The Handmaid's Tale: 2x02 Unwomen.
I attempted to track how many times I had to pause Unwomen, until I made it all the way through the episode. I think I watched it in five to eight minute chunks, because more than that at a time would not have been bearable. In this particular episode, which I found so much harder to bear than previous ones, oddly, the violence isn’t even as explicit as it has been before. No hands are hacked off or burned or eyes gouged out. The worst thing, in terms of body horror, is Marisa Tomei’s wife, now Unwoman, dying slowly of the poison that Emily has given her.
The horror of this episode lies in the story it tells. It gets, as Emily says in the beginning before most things but after enough, when she lectures her final class, personal. It is a threat, a fear, shaped specifically to haunt me. The most intimately horrifying moment in this episode isn’t when June realises that she has stumbled into a slaughterhouse when she walks through the abandoned Boston Globe offices, and finds a wall painted with blood and riddled with bullet holes. It’s when Emily, after seeing her friend and boss murdered for being gay, decides to try and take her family across the border to Canada. It’s when she and her wife and their son are at the airport, attempting to navigate the bureaucracy of Gilead. It’s when the agent says that they are not married, that according to the Law (an implied capital L Law) they cannot be married. And then, to save her wife and child, Emily has to let them go, watch them leave, and we know she will never be able to follow because the border has become impenetrable for her.
I recently found it hard to explain why it feels differently to be on a visa in the country where I live, work and own a house, rather than being a citizen of the country, when the rights I have, apart from being able to vote and receiving government support, are the same. The reason why is that my presence here is only possible because of a fairly recent change in law, one that made same-sex couples equal to heterosexual couples, at least with regards to migration. It feels precarious because I am, at any moment, violently aware that things can change drastically and suddenly, and I didn’t need to watch this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale to know that the right to get married, which has been so hard fought, and for such a long time, could be taken away with nothing more drastic than a change in regime and policy. It is a luxury to take things for granted, and it is impossible to take something so recent, and something that was debated and opposed with so much hatred and contempt, for granted. It has always been one of the criticisms of this show that it derives a lot of it horrors from the idea that This Could Happen To A Straight White American Woman, and Margaret Atwood has always said that all of these things have happened to women in history. The United States has never experienced true tyranny, so the “it could happen here” leap is one taken through history, through geography, or through the idea that what has happened, and is still happening, to other people, could now happen Here, and to Us (and imaginary Us that has always existed because it includes to many others). In this episode, It happens to someone who only very recently could enjoy the same rights as June, rights that haven’t sunk in enough to be taken for granted, as much as her boss says he thought they could be, that his would be the last generation to have experienced this type of discrimination. It’s all gone, in one fell swoop.
Emily before, a passionate teacher, trying to reach out to a female student who is almost silenced by a boisterous, misinformed boy, trying to well actually his way into a degree. It turns out the student betrays her, is a mole to inform on her and the fact that she is still open about being gay, having a wife and a daughter. Her boss tries to protect her by giving her a job researching instead of teaching, trying to make her quiet but safe, but she resists. It’s likely how she has managed to become who is – not being quiet, not being safe, making her life in a male-dominated field against all the “well-actuallys” that never stop, not even in grad school. It fits in with the stoic Emily that we meet later, the Emily who screamed and stole a car for the joy of taking her small revenge for all that had been done to her against her will.
I don’t think I questioned her kindness to the new woman in the colonies, to the wife who is despised by everyone for her previous status of privilege. I thought perhaps she was moved by her, that her explanation that a wife was once kind to her (the one who allowed her not to participate in the rituals, who allowed her to play with the family dog, maybe heal, which she never did) was true. She explains how this place works to her, how to protect her body as much as possible in an environment that is inherently destructive to the human body. Radiation, bacteria, viruses. It all leads to death, and everyone there is falling apart every single day. It’s a work camp designed to break them down, with no respite. But then the story turns. The medicine was poison all along. The woman dies in agony, while Emily tells her that her sins cannot be forgiven, that her love for a forbidden man does not dignify and exalt her, or allow her forgiveness for her sins. Emily takes her revenge on her, for allowing a Handmaid to be raped each month by her husband, for being a willing cog in the wheel of Gilead, clinging to religion to justify her acts, playing the demure believer after allowing so much wrong to happen to another woman. Later, the wardens will find her dead body bound to a makeshift cross, an act of symbolic revenge that surely must have been communal.
June begins this episode by musing about how impossible it is to imagine the bounds of Gilead if Gilead is within everyone, if it only took such little time for all of these beliefs and thoughts to become natural. She says, automatically, without much thought, “Under his Eyes” to one of her saviours, and he responds, with the same ease, “after a while, crocodile”. If Gilead is mainly a set of belief about the inferiority of women and the evil of anything that does not confirm with conservative beliefs about gender roles and male supremacy, then Gilead knows no bounds, because it has always been there, lurking in the shadows, in spite of any progress made. Emily and her wife have only been able to marry for a short time in the first place. Emily tells her student that she will still have to survive all the misogyny of trying to make it in a male-dominated field. There is no pretence her about the current time being too far removed from what Gilead eventually becomes, which is precisely why Gilead happens with such ease and with so little resistance.
June literally fucks Nick on the remains of critical journalism in this episode, after finding it impossible to run away on her own. She becomes an archaeologist of a time she still remembers, a time where women held jobs and people believed in marriage equality and watched Friends on DVD. Does it matter if you fell in love? Emily loved her wife and in the end it meant nothing, it meant letting her and her son leave to make sure they were safe. I don’t think love can exist in a world where there is such a power differential, so whatever Nick and June have – and it looks like desperation, like wild-eyed temporary rebellion – feels meaningless (and like such an odd, unfitting distraction in this episode). There is something pure and edifying in Emily’s refusal of forgiveness, in her insistence that guilt and revenge still mean something, even in this landscape of complete destruction of nature and humanity.
Except just then, in this moment, a red robe emerges from the bus that delivers newcomers, and Janine steps off, and in spite of everything, Emily’s first instinct is to embrace her.
In this episode, because The Handmaid’s Tale has always attempted to be an extrapolation of current times, and to take its horror from the idea that a direct line can be drawn from Now to Gilead: journalists murdered, ICE agents deciding what constitutes a family, and who has a right to leave and stay (ironically, they are preventing safety by keeping people from leaving, rather than deporting them here, which I am sure is a very intentionally irony on the part of the creators of the show, because for what other reason would they have chosen to show the ICE acronym as much as they do here).
I am so glad that Alexis Bledel is back, and it is very hard to explain how she accomplishes this range of emotions with Emily, and how amazing that is in a show that already thrives on whatever magic Elisabeth Moss possesses. As much as it is a valid debate whether The Handmaid’s Tale shows violence against women for the sake of eliciting a response, and whether it is worth it to go through the gruelling terror of watching these episodes (and sometimes I wonder what it feels like to watch these episodes as a man), I think the acting on its own is worth it.
Clea DuVall plays Emily’s wife, an incredibly effective performance, particularly because she says so little, because there is nothing more than a kiss to end it all. It hits where it hurts – an airport, where people say goodbye all the time, except their goodbye is forever, and still from the outside it looks like such an everyday thing, a kiss and an embrace. This episode fucking floored me.