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This post contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale episode, “Unwomen.”
I’ll always have a place in my heart for Rory Gilmore. Always. But for the first time since meeting Rory in Stars Hollow, I’m finally seeing Alexis Bledel and fully appreciating her work without thinking about Yale, Luke and Lorelai, and whether Rory belongs with Jess (she does). A big part of this is the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, which premiered on Hulu on Wednesday with the first two episodes. Bledel makes her grand return as Emily on episode two, “Unwomen,” which finds present-day Emily scooping up radioactive shit in the colonies. Everyone looks miserable. Fingernails are missing (blame the radioactive shit). And the Aunts are lurking around, ready to strike with electric cattle prods. Pray when you’re told to pray, never talk back, and fill your quota. Or else.
I’m obviously very late to this party. The same day I made this realization, I had a dream that I got accepted to Yale to do a Master’s in English Literature. Was my abandonment of Rory haunting me? Making fun of me for being late? Probably. The Primetime Emmy Awards recognized Bledel’s achievement last September she was honored with a shiny trophy for playing Emily on season one. She took home the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series not long after her character took a little joyride at the market in Gilead and ran over a guard. Three months prior, Hulu announced that she would be back on the show. “Alexis is quite remarkable,” executive producer Warren Littlefield said at the time. No lies were told.
In “Unwomen,” Bledel’s Emily has traded in her red Handmaid cloak and white wings for a grey-ish, oversized coat with a shawl for her hair – the uniform of an Unwoman sent to the Colonies. Past her cracked and possibly infected skin is the look of someone who’s lost everything and yet is still determined to get the fuck out of there. In many ways, she is just like June (Elisabeth Moss), who has successfully escaped and since relocated to the former Boston Globe office in this episode. Like June, Emily is in a state of waiting. Waiting for the next opportunity and the next trustworthy face (Nick visits June in the abandoned building and Janine arrives to the Colonies at the end of this episode), all while hanging onto the way things were. For Emily, as seen on the show for the first time, life just before Gilead was dangerous, but she was a working college professor in a same sex relationship with the slightest taste of freedom.
In this episode, I wholeheartedly believed Emily’s heartbreak at the border, where she was turned away while her Canadian wife (played by Clea DuVall) and their son flew north. Gilead was beginning to take shape: a new law deemed their marriage “forbidden,” gays and lesbians who refused to obey were met with consequences (her colleague, a gay man, was hanged at the college), and the border patrol officer demanded to know if their child was the result of Emily’s own egg or an implanted embryo, likely prepping her for life as a Handmaid. Her entire world fell apart in a matter of moments, and her grief became my grief.
Unlike her guest appearance on Mad Men and her Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies, Bledel’s performance in this episode was wholly Rory-free. Maybe it’s the seriousness in the material, the fear the show has maintained, or the fact that Bledel is now a seasoned Hollywood actress — she’s incredible in The Handmaid’s Tale, and I regret not arriving to this sooner. Every scene she’s in, whether it’s in a flashback to her college classroom talking to her students about microbes, or when she’s poisoning a former Wife (Marisa Tomei) because “some things can’t be forgiven,” is presented with conviction, strength, and a vulnerability that makes her so watchable. The Colonies is a place I never want to be, where no one should ever go, but if it means it’s a place where Bledel can continue to do award winning-worthy work, take me back to that toxic inferno.
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