Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2. Catch up with our weekly reviews of previous episodes here. Not seen Season 1? Click here to see where you can watch it online.
“Under His eye,” says June (Elisabeth Moss), as her rescuer shows her around her new home, after escaping from Gilead. “In a while, crocodile,” comes the wry reply. It’s a grimly amusing reminder of just how engrained Gilead has become in this former Handmaid’s mind. As Aunt Lydia taught her wards, Gilead is within them, right down to the way they said goodbye to anyone they meet.
June, though, is also physically confined, as she’s instructed to lay low in the empty warehouse she was taken to, at least for a couple of weeks until the search for her dies down. That’s unthinkable to her, as she needs to get to her daughter, but it’s also unbearable, as she discovers what the building she’s in is: the former HQ of The Boston Globe, which now lies empty and in ruins. There’s a dark clue to what happened there, though, as June stumbles across a line of nooses hanging from the ceiling – a silent, and disquieting, reminder that in the rise of a regime, the independent media is one of the first things to be executed.
Nick goes to visit her, giving her a gun and the keys to a car, but assures her that she should wait until people stop searching for her – after all, she’s not only a Handmaid, but also a pregnant one, carrying the future of Gilead within her. The result is something of a purgatory that only reinforces how long and slow the process of extracting oneself from the mental state Gilead instilled in its captors is. Nick’s arrival is a chance to reclaim some of her autonomy and physical control, and it’s in that spirit that she initiates a marathon of intercourse – a moment that perhaps feels like the first indicator this isn’t a Margaret Atwood-penned text anymore, but also remains convincing, simply because it’s so devoid of romantic feeling.
The episode closes with June going through the building to gather personal belongings from those who were massacred, before constructing a sort of shrine in memorial to the souls lost. Lit by candles, she lets out a prayer to God to watch over it – shot overhead by director Mark Barker, it recalls the aerial camerawork of the Season 2 opener, reinforcing the lingering power of, and need for, hope in this dystopia, whether it’s the false kind foisted upon you by Gilead or something more personal.
But June mostly takes a back seat in this episode, as The Handmaid’s Tale moves us away from the prison-like interiors of chapters past and gives us a glimpse of the Colonies – the place outside of Gilead where rogue, rebellious, transgressive Handmaids are sent. There, we catch up with Emily, aka. Ofglen (Alexis Bledel). We last saw her after her genitals were mutilated by the Aunts, one of the most harrowing moments of Season 1, and Season 2 is proof that even for Emily, things can still get worse. The Colonies are a wasteland hellscape with even more greys and browns to sap all sense of positive colours and saturated life, and the exiled Handmaids (labelled, in a horrible display of language’s power, “Unwomen”) are sentenced to toil in the dirt, digging holes in a land poisoned by radiation.
It’s a hostile environment, eating away at each of them until their inevitable demise – and that mood seeps right through into the flashbacks that show us Emily’s life before Gilead. Offred’s flashbacks last episode marked a slight shift in tone for these historical segments, as they became more pertinent to our present day and heralded the change from normal society to normalised regime. Emily’s flashbacks are even darker, cementing how far we’ve come from Season 1; where that season’s flashbacks were powerful by way of contrast, Season 2’s memories are powerful by a lack of contrast, as there’s now no reprieve from the relentless barbarism on display.
Alexis Bledel is brilliant in the role, meeting the impossibly high bar set by Moss’ silent expressions of hatred, anger, fear and grief. We see her as a university lecturer, enjoying life until she’s told by her boss, Dan, that she’s not going back in the classroom next term, because she showed a student a photo of her wife, Syl, and their son, Oliver. It’s time, Dan cautions, for her to go back in the closet, before the authorities persecute them both. He admits he’s already hidden photos of him and his boyfriend in his office – but even that turns out to be too late, as Emily discovers him on campus the following day, hanging from a walkway with the word “faggot” sprayed on the floor below him.
Bledel’s unspoken reaction when she sees his body is heartbreaking, and terrifying, as she immediately composes herself and races to the airport with her wife and son. But that, too, is too late, and they find themselves held at passport control, informed that their marriage is now no longer legal; their relationship is forbidden, and she therefore can’t have an exit visa. Syl can go, and so can Oliver, but she’ll have to stay, because she’s the biological mother. Bledel’s confused expression gives way to stomach-churning isolation, as she has to watch them both leave the country without her – and in one single tracking shot, The Handmaid’s Tale deftly moves from a nail-biting nightmare of Kafka-esque bureaucracy to the tragedy of what we know is in store for a viable mother in this new society.
Years later, Emily appears to be fighting tyranny with kindness, as she helps the Unwomen who are falling sick, giving out antibiotics to help combat the E. coli in the water. That even extends to a wife (played by the excellent Marisa Tomei, with as much nuance in 10 minutes as Ann O’Dowd has shown as Aunt Lydia), who arrives on the bus of new exiles, because of a sin of the flesh. Emily gives her pills too, which the wife takes with gratitude and amazement – only for Emily to reveal that it’s poison and will kill her. “Every month, you held down a woman, while your husband raped her,” she spits with revenge in her voice. “Some things can’t be forgiven.” Gilead isn’t the only thing that lives on inside each Handmaid.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1 and 2 are available on-demand through Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it online on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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