Watching The Handmaid’s Tale is like developing Stockholm’s Syndrome!
I know, it is an overly dramatic and exaggerated statement to be making. But for a dystopian show that is politically dark and gut-wrenchingly emotional, ‘Unwomen’ proves yet again why this show is at the top of its game.
Following on from its powerful season opener, you would expect an episode to start putting all those rebellious pieces into place. After all, we are all rooting for these empowering characters to rise above their brutal and oppressive overlords. But this was the opposite.
‘Unwomen’ decides to slow down and invest in the emotional and traumatic experiences suffered at the hands of Gilead. It illustrates that despite the small acts of heroism committed by the female characters, The Handmaid’s Tale has the utmost confidence and a measured sensitivity to show all kinds of context and vulnerability. This is not something you can easily walk away from. After all, they are human, bravely navigating the psychological scars as well as the physical. That strength of humanity is analysed on the notion of freedom and whether you can forget the past.
It’s a clever dichotomy to use the episode to contrast June (Elisabeth Moss) and Emily’s (Alexis Bledel) story. It’s a careful blend of the past and their current state of mind. Their new reality might be an escape, however, you can take the girl out of Gilead, but you can’t take Gilead out of the girl.
For June’s sake, its haunting presence and fanatical power still linger. Burning her handmaid’s clothes was a symbolic act in the first episode. However, the reality is still a life full of fear and isolation and that point is once again hammered home. June is smuggled away from Gilead to take up a hiding residence at the Boston Globe. “Is this what freedom looks like?” she asks herself as she rationalises the religiously indoctrinated routines of Gilead. The sense of freedom is so overwhelming that she later arms herself with a hammer for protection for fear she would be found. This show was never an easy watch and yet finds a subtle way to transcend along each spectrum of emotions. And in those opening few scenes you can see June’s internal struggle, trapped as a prisoner of her own mind by swapping a set of walls for another.
For Emily, she is given an expanded role (in contrast to the book). After being hauled away by the eyes during the first season, she is banished to the colonies. Margaret Atwood’s novel makes several references to the place, drawing obvious comparisons to gulags and even the concentration camps during the era of Nazi Germany. ‘Unwomen’ takes full advantage of that historical premise. The punished women work in an unpleasant, toxic, diseased, tortured and unforgiving environment that wouldn’t look out-of-place from Mad Max: Fury Road. Through the eyes of Emily, not only do we see her trying to make the best out of the situation (medically caring for those in need) but we also we see her living the life of what others have called “a fate worse than death”.
The most impressive aspect of ‘Unwomen’ is how the silence does most of the talking, thanks to the brilliant direction by Mike Barker and writer Bruce Miller. It’s a ‘show, don’t tell’ mentality. The reveals are purposefully gradual as if June and Emily must witness and absorb it before the audience does. In one powerful scene (which automatically proves how great of an actress Elisabeth Moss is), June’s silent walk through the Boston Globe is a time capsule to an abandoned past. It’s the disparity between the happy snapshot memories (e.g. the Friends DVD) and their eventual fates. Hanging nooses. Bullet holes and blood-stained walls. You would automatically think of a war zone, but this happened in a country founded on the essence of “the land of the free”. Considering baseball has played a subtle yet prominent role in the first two episodes, the very meaning of ‘America’s pastime’ has been rewritten thanks to Gilead’s brutal atrocities. It serves as a reminder of how quick reality has changed. June’s emotional breakdown is just one of those small scenes worthy of awards. Given her experience as a handmaid, like a soldier returning from war, her reaction is comparable to a PTSD sufferer.
As a viewer, it’s easy to ask how it got to this point and ‘Unwomen’ examines the political aftermath of the bombing that wiped out the government. Through a series of clever flashbacks, we see this from Emily’s perspective and the slow and selective erosion of democratic power she once had. She was a teacher in microbiology, had a wife called Sylvia (Clea DuVall) and a son. Because of her sexuality, she is slowly punished. First, it was relegating her to lab work for the next teaching semester, then the subsequent annulment of her marriage as she tries to escape the persecution ebbing back into society. “They can’t scare us back into the closet” she protests but The Handmaid’s Tale serves as a clever reminder at the vulnerability of those laws. Its authenticity resonates because of the current US political climate, the endless executive orders and the lives affected by those extreme and heartless changes.
As much as The Handmaid’s Tale is primarily about June, Alexis Bledel as Emily steals the show. Considering what her character has been through (including the horrible act of female genital mutilation), her steely performance keeps you guessing. Delivered with a sense of irony, she gives Mrs O’Conner, the wife of a commander (guest star Marisa Tomei), a taste of her own medicine.
If anything, what ‘Unwomen’ delightfully achieves is that first real step in finding their voice and power. June exercises that by dominating Nick (Max Minghella) through sex. Emily’s sly friendship with Mrs O’Conner has a crucifying consequence. It’s a chance for the characters to role-reverse on their captors and they’re taking no prisoners. And for all of Gilead’s religious overtones and the constant bleakness, it’s June’s makeshift memorial that holds any kind of solemn sincerity about the value of life.
With a fantastic cinematography throughout, superb acting and a brilliant score, The Handmaid’s Tale is taking nothing for granted. ‘Unwomen’ may have taken a step back to reveal those judgemental motivations, but its captivating sense of purpose means that it will always exceed expectations.