The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 episode 2 review: Unwomen


The Handmaid’s Tale’s second episode of season 2 brings a hefty dose of close-to-home reality, even as it travels to a distant nuclear hellscape.

Handmaid’s Tale loves its juxtapositions. The lilting music with torture scenes, words that mean what they don’t actually mean, and lots and lots of color contrasts in the staging. In episode 2 of the second season, we see lots and lots of reality against an unreal backdrop. The Colonies finally come into play, where we get a glimpse into Emily’s past alongside her slow, deadly work cleaning up nuclear waste. As an audience, we learn more about how things got to where they are (from June’s perspective as well). We are once again horrified at how close some of these moments are to things we know now. It’s deliberate and awful. Yet, it’s so important.

June’s opening monologue reminds us that she was uncharacteristically mentally silent in the last episode for the most part. It is a well-delivered reassurance that her spirit is still not broken. Her new residency, the former HQ of the Boston Globe, is just the first of many real-world touchpoints we’ll see in this episode, even as it later brings to mind recent language used against the media. More of that to come.

Emily takes up a decent chunk of the story with Alexis Bledel continuing her fantastic role both as a not-yet-broken spirit and, now, as Emily in her element. As before, her standout performance draws attention to LGBTQ issues again. Her experience being ousted from her position for normal behavior with a partner, witnessing her colleague’s murder, and dealing with simple paperwork are once again too-damn-familiar in our own world. Present day struggles, with a slightly different context, turn into untold horrors. The Handmaid’s Tale has proven adept time and time again at reminding us of this. “I thought mine was the last generation to deal with this” indeed.

“Unwomen” is also a poignant reminder of what this show does not discuss: race. Emily and Silvia at the airport are surrounded by ICE agents. Many of their beats will not only ring deeply familiar to the LGTBQ community, but also to immigrants. Answers given to a questionnaire in good faith can later be used to wreak havoc on families and lives. June discovers this, too. In a world where the leaders are still mostly white (even if biological fertility transcends racial issues due to circumstance), the lack of even a nod here to the struggles we know would be experienced by immigrants and people of color is the series’ worst misstep.

Emily has been set up for the main character-dom from the beginning. That culminates in her murder of the new former-wife that joined them in the colonies. It’s less about the wife and her fate, and all about who Emily is and who she has become. As Janine joins her, we’re left hoping that they find something more to do out there beyond just surviving.

There’s a lot going on in this episode. I haven’t even touched on what June’s up to. As “Unwomen” showcases the effective unpersoning of people both in the Colonies and in their pasts, June provides a brilliant contrast in steadily re-personing herself and those who are gone. I won’t get into how horrifying it was as a writer to see the “lying media” mantra taken to the worst level with the execution of journalists. But I bawled like a baby as June gathered their things and made her memorial.

Next: The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 episode 1 review: June

What’s more, it was deeply satisfying to watch June finally lose the “give zero craps” face and be allowed, momentarily, to have emotions. Heck, she’s allowed, for an episode or longer, to look like a human being again in a jacket and pants with her hair down. The Handmaid’s Tale managed to create a scene of emotion and power in Elizabeth Moss watching a goofy episode of Friends on a laptop while drinking coffee, an activity I do on an almost daily basis.

Folks, it’s going to be a long, harrowing season.