Wednesday, April 25, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - Emily Adjusts to Work in the Colonies as She Remembers Her Family in 'Unwomen'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 2.02 "Unwomen"

Offred adjusts to a new way of life. The arrival of an unexpected person disrupts the Colonies. A family is torn apart by the rise of Gilead.

"June" ended with Offred proclaiming to the audience that she is June Osborne and she is free. It was such an invigorating note to start the season on because of the surprise of it all. It's shocking that Offred made it out of the Waterford house and is no longer subjected to all of the trials and tribulations of being a handmaid. She is allowed to be June once more. She is a full human being who has desires in this world. She was set free largely because the baby she's caring is Nick's. He's the one who feels personally motivated to help her and ensure that this child gets a better family than the Waterfords. And yet, "Unwomen" asks the characters what it truly means to be free? Is there actually any escaping Gilead? Plenty of characters did it in the first season. The show is now exploring what happened to a couple of them. Is it freedom to leave Gilead behind for a sentence in the Colonies? That has always been such an ominous tease. And now, the show is actually revealing what that death sentence is truly like. It's brutal and the woman sent there may wish that they were dead. So is death the only freedom the women of this world can aspire to? June worries in her opening moments that there is never any true way to escape from Gilead. It's been beaten into her brain by Aunt Lydia and the rest of the society that Gilead is a state of mind. Even though she believes herself to be free, she still finds herself relying on familiar sayings in order to show her appreciation to the people who are helping her escape. She's still very trepidatious about the idea of being free. She feels like she can never truly be free until she is reunited with her daughter, Hannah. She is still so desperate to find her again and be her mother. But it's also incredibly foolish to go back for her now because the entire world of Gilead is on the manhunt to find the missing pregnant handmaid. So even though June is out of that house, she is still trapped in this world with no certainty that she'll be able to escape it any time soon.

It's also just so surprising to see where June is asked to lay low for a little while. Every step of this underground railroad has come with instructions for what to expect next. She's hiding on yet another truck that's driving her to a new location. At first, it just seems like an abandoned warehouse. A building that no one really cares about except the driver of the truck. He comes mostly to see if the building still has power and running water as well as if the traps have worked in killing the mice. But it is slowly revealed that this building is actually the offices of The Boston Globe. It's devastating to see the horror that happened here. It's clear that this man assisting June on her journey had some kind of personal connection to this place. He's still taking care of the building even though the rest of the world has moved on. But it also dawns on June that the world of Gilead infects everything in this world. There is no escaping it. She desperately wants to be free. And now, her exploration of this building only reveals it to be a slaughterhouse during the initial days of the Gilead takeover. It's so destructive to see the cubicles still full of personal items. There's an abandoned shoe next to one desk. There's a mug collecting dust. These are stories of people's lives that were lost. The printing of papers and the spread of information was deemed illegal in this new world. The world didn't need to be as connected as it is now. The leaders of Gilead saw the rise of the social media age as the rise of corruption and sin. As such, papers and journalists were targeted. As such, it's ironic that this place is now a sanctuary for June. She's safe because this is a building long forgotten in this world. But June chooses to remember.

Of course, it also takes a long time for June to cope with this new reality. She's frightened that walking around the next corner will lead to her eventual capture. She hates just having to wait in this building hoping that the world will move on and forget about her. She wants to move. She has to run. She still holds onto the plan that they can make it across the border in Maine. When Nick eventually shows up, she is desperate for that kind of connection and plan. She just wants to take her daughter and move away to Canada to be a family once more. That's her ideal version of the world. It's a complete fantasy because of the corruption of Gilead. Nick is helping her because of his personal feelings towards her. He's sympathetic to her dreams while also being very realistic about the threats that she faces. She can't go out in public right now. Every resource is being devoted to finding her. The clock is ticking. She may not be safe and free for much longer. This is the first chance Nick has had to get away and check up on her. Of course, it also took a lot for him to even find out where she was in this underground railroad. He's still living his double life in Gilead. As such, his sneaking around could be seen as very suspicious. It wouldn't be surprising if this connection is exploited in order to find out where Offred ran off to. But it's still a connection that means something to both of them. He provides the kind of sex June is interested in. She craves that control. She demands him to sexually please her over and over again. It's exhausting but still a release of tension. The only comfort she has after that is just a DVD of Friends. That's the only focus she has right now. She also sets up a memorial for the lives lost in this building. It's significant that she prays for their souls. She wasn't very religious before Gilead. That has forced her to change. But she is also praying for the people who were persecuted because they didn't fit into the new world. She weeps for that loss of love.

