Note: This review contains massive spoilers.
In “Unwomen,” Emily (Alexis Bledel) returns in the second episode of Season Two of “The Handmaid’s Tale” as an unwoman. Last we saw her, she had reached her breaking point: She was forced to undergo genital mutilation for illegally engaging in a lesbian relationship, and tasted a few seconds of freedom when she decided to drive an officer’s car. As punishment for her crimes, she is sent to the Colonies, a toxic waste zone where women lawbreakers are sent to work, presumably to death. As she slowly decomposes into a living corpse from the toxins—even the water is contaminated—the episode explores Emily’s story pre-Gilead through a series of flashbacks. The technique is overused, but that doesn’t make her journey any less harrowing.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” can’t lean on Margaret Atwood’s original text for its second season. But this presents an opportunity to explore what is only hinted at in the book. The threat of being sent to the Colonies was the worse alternative that the handmaids were constantly reminded of to keep them in check in the novel. But in Hulu’s adaptation, the threat becomes a reality. The unwomen, dressed in light blue, move waste during the day and wait to die during the night. Emily, who has become their de facto doctor, cares for them with the little resources available to her. “Best nail place in town,” one of them jokes when Emily advises her to air out her infected hands. “Give me a good review on Yelp,” Emily says, in a rare throwback to better days.
And they were better days, though Emily didn’t realize it at the time. We finally get to see who Emily was before June met her, and trace the origins of her lingering rebelliousness back to her days as a college biology professor seeking tenure. Unsurprisingly, she is just as intolerant of misogyny and homophobia as I expected her to be: She is quick to shut down a male student’s condescending remarks to another female student, and refuses to give up teaching when her boss tries to pressure her into being more discreet about her wife and son, something he too has been forced to do as a gay man. The scene speaks to one facet of the LGBTQ experience leading up the war that created Gilead. “I thought mine was the last generation that would have to deal with this bullshit. I thought all of you were all so spoiled,” he laments. “Not anymore,” Emily concludes. She’s right. Her boss is hanged at the university later on, with a homophobic slur spray-painted at his feet. It’s Emily’s signal to leave Boston as soon as possible.
The work Bledel does with just her eyes says more about how Gilead came to be than the new system itself. Initially hidden behind a pair of glasses, her crystal blue eyes come to life without them, resilient, pained, and—most of all—deceptive. The process begins at the airport, when Emily’s wife and son are forced to go to Canada without her, her marriage certificate no longer a valid substitute for a visa. As they walk away toward their gate, Emily tries to stay composed in light of the realization that this might be the last time she ever sees them. The melodramatic music cheapens the scene, but it cannot take away from Bledel’s acting: Her composed smile gives way to agony, and no pair of glasses can hide the terror in her eyes. It comes as no surprise, then, when she poisons the newest addition to the Colonies, a former Commander’s wife in an act of revenge. “Every month, you held a woman down while your husband raped her. Some things can't be forgiven,” she says to the dying unwoman. “You should die alone.”
Using the Boston Globe as a sanctuary, June also gets a glimpse at people’s pre-Gilead lives as she thumbs through the remnants of journalists’ abandoned desks. Her scenes are clearly filler—she makes a makeshift memorial for those slaughtered in the basement, tries and fails to escape north without Nick, and proceeds to have sex with him—but that’s okay. As the show branches away from June’s narrative, the new stories it will explore—Janine’s perhaps, considering she just got to the Colonies herself—hint at an exciting second season that will hopefully continue to include the experiences of people who weren’t directly connected to June before Gilead’s creation.—Staff writer Mila Gauvin II can be reached at email@example.com