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The Handmaid’s Tale visits the Colonies for a harrowing story centered on Emily

Alexis Bledel shines in the season’s second episode, “Unwomen.”

The Handmaid’s Tale
Emily discovers the Colonies are not a very nice place.

Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team gathered to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writers Constance Grady and Caroline Framke discuss Unwomen,” the second episode of the show’s second season.

Todd VanDerWerff: It’s gonna be weird when Alexis Bledel has two Emmys. That’s my primary reaction to this season of The Handmaid’s Tale so far.

Bledel, who plays Emily, now sent off to the environmentally devastated Colonies, presumably to work until she dies, manages to help the episode land a story structure of which I’m not typically a huge fan.

The structure goes something like this: One of the regular characters needs to do a big, big thing, which some people will consider a moral transgression, and then the show works backward from that big thing in order to create a story that will force the character into a corner where they have no other choice. (Another example of an episode like this that works — at least for me, as it’s a controversial one — is Mad Men’s “The Other Woman,” a.k.a. the one where Joan sleeps with a guy to land the Jaguar account.)

Now, Emily murdering Marisa Tomei’s character (a Commander’s wife, sent to the Colonies for a “sin of the flesh”) isn’t a radical break from who her character was before. After all, as the “previously on” was happy to remind us, she exited the series in season one by running over a couple of people in a car. But that was different. They were firing on her. Here, she just poisons a woman because she has the opportunity and the motive of hating everything that’s been done to her in the name of the God Tomei’s character still so fervently worships. (Which ... fair.)

But the story structure works because Bledel makes us feel the full weight of those last few moments with her son, who escapes to Canada alongside Emily’s wife Sylvia (Clea DuVall, who seems to only act these days when playing the wife of more famous performers, which is too bad because she’s great), then makes us feel the tiny respite the Commander’s wife feels with Emily, before ultimately making us realize just how little Emily has left to lose.

Living in Gilead has shattered her, and even if she could escape to Canada, there’s no real guarantee she would be able to get back to the woman who watched her wife and son rise away from her on an escalator.

But I do have a question for you both: I totally buy the idea of non-state-sanctioned sex as a transgressive, maybe even fulfilling, maybe even life-affirming act in this show’s world. But do any of us buy that sex with Nick in particular would be any of the above?

Caroline Framke: No. No we do not.

But okay, to use a little less snark: This episode makes for a forceful reminder that Max Minghella has always been out of his depth acting opposite Elisabeth Moss. Nick isn’t a particularly rewarding part — even when he’s busting Handmaids out of hospitals — but I can’t help but think about what the part might have looked like if someone with a bit more obvious fire in him were cast instead.

For as devastating as the ravaged Boston Globe offices are, and as startling as June’s desperate, hungry appetite for Nick is, though, this episode belongs to Emily.

Getting to see Emily in her life before Gilead took over makes her life in the Colonies that much more stark, horrifying, and terrifyingly real. Before Emily got separated from her family, she was a respected biology professor. Her impatience with condescending men was already a prominent feature of her personality, which we see as she pushes back against both a cocky student and her supervisor.

But Emily’s conflict with her supervisor (played by the ever-reliable John Carroll Lynch) is a complicated one that — surprise! — ends in tragedy. After a student sees a picture of her (gay) family on her phone, he tells her that she should stop teaching classes until things calm down, much to her gobsmacked disdain. But it turns out that he’s also gay — and terrified that the struggles he had when he was younger are coming back tenfold.

When Emily scoffs that “they can’t force us back into the closet,” his sad shrug tells us all we need to know. When he ends up dead, hanging from a window with the word “FAGGOT” spray-painted on the ground, the message couldn’t be clearer. “They” can force people back into the closet — or worse.

The first season touched on the fact that Gilead sees queer people as “gender traitors,” through both Emily’s trauma and Moira’s resigned pain at becoming a prostitute for hypocritical men. But “Unwomen” is the most explicit The Handmaid’s Tale has ever been about how fraught life became for queer people — and just how quickly their degradation became the norm.

Now that I’m even more attached to Emily, she seems pretty much doomed in the Colonies, because wow, that place is about as bleak as they come. Are the Colonies what you expected, Constance? I’m also curious as to what you think regarding story possibilities in this setting, because from where I’m standing, there’s only so much they can do here.

