As popular and decorated as it was, The Handmaid’s Tale caught a lot of flak in season 1 for lacking an intersectional lens. Though efforts were made to include queer characters and characters of color, racial implications were completely ignored and the lesbians were underutilized. This, of course, caused a fair bit of backlash online. To their credit, the show’s creative minds did not shirk these discussions, instead listening to hear what they could do better.
How much they actually learned is a point of contention. Showrunner Bruce Miller said he and his writing staff planned to do a better job addressing the intersection of race and gender this season. It’s debatable how good of a job they did, and I’m not throwing my hat into that debate, being far too white to have a useful opinion. However, I am very comfortable saying that The Handmaid’s Tale improved some of its niggling issues in terms of queer representation.
The explicitly queer storylines in season 2 were good, but I am actually more pleased with the other content given to the queer characters. While it is important to tell the story of what would happen to us in this kind of society, queer women don’t just want hat tips to how oppressed we are. We want the queer female characters to have storylines that acknowledge them as whole individuals, not just their sexualities. Representation is a step past tokenism.
Though I know parts of the season were controversial, I need to give credit where credit is due. I kind of wonder if Miller read my article on the underwhelming queer representation last season, because the writers fixed most of my fixable complaints. There are still a few things they could improve on a bit, but overall they did a great job of fleshing out their two main queer characters. That and giving their trauma room to breathe, which was a huge sticking point for me last year.
In season 1, Alexis Bledel’s character Emily was the vehicle through which the show explored the violent homophobia inherent in fundamentalist Christianity. She and a Martha were caught in an affair and then the Martha was hanged, while Emily was sentenced to ‘Redemption,’ which turned out to be a clitoridectomy. That entire chain of events was difficult to watch, but it was an important story to tell. Unfortunately that was essentially Emily’s entire storyline, that and inspiring the straight protagonist June to rebel. We barely got to see any emotional fallout for her, as she took herself out of the story almost immediately by committing vehicular homicide and getting arrested yet again.
Meanwhile, June’s lesbian best friend Moira’s storyline acknowledged her queerness without making that the focus of her arc or characterization, just like in the book. My main complaint was her general lack of screen time and how part of her story (her experiences with the Underground during her attempted escape to Canada) was given to June’s husband, Luke. Also, there was no discussion about the extra layer of trauma for a lesbian being forced into sexual slavery servicing men. This wasn’t addressed with either her or Emily, and since it was acknowledged in the book it seemed like an oversight.
Also notable was that neither queer woman had a flashback episode or a season-long arc. Emily disappeared after 1×05 and Moira only appeared in flashbacks until 1×08. Both spent most of their time inspiring or being inspired by June rather than leading their own subplots. I am pleased to say that all of that changed in season 2. Let’s dig into this a little deeper, shall we?
Emily’s arc was expanded and improved in season 2. It still involved queer oppression at the hands of Gilead but focused on the larger effects that oppression had on her character. She was the star of episode 2×02, the prime mover of the plot and the character through whom we saw flashbacks. The flashback storyline tackled the insidious rise in homophobia around the time of the government takeover and how it drove her to flee.
This sequence of flashbacks was really uncomfortable, for many reasons. It started off with one of her students complaining to the Board of Regents because Emily had a picture of Sylvia and Oliver (her wife and son) on her phone. Then her boss, a gay man himself, took away all her classes to keep her out of the spotlight and suggested she be more cautious about exposing herself as queer. He also admitted his own partner was uncomfortable with this attitude and had called him a collaborator, which rang painfully of the “good gays vs. bad gays” idealogical conflict. Emily protested that they couldn’t be forced back into the closet and insisted on teaching. But when she found his body hanging on-campus with a homophobic slur scrawled on the sidewalk beneath him, she realized her family needed to get out, now.
Unfortunately, they had waited too long. Her Canadian wife and dual citizen son were allowed out of the country, but she was not. The family had to deal with a couple of different ICE agents at the airport, the first of whom was understanding and helpful. But the second one they met with informed Emily and Sylvia that they weren’t entitled to travel together because they were not married. Their marriage certificate was no longer valid, their union forbidden by the law. Emily protested once again, demanding to see a lawyer, and was unceremoniously shoved back into her seat. In the end, she could only watch helplessly as an escalator carried her family away from her, no clue if she’d ever get to see them again.
