menaced by the whirr of helicopter blades and the scream of sirens—such clever use of sound in her wordless scenes—June was able to go among the litter of ordinary lives and pay tribute to what was lost. 

Additionally, she and Nick were able to go at it hammer and tongs. Denied any power over where she was or how long she’d be there, June took control of the one thing she could – sex. Her and Nick’s sex life has always been about June asserting herself against a regime that controlled her body. As well as a way to let off steam, their mammoth, athletic session was a giant ‘fuck you’ to Gilead.

Emily’s ‘fuck you’ to Gilead was much less fun. Cut in with flashbacks to how her life as an academic and a gay woman was trampled by the regime change, we saw her take revenge. In fictional airport scenes that have played out in the US for real as a result of Trump’s Travel Ban, she was cruelly separated from her family as the hard-won civil rights of her and Sylvia and countless others were vanished with the wave of a hand.

Using her expertise in bacterial microbes, Emily took revenge on a Wife by pretending to be her ally. Thinking back on her story and the lynching of her colleague, there can be no way that Emily was about to forgive and forget an agent of Gilead. Considering what it’s done to her—rape, mutilation, imprisonment, enslavement, tearing her from her wife and son… of course that Wife was going to end up crucified rather than braiding Emily’s hair. That didn’t stop the twist coming as a surprise. Alexis Bledel played her scenes in the Colonies with such control that the inevitable outcome was only inevitable in hindsight. Her “you should die alone” while the dying woman begged Emily to pray with her was the final kicker.

Several prayers were heard in this episode. The ‘Unwomen’ of the Colonies were bid to kneel by the clanging of a bell and forced to call the Lord great and merciful. The Wife newly among them, steadfast in her faith, met every encounter with an invocation of His grace. 

The effect was brutally ironic. As proved by the cruelty of daily life and Emily’s act of revenge, mercy and grace are nowhere to be found in the Colonies. 

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June lighting a candle and praying for the Lord to send an angel to watch over the deathplace of the slaughtered journalists didn’t feel at all ironic. It was a tender and earnest ending to an episode of extreme bleakness. June had been baptised in a Catholic church, we learned last season, and when she wanted to convey solemnity and respect to the dead, she reached for the rites and recitations learned as a child. 

June’s prayer could be one of two things. Either, despite every inhumane act Gilead has committed using the justification of scripture, the point is that faith can still provide comfort when it’s yours and—like the sex she and Nick had—your choice. 

Alternatively, June’s prayer could be more proof that, as she said on the bed of that truck, “we get so comfortable with walls.” Just as Gilead has conditioned her to say “under his eye” instead of ‘goodbye’, to whomever she’s speaking, so Catholicism has trained her in its own modes of expression. June’s faith could be just another wall with which she’s comfortable.

Atwood’s excellent novel didn’t spark that discussion – the TV show did. Book-to-screen adaptations are so often accused of diminishing the original by anchoring vast imaginative possibilities inside one narrow picture. The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation subtracts nothing from its book’s imagination. It only adds to it. 

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here