‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ S2E2 Recap: Is This What Freedom Looks Like?
Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: the handmaids were punished for their rebellious behaviour, then June managed to escape with the help of Mayday. In case you missed it, check out my recap for episode 1 here.
As usual, here’s your spoiler warning! Only read ahead if you’ve watched the episode, or don’t mind a ton of spoilerific chat.
Take a deep breath then, and let’s dive into episode 2.
“There probably is no out,’ says June in the opening scene, which doesn’t bode so well for someone trying to escape. But ‘out’ may as well be the theme of episode 2. We see the Underground Femaleroad in action, and pay a visit to the worst kind of ‘out’, in the radioactive wastelands of the Colonies. Both of these offer some freedoms, in their own way. We also see what happened to Emily when she tried to get out legally, as well as the consequences of being ‘out’ during those early creeping stages of Gilead.
We learn snippets about the Colonies in the book, and Emily seems to be at the worst kind. You don’t get fed unless you fill 10 bags of radioactive waste. There is no protective clothing — only the Aunts get masks. They work all day, and try to wash away the worst of the contamination, but they are slowly dying. There is very little medicine, and even then it will only ease symptoms for a short time. It’s horrible. But you get to keep your name. And Emily, as a former biology lecturer, has some status as the first aider. She has some respect. And she has some power. All of this is quickly established before the first new arrival of the episode: Marisa freaking Tomei. Tomei plays a disgraced Wife, Mrs O’Conner, arriving in blue to a hostile group of Unwomen, who glare at her and let her know that she is no longer Queen Bee.
She is a true believer, softly spoken and crushingly polite. You get the feeling that if Serena had been sent there, she would have made a dramatic entrance. But Mrs O’Conner creeps in like a timid mouse. She committed a ‘sin of the flesh’ while her husband was distracted with the handmaid. But she feels that because it was love, God will forgive her, and she will be saved from this place. Her soft hands blister, unused to hard work. A fellow Unwoman spits at her. Another leaves a bloodied fingernail for her. The only person who seems to be nice to her is Emily. Mrs O’Conner can’t understand why. “A mistress was kind to me once,” says Emily. (Reader, I believed her. But kind is a relative term in Gilead. And while the ‘nice’ Wife kept postponing the Ceremony back in episode 5, you don’t get medals for not raping someone.)
We have heard about Emily’s backstory, and we have seen some of the ways that Gileadean brutality has caused her suffering, but her flashbacks in this episode paint us a clearer picture of the extent of it. We see her teaching — we see her deftly shutting down a ‘well actually’ dude, while mentoring another student. We see her living her life openly, and with determination, even as her boss tries to encourage her to keep a low profile, sensing the changing mood of the state. Emily stands firm: They “can’t scare us back into the closet”. She will remain out, and proudly so, unlike her boss, who has hidden photos of his partner to try and “lay low”. This pains him: “I thought mine was the last generation that had to deal with this bullshit. I thought all of you were so spoiled.” The last we hear from him is: “Welcome to the fight. It sucks.” His attempts to hide don’t work; he becomes the victim of a homophobic lynch mob. As soon as Emily sees his body, she realises that she has been naïve. In order to stay out, stay free and stay alive, she needs to get out.
Ah, the terror of the ‘too close’ flashback. This one shows chaos at the airport. We have seen this IRL and it’s still fresh in our minds; just last year, when Trump tried to push through the Muslim refugee ban, the news was full of images of conflict between ICE and the ACLU at the airport. This time, ICE are not preventing people from getting in, but stopping people from getting out. The rules are changing by the hour. Emily’s legal documents were fine when she left for the airport with her wife (Clea DuVall) and their infant son, both of whom have Canadian passports. But suddenly, their marriage is no longer recognised. She gets a ‘conditional boarding pass’ that she will clearly never get to use, instead facing a grotesque invasion of privacy in her interrogation from the ICE guy. He is only interested in one thing: how Emily bore a child. Her answer seals her fate. She bids a heartbreaking farewell to her family, letting them go to save them from the horrors. They will be fine. We know what happens to her.
Back in the present, the Underground Femaleroad has delivered June to a deserted building that turns out to be the home of the Boston Globe. It’s vast and creepy, and June hates it. Left alone with a torch, she quickly finds a weapon to brandish, just in case, when she hears sirens nearby. But the space becomes humanised for her when she leaves the printing bay for the office floor. There are ghosts of the former staff everywhere she looks: coffee mugs, family pictures, mementoes, a dusty DVD copy of Friends. But then she finds a shoe. And then those human touches take on something more terrifying. Why did no-one take them? We saw that June was able to clear her desk when the law passed banning women from the workplace. Why would anyone leave these things behind? The answer: they didn’t.
