“Unwomen” aired as the second part of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 premiere. Part I, entitled “June” fleshed out June’s (previously Offred’s) personal history and showed viewers her desperate struggle to regain her personal freedom while making an escape to Canada — good ol’ Canada.
“Unwomen,” though it focused some of its attention on June’s current whereabouts, gave viewers a better sense of who Emily (previously Ofglen) is, what she’s doing now that she’s been shipped to the dreaded colonies, and where she came from.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part II, “Unwomen” – “Stop…Hammer time.”
A somewhat elderly and very out-of-breath driver drops June off at yet another loading dock. Once the driver manages to get June inside, she asks her reluctant traveling companion what the next step is. He tells her that it was his job to get her here, and he has. He explains that the building has power and running water, and after leaving June some necessities he makes to leave. An appreciative June bids the driver farewell with an all-too-formal, “Under his eye,” and receives a genial, “After a while, crocodile,” in return.
Hearing sirens as the driver leaves, June locks the loading dock door, frantically searches through the building for a small room, grabs a nearby hammer, and clutches her new weapon tightly to her chest. She relaxes only slightly when the sirens fade. When she finally works up the courage to take a look around, she realizes that fate has taken her to another home of another of John W. Henry II’s acquisitions, the offices of The Boston Globe.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part II, “Unwomen” – Black, White, and Red All Over
While exploring some employee cubicles, June gets an uneasy feeling when she finds a discarded women’s shoe. Her journey into the printing room, though, shows her something much worse. In addition to finding the mate to the discarded shoe she found in the cubicle, June also finds a row of nooses hung from the printing equipment. A wall riddled with bullet holes confirms her fears: she is standing in a slaughterhouse for “gender traitors.”
Her anxiety levels through the roof, June takes her hammer and makes for a more comfortable location. She ducks under cover, though, when she hears someone walking toward her. Nick’s familiar voice comes out of the darkness. June drops her hammer, tries to compose herself, and greets him. Wasting no time, she demands to know the next step in her struggle for liberty.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part II, “Unwomen” – Have Gun – Will Travel
Nick explains that it could be weeks before an opportunity to head north presents itself, and June, fed up with waiting around in a slaughterhouse, demands Nick’s keys. If Nick won’t help her, she’ll find Hannah and escape to Canada on her own. Nick reluctantly hands over the keys to his truck, along with his gun. June takes both and heads for the truck.
Once she’s behind the wheel, though, she realizes how hopeless her plan is. She pounds on the steering wheel in frustration and eventually returns to Nick inside the loading dock. Nick locks the door, and the two rebel-lovers engage in some angry and passionate carnal activity. A cut reveals a change in location — and position — and an exhausted Nick says he can’t go on. June instructs him, “Try,” as she climbs back atop the exhausted Eye.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part II, “Unwomen” – Professor Rory Gilmore
Leaving the lovers for a bit, viewers are taken to the colonies, which don’t look very pleasant at all. A yellowish fog permeates the entire landscape. Emily along with the other Unwomen, disgraced handmaids and other female outcasts, work the irradiated land by shoveling radioactive dirt into bags. They receive an electric shock if they’re caught taking a break, and are forced to kneel and pray at the sound of a bell. During one of these mandatory prayer sessions, Emily takes some time to reflect on her life before the Gilead regime took power.
We see Emily teaching a course on cellular biology and dealing with the mansplaining habits of one of her young male students. A hallway conference with the dean of her department, only ever referred to as “Dan,” reveals that she will no longer be teaching next term. The friendly dean tries to spin the change as a chance to get more research time, but Emily knows she’s being forced out.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part II, “Unwomen” – Dean Dan’s Dilemma
Dean Dan says there’s nothing he can do and gently admonishes Emily for keeping a photo of her wife and daughter on her phone, suggesting that she ought to have known better. Emily asks if this newfound paranoia is the reason that he removed all the pictures of his partner from his own office. Dan admits that his fears played a part in removing the photos, but says that he and his partner Paul had been fighting recently, everything coming to a head when Paul called Dan a collaborator.
