I always figured freedom looked like school on the day before summer vacation starts, not like being strapped to the top of a moving 16-wheeler truck — but hey, in the universe of The Handmaid’s Tale, one must settle with whatever perversions of ideas one gets. At the end of last episode, June (Elisabeth Moss) was left in a dingy warehouse. Now, she’s being transported to another mysterious stop on the Mayday underground railroad.
As the truck driver/Mayday operative explains, the warehouse has been empty since the war, and it’s really, really abandoned — leaky ceilings and the scent of decay in the air, abandoned. June is left alone with a flashlight and her overactive imagination. Each set of passing sirens causes her alarm. She finds a hammer for protection. Not a sonic screwdriver or a gun, but it’s something.
In the dark, it’s not immediately apparent where June is. There are stacks of files, newspapers, desks. Once she calms down, June turns on the lights and surveys the desks in the room, each covered with personal documents. She gravitates towards a woman’s desk, which had a photo of her family, a children’s craft, a Friends DVD. Next to the desk, a single, abandoned woman’s shoe.
But it’s only when June turns on the lights in the gargantuan central room that she realises where she is: the headquarters of the Boston Globe. After the war, the newspaper must have shut down production. By seizing complete control of the press, any semblance of a free state dissolved. Can you smell the symbolism? Because this scene reeks of it.
The room contains another dark reality. After June turns on the lights, she sees that a series of nooses had been affixed to the ceiling beams. The back wall is pierced with bullets and stained with blood. Not only did the new regime shut down the free press — it turned the physical heart of the press into the scene of a massacre. It seems all of the Globe’s staff were killed (even the ones who were fertile, like the mother — June finds her shoe at the foot of a noose). June, typically so stoic, breaks down in front of the wall. So much has changed in her lifetime.
June’s mourning is interrupted by the sound of the warehouse door opening. Don't worry, June — it's only Nick (Max Minghella). Seriously, how can this guy travel so freely? June announces she's breaking free. No way can she stay in the slaughterhouse, and wait on Mayday – whoever they might be — to transport her. June tries to talk Nick into running on their own, and rescuing Hannah, too, while they’re at it. Nick assumes the role of Mr. “Let’s Get Back To Reality,” and tells June her plan is impossible. But when June snatches the keys to his car, Nick gives her his gun as if he’s giving her a blessing. Ultimately, once she gets in the car, June’s unable to actually leave. Even in a car, that persistent American symbol of mobility and freedom, June knows she’s trapped and reliant on Mayday’s help. So, she returns to the warehouse, and takes out her emotions — the thrill of being alive, of being almost free — by having loads of sex all over the warehouse with Nick.
When Nick leaves, June pays homage to the victims of the Globe. She walks around the desks, gathering people's personal effects: a mug, a wedding photo, a Red Sox cap. June lights candles, hangs photos on the bloody wall, and creates a vigil for those who died in this room. Symbolically, she reunites one show with the other. And she says a prayer to her God: “Please send your holy Angel to watch over this place. To Christ our Lord, Amen.” Notably, June brings up Christ, a figure largely absent in Gilead’s punitive, Old Testament version of Christianity.
The other half of the episode focuses on Emily (Alexis Bledel), or, as I like to call her, Not Rory Gilmore, But Pretty Much. At last, we find out where she is — the colonies — and where she had been before this dismal, dismal existence — a college professor. Let’s tell the sad, sad tale in chronological order.
Back in the good old days, Emily worked as a cell biologist and a lecturer at a college. She was the kind of quirky bespectacled professor who gave directives like, “Smell your armpit! That is the stench of your own biome!” (I’m paraphrasing here, but you get my point). During the class, a female student asks a question, and a slacker male student incorrectly mansplains the answer. Afterwards, Emily encourages the young woman in her class to continue studying science, even if she’ll always be interrupted and shot down by men throughout her career. The student catches a glimpse of Emily’s phone background, which is a photo of her wife and son, Oliver.
Immediately afterwards, Emily meets with her boss, Dan (John Carroll Lynch). He has news, which he tries (and fails) to frame as good news. He’s banishing Emily to the labs, and cutting her classes entirely. His reasoning? The new Board of Regents (Gilead groupies, clearly) thinks she’s not maintaining a “healthy learning environment” — aka, Emily is out as a lesbian, and her phone background is a photo of her wife and son. After the unrest in D.C. (as in the massacre), Dan is taking a cautionary measure, and putting LGBTQ+ members of the staff out the public eye.