The Emily storyline is “Unwomen’s” strongest

The Handmaid’s Tale
“Unwomen” dips into Emily’s past as a biology professor.

Constance Grady: I agree that the Colony plot line was this week’s strongest, but I have to admit I was a little distracted by how the blue of those dingy Colony uniforms exactly matches the blue of Alexis Bledel’s eyes. Emily might be toiling to her death in unspeakably bleak conditions, but dammit, the show will never let us forget those giant blue Rory Gilmore eyes!

But in all seriousness, Bledel and her eyes are doing lovely work on this show. As you pointed out, Todd, that look of resigned, barely controlled panic on her face as she watches her wife leave (Clea DuVall, come back to Emily and to our TV screens!) is what sells the flat rage with which she watches the Commander’s Wife writhe in agony. But what really got me is the moment in which Emily reels in Tomei’s Wife by giving her pills that she says will protect her from E. coli but are actually poison.

Tomei asks Emily why she’s being so kind to her, and Bledel’s face goes simultaneously tense and wistful and misty-eyed as she says, “A mistress was kind to me, once.”

That statement happens to be sort of almost true — last season, we briefly saw Emily with a Wife who felt guilty enough about her situation that she tried to delay the monthly ceremonial rape — and she’s convincing enough that you can see why the Wife would buy it. But it rings false in the moment. Would the fact that one woman felt kinda bad about being complicit in Emily’s torture really be enough to win Emily’s goodwill toward some random?

Well, no, as it turns out. It’s not enough. Emily was playing that Wife out of sheer cold-blooded hatred, and it all works because Bledel is hitting every single note of her performance.

In the June plot line, meanwhile, what struck me most was the thought she mulls over at the beginning of the episode: that even if she’s escaped from the Waterfords, Gilead will always be inside her, “like the Commander’s cock.” Giving June the breathing space to explore how she’s internalized Gilead is meaningful character work, but it also helps resolve one of this show’s biggest structural problems.

When the show takes June out of her traumatic situation long enough to really explore her PTSD, it also creates a slight remove from the cramped, claustrophobic present tense of the rest of the show. It’s just a small tonal shift — June’s plot in this episode is still plenty bleak — but it’s enough of a change in register that it’s possible for the show to offer June a catharsis that feels earned. And that’s a goal that the show repeatedly struggled to achieve last season.

Did that final tableau work for you, Todd? And do you think there’s much dramatic mileage to be found in keeping June out of the Waterford house?

Todd: I actually loved everything non-Nick-related about the June plot. The wordless sequence where June learned just what happened to the freedom of the press in Gilead was breathtaking, Moss’s silent face and Adam Taylor’s music combining to fill in so many gaps.

The elegant storytelling device of one woman’s shoe at her desk — and then the other on the floor next to what was obviously the scene of a massacre — made me a little disappointed when June explained to Nick that the place was a “slaughterhouse.” Yeah, it makes sense in that moment for the character (she’s done more exploring than he), but the show’s willingness to go silent is one of its greatest strengths.

And there’s something jarring, too, about a scene of June just kicking back and watching Friends, a message in a bottle from some other world. The first season gained a lot of its strength from how accidentally political it was, and now that the second season has been produced in a world where reviews of the show are contractually obligated to include the word “timely,” I worry that the series might overstep itself just a little bit (as it arguably does when it invokes the specter of ICE to separate a pretty white woman from her wife and son, instead of something much more true to our reality).

But scenes like June watching a well-known sitcom from our world, then deciding to find her way toward some sort of meaning, no matter how futile, accomplish the goal of saying, “This is how far we are from Gilead — and how close we are too,” so much better than more pointed political commentary ever could.

All told, I’m really happy Hulu launched “Unwomen” on the same day as “June.” Both episodes have their flaws, but they neatly illustrate almost everything the series does spectacularly when it’s on its game. I might joke about how out of his depth Nick seems all the time, but sequences like June’s exploration of the Globe offices will hang with me long after the flaws have subsided in memory.

The first two episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season two are currently available to stream on Hulu.