Elsewhere, the action in the Colonies revolves around Emily. It was her decision to come here. So much was taken from her in this world. The flashbacks paint such a depressing and toxic portrait of the world right before the creation of Gilead. Emily was oppressed at work because of her family. She had a wife and son. The university deemed that she was flaunting them off too much even though it was just an innocuous picture as the screensaver of her phone that one student glimpsed. That's all it took for the world to see her differently. Emily and her wife decided to flee to Canada much more quickly than June and Luke did. That decision became apparent as soon as Emily's gay colleague was found hanging outside of the school. That's such a painful visual. After years of fighting for equality, it's devastating to see all of this backslide so quickly. That's exactly what occurs when Emily and her family try to run to Canada. Her wife and son are safe because she's a citizen. But it also becomes apparent that the rules are changing very quickly in this new world. Not everyone is up to date on the various changes either. Plus, there are different view points and sympathizes. The first agent Emily meets at the airport is very understanding of her marriage. He sees this family as legitimate and just trying to flee to safety. Then, the second agent casually dismisses it because the law has literally just deemed gay marriage illegal. That's so twisted and traumatic. To think that it would only take one law to nullify this family to the rest of the world is heartbreaking. The situation is so tragic because the audience knows exactly what happens to Emily. She is turned away at the gate because she has no biological claim to her son or a Canadian citizen. She says her tearful goodbyes. She goes back home and is turned into a handmaid for her fertility.

This story was already told last season too. Emily shared her past with June. They traded notes about the lives they lived before and how they got separated from their families at the border. Emily's rebellious nature inspired June into action. Everything June does is to honor and remember the people who have made sacrifices for her. Emily chose to be noncompliant instead of living in Gilead. As such, she was sent to the Colonies despite her fertility. The judges of this world just didn't want to put up with her anymore. As such, the new season finds her in a completely different headspace. She's the caring and nurturing doctor tending to women's wounds in the Colonies. She only has basic training and limited supplies. She still has to do the same kind of work as everyone else. But she moves about freely trying to help the women who are dying. She even seems compassionate to a Commander's wife who is sent to the Colonies as an Unwomen. She fell from her high position in society because of a sin of the flesh. This women - Mrs. O'Connor played by Marisa Tomei - believes in the system of Gilead. But she still has a feminist moment in lamenting the loss of her education and the likely promotion her husband received after her punishment. Emily is the only worker who interacts with Mrs. O'Connor. Those interactions give her happiness in this new life. But it becomes clear in the devastating final act that this is all a lie. Emily has actually been poisoning Mrs. O'Connor in order to enact vengeance on the women who could support this heinous system. It's an action that will no doubt have consequences. And yet, Emily also receives a beam of hope when the latest bus of newcomers includes Janine. It's a familiar face from her old world that will make this new environment a little more bearable.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Unwomen" was written by Bruce Miller and directed by Mike Barker.
  • It's clear that the success of the first season has led to a higher number of actors wanting to appear on the show. As such, it seems like the casting department has stepped up its game with Marisa Tomei, Clea DuVall and John Carroll Lynch appearing here. All three roles are pretty small in the grand scheme of things. And yet, they have a profound impact on Emily as well.
  • Of course, Mrs. O'Connor dies from poisoning while Emily's colleague at the university is hanged. That leaves Emily's wife as the only prominent guest star here that is still alive as far as everyone is concerned. The show actually casting that role means she'll probably be seen again. And yet, it's also very likely that her life has changed so much in the time since she last saw Emily. She may actually think Emily is dead.
  • Emily and Janine are both main characters this season. As such, it seems likely that a significant amount of time will be spent in the Colonies. It doesn't seem like an environment anyone can escape from. The security is just as strict as it is in Gilead. Plus, the radiation quickly poisons the women to ensure that none of them actually survive long. They are brutal working conditions. But the story has to be more than Emily and Janine marching towards their deaths, right?
  • The security in Gilead could just be doing a complete sweep of every building and that's what'll lead to June's discovery and capture. Or the immediate environment around this building could also notice the uptick in activity in there. Several vehicles come and go with the garage door going up and down several times. Plus, there's still power which allows June to turn the lights on as she wants.
  • Upon first entering this building, June only finds protection through a hammer. That's the only weapon she can find that she feels safe carrying. It provides her with a sense of calm even though she's still terrified when she hears someone else in the building. Nick does give her a gun at one point. But she also disarms it after realizing she can't leave just yet. It's a little unclear if he leaves that with her for good or if he takes it with him when he leaves.