The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4: What is a Magdalene Colony?

After Washington DC’s mouth rings, Gilead has dreamt up another sickening innovation in season four. Spoilers

The Handmaid's Tale Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia
Photo: Hulu

Warning: spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 episode 3: The Crossing

When Commander Lawrence and the other Sons of Jacob were designing the Handmaid system, they failed to take a few key things into account. “Part of the equation we overlooked,” Lawrence told June in season three. “Mental health – obviously. Maternal love – we overlooked that one too. So many regrets.” 

It’s little wonder the system was flawed; it wasn’t exactly designed by a brain trust. Viewers witnessed its conception back in season one episode ‘Jezebels’. The great plan wasn’t designed around a conference table, or in a lecture theatre, but in the back of a limo. Three guys – Commanders Waterford, Pryce and Guthrie – tossed around ways to get their wives to go along with a world in which they, men “of superior status” would round up and forcibly impregnate all remaining fertile women. 

“You’re talking about concubines!” objected Pryce. “The wives would never accept it,” said Waterford. Knowing that Commanders would need their wives’ support, it was suggested that they be made a part of it. “Maybe the wife should be there. For the act,” said Pryce. “It would be less of a violation. There is scriptural precedent.” Ad man Fred Waterford niggled over the vocab. “‘Act’ may not be the best name, from a branding perspective. ‘The Ceremony’?” Sounds good, said Guthrie, “Nice and godly, the wives’ll eat that shit up.”

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So was created a system in which, once a month, when a Handmaid is at her most fertile, she would be forced to lie down between the legs of her household’s wife, to be raped by its Commander with the aim of conceiving a baby. If successful, once born that baby would then be taken from her and she would be moved on to the next commander to repeat the cycle. 

Just one of Gilead’s many degradations, the Ceremony came with drawbacks for the Sons. For a start, as a result of the fertility crisis that paved the way for Gilead, many of the Commanders were infertile. That lead to wives (including Serena Waterford) attempting to ‘mate’ their handmaids to any available stud in an attempt to conceive a baby. More importantly, the system failed entirely to recognise that handmaids weren’t cattle but people, and the experience of rape would have severe psychological consequences. A Handmaid might kill herself, like June’s predecessor at the Waterford house, or kill her Commander, or – feeling an attachment to her own child that the Sons of Jacob failed to foresee, attempt to take her baby like Janine did in season one. 

In season four episode three, Aunt Lydia reveals to June that a new system has been introduced to solve just this problem: the Magdalene Colony. Designed for troublesome Handmaids who refuse to subject to the existing process, Magdalene Colonies are camps where Handmaids will be forced into performing agricultural labour, like the “unwomen” condemned to clear nuclear waste in The Colonies. The difference being that, once a month, a Handmaid will be visited by their Commander and his Wife, to be raped on site. When the baby is born, the Handmaid can simply return to her farm work while she awaits the next rape, and the next pregnancy. Aunt Lydia describes it as “a blessed cycle of service.” She had her doubts about the innovation, Lydia tells June in ‘The Crossing’, but “can see the value for certain temperaments.”

From the homes of their captors and rapists to a breeding camp, that’s the journey recalcitrant Handmaids can expect to follow. After all, no womb can be wasted in Gilead, especially not after the children lost in Angels’ Flight. 

The name refers to biblical character Mary Magdalene, who in the Christian faith, travelled with Jesus and his apostles, and had demons driven out of her through worship. Around 600 AD, Mary Magdalene became associated with repentant sinful or ‘fallen’ women, and is often described as a reformed prostitute. That makes her the perfect namesake, in Gilead’s eyes, for those Handmaids too sinful to fit in with the existing system.

In real life, Magdalene was the name given to the workhouses where pregnant and vulnerable women who were unmarried or without family support were exploited, forced to perform manual labour in exchange for food and board. Women in Magdalene Laundries often suffered cruelty and abuse and had their babies forcibly taken from them. So it’s a new development for Gilead, but one that takes its cue from Margaret Atwood’s famous remark about when she first wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing went into it that had not happened in real life, somewhere, at some time.

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The Handmaid’s Tale season four is streaming now on Hulu in the US. Season four is airing weekly on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4 in the UK.