The twist? Dan is gay, too. He’s hidden all the photos of him and his partner. The scene takes on a tone of solidarity. Emily bravely pronounces that “they” can’t scare everyone back in the closet, and that she’s teaching next semester. “Welcome to the fight,” Dan says, having just expressed how dismal it is to fight again — he thought the gay rights struggle had been won.
Not long after, Dan is hanged from the science building. With that, Emily and her wife, Sylvia (Clea DuVall) decide to leave the United States. The airport is an absolute mob scene. This is what mass exodus of a first-world country looks like. People with their nice things, in a nice airport, desperate to get out. But there’s trouble. Even though all three of them have tickets for their flight to Montreal, only Sylvia and their son, Oliver, are cleared, because they have Canadian passports. Emily needs to go through another round of security.
It soon becomes apparent that Emily is not getting on that plane. The border control looks at the marriage certificate skeptically and says it’s no longer valid. Gay marriage is not recognised under the new regime, so they are not married – and Emily has to stay in the United States. Emily, not understanding, announces that she wants to see a lawyer and speak to their supervisor. But there’s no agency, here, no freedom. The other question the border guard needs an answer to: Was Oliver born of Emily’s egg, or an implant? The answer to that decided her fate. Since Oliver is Emily’s biological child, she became a handmaid and wasn’t sent to colonies immediately.
Emily and her wife have a tearful parting at the airport, which is too sad for me to recap. They know they'll probably never see each other again and it is simply devastating.
We know what comes next for Emily: Handmaid-dom, working for Mayday, having a lover, driving a car into an Eye, undergoing a clitoridectomy, and then being sent to the Colonies, where she is now. The Colonies are a radioactive wasteland. Women toil in a dusky landscape, digging relentlessly in the polluted land for an undisclosed aim. The Aunts wear gasmasks to preserve themselves.
Like women in the rest of Gilead, colony workers wear outfits that designate their position in life. Colony workers wear blue hooded garbs with gloves. Whatever’s in that soil is corrosive; their hands are covered in boils, their skin peeling and cracked. It’s apparent that once you’re sent to the Colonies, you will die in the Colonies.
In the face of such decay, Emily maintains her New England-bred steeliness and acts as a doctor for the women. She makes the rounds, taking care of boils and coughing fits, all while making cheeky references to Yelp. One woman is so far gone with a fever that Emily doesn’t bother to give her a Tylenol. In the Colonies, women are able to take care of each other more openly than they are in the Real World, but it’s only because they’re all dying.
While picking mint in the garden to brew tea for the dying woman, Emily sees the new shipment of Colonists arrive (in a schoolbus, no less). One of the new arrivals is a Wife. Immediately, the other handmaids are on guard. A Wife? A Wife played by Marisa Tomei, no less? Since, as a Wife, she represents the entire hypocrisy of the regime, she receives a pretty hostile greeting from the other Colonists.
The Wife has a bad, bad first day. Her entire nail comes off (something I never need to see again, thanks). Emily tries to be helpful. As Emily discovers while speaking to her, the Wife is very religious, and believes God will forgive her for the passionate affair that landed her in the Colonies. Love, right?
The Wife also gives a tidbit of information about how the Sons of Jacob actually took over. “You should know I was not in favour of the university purchase. Having an education doesn’t make someone a criminal,” she says, before explaining she had an MFA in interior design. She is Too Much.
Before leaving, Emily warns the Wife that the water is full of E. Coli. She gives her pills to take to ward off infection — she's a real pal. “A mistress was kind to me, once,” Emily says, by way of explanation, making it seem like she is sympathetic to Gileaden society structure. We know she's not. But Wifey doesn't.
In the middle of the night, Emily finds the Wife throwing up. At this point, the Wife thinks that she’s been infected with E. Coli. Silly wife. She hasn’t been. She’s been poisoned by Emily, who is still furious for her treatment as a handmaid. “Every month you held a woman down while your husband raped her,” a cold, col Emily says. Some things can’t be forgiven.”
The next day, the dead wife is strung up in the field. An Aunt shouts that consequences for this murder will be paid. But Emily can’t even focus on the consequences, because she sees another shipment of new arrivals. On this school bus is the one-eyed Janine, who could really, really use a friend. Emily greets her; and so, there were two.
The Handmaid's Tale is currently on Hulu in the US and will be on Channel 4 in the UK later in the year.