Emily is adamant that she will continue teaching and tells Dan not to let the board of directors scare him back into the closet. The next day, though, a commotion in the quad draws Emily’s attention. The word “faggot” has been spray-painted on the ground, and we see the corpse of the affable Dean Dan hanging from a walkway in the center of the the courtyard.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part II, “Unwomen” – The Kiss and Ride
Deciding it’s high time to get out of Dodge, Emily and her wife Sylvia arrive at an overcrowded airport with their son Oliver. Emily’s wife Sylvia, a Canadian citizen, is allowed immediate travel along with their son. Emily, however, is not Canadian so her travel plans must be scrutinized further. Emily quickly produces her and Sylvia’s marriage license, and a helpful ICE agent says Emily was smart to bring it. Sylvia and Oliver are cleared for travel, but, even with the license, Emily must secure a boarding stamp.
Emily suggests that the two go on without her, but Sylvia refuses, saying they’ll all go together. The final documentation review, though, is handled by a militant agent who describes Emily and Sylvia’s marriage license as invalid since “it is forbidden” by “the law.” Emily demands a lawyer but is shoved into her seat. It becomes obvious that Emily will not leave with her family. She tearfully kisses her wife and son goodbye as they board their plane to Montreal.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part II, “Unwomen” – “You think I’m hostile now, wait ’til you see me tonight.”
Back in the irradiated present, the Unwomen watch as a busload of new recruits rolls up. One of them (played by Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei) wears the trademark blue-ish uniform of a commander’s wife. The rest of the Unwomen spurn her, but Emily takes an uncharacteristic interest in the fallen woman.
After a tough day of toiling in the dirt, Emily helps the newbie by providing her with some alcohol for her blisters. During Emily’s ministrations, the disgraced wife, whose name is Mrs. O’Conner, pours her heart out: she lost her position as wife because she was unfaithful to her husband. But, though she was unfaithful, she knows God will be merciful with her because she truly loved the man she cheated on her husband with.
Emily listens and gives Mrs. O’Conner some pills, antibiotics she says, that will help fight off the E. Coli bacteria that permeates the water. When Mrs. O’Conner asks why Emily’s being so helpful, she replies that “A mistress was kind to me once.” Strange, I don’t remember that happening.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part II, “Unwomen” – “There will be consequences!”
That evening we see Emily’s new “friend” retching into a toilet. Emily asks if she took the pills, and Mrs. O’Conner says she doesn’t think they’re working. Looking up into Emily’s unfeeling face, the woman’s suspicions mount, and she demands to know what Emily gave her. Rather than responding, Emily explains her motives, reminding the woman that every month she would hold a woman down and let her husband rape her; “Some things are unforgivable.” Denying the woman’s last request to pray with her, Emily tells her she should die alone.
The next morning, the Unwomen awake to find the crucified body of Mrs. O’Conner strung up in the field. An overseer screams that there will be consequences, and the unwomen smile to themselves as they start their daily slog. Another bus arrives just as the crowd disperses, and we see Janine clamber out. She and Emily embrace, but an attendant quickly pulls them apart.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part II, “Unwomen” – Shrine Time
We cut back to June in the offices of The Boston Globe. Nick has apparently worked up the courage and energy to leave, and June sits watching “The One with Phoebe’s Uterus” on an employee’s laptop. After watching for a bit, though, she gets up and collects various personal effects, including the discarded shoe, from the abandoned cubicles. Bringing her load down to the printing room, June creates a makeshift shrine for the victims of the massacre.
Then, showing a positive side of Christianity, June offers up a prayer for the faithful departed and asks God’s holy angel to watch over the shrine. Taking a different tack from the powers that be, she prays in Christ’s name and closes her prayer with the traditional “Amen.”
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Premiere: Part II, “Unwomen” – Final Thoughts
Powerful stuff in this episode! Emily’s struggle and eventual lack of empathy show her to be more ruthless than I had thought. It was great to see the colonies, having been teased with the new setting last season. It’s always intriguing to see a new setting, and this one didn’t disappoint. Its bleak and dreary aspect made for a great representation of the irradiated colonies.
It was good to see Marisa Tomei, but the Oscar-winner couldn’t hold a candle to her scene partner Alexis Bledel. Showing a dark side that we only saw briefly in season one, Bledel seems to have stepped outside her comfort zone quite a bit for The Handmaid’s Tale, so I’m excited to see what the future has in store for Emily.
Elizabeth Moss as June was, as always, great in this episode. I especially liked her immediate negative reaction to being brought to the scene of a massacre. Even before she sees the evidence of what happened at the offices of The Boston Globe, she seems instinctively wary of the place. Great direction and great acting in this episode, and a great start to the second season.