In the second episode of its second season, The Handmaid’s Tale goes somewhere that the novel on which its based never did: the Colonies (and also the Boston Globe.) More significantly, however, it continues down a path on which it started last year, and one which the novel never even approached. With an hour split fairly evenly between Emily and June, The Handmaid’s Tale is becoming something that would probably more accurately be called The Handmaid Tales. It’s an imperfect episode—most are—but it’s a great, great idea, and one that bodes well for the future of the series.
As I noted in my review of the premiere, the flashbacks on Handmaid’s haven’t always been indispensable, though they’re mostly pretty solid. But the flashbacks in “Unwomen” focus not on June and Luke (or June and Moira, or just June), but on Emily (Alexis Bledel), who we last saw being dragged away after getting in a car and using it to kill at least one Gilead officer. It’s a promising start to the expanded world writer Bruce Miller has talked about, and invests as much time, in this episode at least, in Emily’s past and present as the premiere did in June’s.
Let’s start with June, however, who spends most of this episode alone, outside her arrival with a casually morbid, friendly driver, a tumultuous visit from the still underdeveloped Nick (Max Minghella), and few minutes with Chandler Bing and Monica Geller. Elisabeth Moss has an incredibly expressive face, and she uses it to the hilt here, letting us in on June’s emotional experience in the empty, haunting Globe offices without needing to rely on voiceover (as with the last episode, used only sparingly). In fact, Moss does such a good job at taking us on the journey with her that director Mike Barker (who also directed the premiere) slightly overplays his hand.
When June walks down those steps during her hammer-armed exploration of the building, we know from the look on Moss’s face what June is seeing. I appreciate that the show exercises a little restraint in showing us dangling ropes and a bullet-riddled wall, rather than a bunch of bodies, but the otherwise affecting story and striking filmmaking is somewhat weakened by the episode’s insistence on making it all perfectly clear. That sequence in particular could have benefitted from the old Coco Chanel maxim, because taking even one thing off—the bullet holes, the blood, the nooses, or the shoe—would have strengthened the whole, given that Moss’s performance already tells us everything we need to know about what June finds in the bowels of the Globe.
That, aside from a shot that lingers just a bit too long on an on-the-nose Pride flag, is really the only off-note in June’s frightening, ominous exploration through the building and her lovely makeshift memorial. Her story only stumbles when Nick enters the picture. Minghella is a watchable performer, but Nick is so underdeveloped (and his backstory episode in the first season so unsatisfying) that it’s hard to invest anything in his experiences, or in the relationship between Nick and June. What’s more, it’s unclear whether or not The Handmaid’s Tale even wants us to invest in that relationship. The lingering shots of the plaintive expression on Nick’s face, as he stares at June as she sits in his car, would suggest that yes, we’re supposed to care, but to use a common phrase, there’s just no there there. The chance for June to exercise some autonomy over her own body and have sex just because she wants to makes his visit a worthwhile part of the story, but other than that, he’s just a person she doesn’t need to hit with her hammer.
While June builds a memorial, has a lot of sex, and tries to wrap her mind around her new reality, Emily treats injuries, doles out aspirin, and quietly murders a Wife. The arrival of three notable guest stars—Marisa Tomei, Clea DuVall, and John Carroll Lynch—is more than just an indication of the show’s increased profile. It signals how invested The Handmaid’s Tale is in telling stories other than June’s, and in doing so with care. Our first glimpse into Emily’s past is predictably upsetting, as we see her reach out to a female student who was condescended to by a male classmate, only to (it’s implied) have that student raise concerns about her wife and family; we then watch as she’s told she’ll be bumped from her department’s teaching roster by a colleague (an excellent, if briefly used, Lynch), a gay man who says his partner is calling him a collaborator. That’s just how it starts. The casting of Lynch here is particularly inspired, both because he’s an excellent actor who can make us care deeply about someone in a just a few spare moments, and because it makes his death truly unexpected and all the more shocking in its frankness.
Bledel is better in the present storyline than she is in her flashbacks, though her brief scenes with both Lynch and DuVall (as Emily’s wife, Sylvia) are relatively affecting. Still, it’s the calm, casual murder of Marisa Tomei’s unnamed Wife that really allows her to shine. Here, Barker exercises the restraint that coudl have benefitted June’s storyline, allowing both the writing and Bledel to keep things close to the vest. Her interactions with Tomei’s character never seem all that different from her gentle ministrations to the other “Unwomen,” only the look on her face when the Wife exits the bus (a great shot that wisely relies on the costuming to tell the story), her first exchanged glance with Tomei’s character, and the directness of her expression in their final conversation giving away the game. Well, that and the unlikeliness of Emily offering solace to anyone who was party to the creation of Gilead.
Like Lynch’s casting, the casting of Tomei makes her character’s abrupt, violent end all the more unexpected, and like Lynch, Tomei is able to paint a clear (and deeply unflattering) picture of her character in a few brief scenes. They both add weight to their stories, which would already hit pretty damn hard without their fine contributions. That added richness contributes heavily to the sense that this episode belongs to Emily, and not to June, and it’s that sense that bodes most positively for this season, and for the future of The Handmaid’s Tale as a whole.
- This season, I’m not watching multiple episodes in advance, so I have no idea what’s coming (beyond some announced cast members). So what do we think: is that Chekhov’s hammer?
- I love Clea DuVall, looking forward to a time when she has more to do as Sylvia.
- Emily’s voice has been consistent from her earliest episodes. The wry remark about Yelp is perfectly in line with her first honest scenes with June.