The way this was shot was just perfect. We saw June notice something awful, and the camera lingered on her reaction for what felt like an age without giving us the traditional eye-line match shot. It was a masterful build-up of dread, before the nooses were finally revealed, and we saw the bullet-scarred walls. And the other shoe. June has seen horrors, like Emily. But she just spent time contemplating the humanity of those victims, and now she faces the reality that they were slaughtered. It’s like she found — then immediately lost — friends. That DVD was symbolic, huh?
Too close, too close. In the Fake News era, this one really stings. Relax…breathe. It’s not like the press is under attack, or Homeland Security is going to compile a database of journalists and monitor their content. Oh wait — that’s literally happening right now. Excuse me for a moment.
Nick wants June to stay at the Boston Globe slaughterhouse for a few weeks, but this isn’t out enough for June. Her version of the plan is less cautious than his: she wants to get Hannah and go north. But she comes round. It’s not safe to try to get that far, yet. And perhaps it is enough to be slightly out for now. There are some freedoms that they can enjoy in the meantime. And a few actual genuine smiles from June! As time goes on, she gets more comfortable in her hiding place. She watches Friends. (The one with all the erogenous zones!) She gathers up the personal belongings from the desks and turns the execution spot in a tribute wall, a shrine for the fallen. The shoes are reunited. Maybe the ghosts will find a way out too. She can’t undo what happened, and she can’t make it better. But she can show something I’m going to call Handmaid Justice.
Handmaid Justice manifests in many forms. We saw sisterhood and solidarity when they refused to execute Janine. By honouring the victims and restoring their dignity, June subverts the narrative that they were criminals, and so, partially rights that wrong. And then there is the vengeful side of Handmaid Justice: the side that seeks to punish.
Handmaid Justice came for Marisa Tomei’s mousey Wife. Hunched over the toilet, puking her guts out, she realises that Emily never intended to help her. Unlike the open hatred and disgust of the other Unwomen, Emily gained her trust with kindness. She weaponised kindness, in order to poison her. Mrs o’Conner’s crime was not against Emily, but it was against another handmaid. At least one. And if you mess with one, you face the wrath of them all.
“Every month, you held a woman down while your husband raped her. Some things can’t be forgiven. It will take a few more hours. You should die alone.”
For Emily, a Wife is the ultimate collaborator, a gender traitor, personally invested in the subjugation of women. But a Wife is also the closest she can get to punishing the regime. Mr O’Conner had a handmaid, so she was in a high status family — but she is less central to the ideology of the regime than, let’s say, Serena. Mrs O-Conner’s body is re-dressed in blue as a reminder of her crime, and strung up on a cross. The Colonies’ Aunts are furious. “There will be consequences,” they shriek, like Poundshop Aunt Lydias. What are you going to do, Aunt Radioactive Wasteland? I know you’ve got a mask and a cattle prod, but being sent here has got to be Gilead’s equivalent of being sent to the Gulag, so you’re not exactly the most powerful person. And what are you going to do to punish the Unwomen? They are already dying. They have nothing more left to lose.
But another re-purposed school bus arrives, bring a fresh batch of Unwomen. Among them — a flash of red. It’s Janine. Emily greets her with a hug. Sisterhood in action. Remember what Aunt Lydia said to June in episode 1:
“Do you think you’ve done her a kindness? She could have gone to God quickly, surrounded by her friends. She will suffer because of you.”
Well, as it turns out, Janine has a friend, who will protect her. She was always going to suffer. But for now, she has her name back. She won’t be raped again. She will shed her red garments for grey ones, but whereas Mrs O’Conner was ‘tainted’ by having worn blue, the red could almost guarantee a degree of safety. She is not a handmaid any more, but she is a sister. The category of Unwomen is meant to shame and dehumanise, but there is some solidarity there. As long as you weren’t a Wife.
So, to answer June’s questions from the start of the episode, freedom doesn’t look the way you expect. It’s frightening. It’s not really like an elevator with open sides; there are just different kinds of walls.
June might not be making a heroic dash across the border (not yet, at least); she might still be in Boston; she might still be stuck inside. But there are degrees of ‘out’, some of which you can work with. Gilead is all around, and it is within you, but it turns out there is a little bit of wiggle room.
And that’s how you find yourself arguing against Aunt Lydia using her own words: Yes, Janine now faces a slow death rather than a quick death. But there are two kinds of freedom: ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’. Handmaids had one kind of ‘freedom from’. Unwomen have another. June has her own. ‘Freedom from’ is not something to be grateful for. But it’s a small mercy. For now.