Meanwhile, the 2×02 present-day storyline was about her life in the Colonies and her reaction to a Commander’s Wife showing up there. At first, it seemed maybe she was taking pity on the newcomer because the Wife at her last posting was kind to her. While it’s unclear what her original intent was, she ended up poisoning her. It was the second life Emily has claimed on the series, and it kickstarted her season-long arc as a spiteful vigilante. 2×05 then matched her up with fellow Handmaid outcast Janine, playing their differing philosophies off each other. While Janine wanted to make the best of the situation, Emily was angered by her attempts to see and do good in their hellish surroundings.
In the end Emily acknowledged that the wedding Janine threw for two of their fellow workers was beautiful, mending that relationship a little and giving Janine credit for her own way of staying sane. But she never changed her own outlook on things, even once they were brought back from the Colonies after a bombing that killed 26 Commanders and 31 Handmaids. When Janine said in 2×08 that her posting involving only the monthly Ceremonies and no sexual extracurriculars was like a blessing from God, Emily was quick to point out that being raped is not a blessing. The only blessing was the bomb, she said, and anyone helping Gilead deserved to be blown apart.
Emily simmered in the background like this for several episodes, clearly traumatized and disheartened but not doing much. It’s possible she poisoned her new Commander, because he collapsed right after finishing one of their Ceremonies. Whether or not his death was her doing, she was clearly very pleased, kicking his body and stomping on his groin. Later that episode June passed on the news that Moira got out to Emily and Janine. Janine was happy and said she hoped maybe they could all end up in Canada one day, but Emily remained inexpressive. When June tried to encourage her, saying she couldn’t give up and that she would see Oliver again, Emily said she wasn’t his mother anymore. This was when we truly saw just how far Emily had fallen, how hopeless she had become.
Emily: Gilead took your eye. They took my clit. Now we’re cows being worked to death, and you’re dressing up the slaughterhouse for them. That’s the fucking problem!
Things took a turn when she was assigned to a new house with the eccentric Commander Lawrence. She was very on edge there, especially after an uncomfortably personal conversation her first night in the house where Lawrence revealed he knew her entire backstory, including the affair and genital mutilation and vehicular homicide. When it was time for their first Ceremony she stole a knife from the kitchen, but she never got a chance to use it because Lawrence had no intention of going through with the ritualized rape.
Her arc’s slow build up to an explosion finally paid off in the season finale. Aunt Lydia came to visit her at her new posting and remind her how lucky she was to have this opportunity, which Emily understandably refused to dignify with a response. Lydia then threw some shade at her about the mutilation, reminding her that God offers ‘Redemption’ to even the most perverse among his flock. At Emily’s continued silence, she remarked it’s like she’d cut out her tongue (with the implication of what had been cut out). As soon as Lydia turned her back, Emily whipped out the knife and stabbed her in the back, then punched her so hard she flipped over the railing and onto the stairs. She then kicked her down the remaining stairs and stood gleefully over her as she groaned in pain.
I must say, this was incredibly satisfying to watch. The closing scene of 1×03 where Emily discovered what had been done to her and Lydia informed her it was for her own good is the stuff of nightmares for queer women, and seeing Emily strike back in some way felt like a triumphant moment. Of course, once she’d been locked in her room and had time to get over the exhilaration she started to freak out. When Lawrence dragged her into his car for a mysterious drive, she was understandably terrified.
Imagine Emily’s surprise when June showed up at the rendezvous point and informed her she was getting out of Gilead. Emily couldn’t jump in the back of their getaway car fast enough, but June elected to hand her baby girl over to Emily and stay behind. It’s implied that this was so she could rescue her other daughter, Hannah, who is in great danger growing up in Gilead as a girl. The tragedy in 2×12 made that very clear to her and Serena, the baby’s adoptive mother. (Adoptive is a strong word, I know, but I’m trying to keep this brief.) The last we saw of Emily was her calling after June as the car drove away, shocked and upset that her friend was willingly staying in Gilead.
Moira was only in four episodes this year, a significant drop from last season that was even more noticeable due to the expanded episode order. However, she figured more prominently in the episodes she was a part of. She had her own storyline and a short but satisfying arc that fit with the overarching themes of the season. More of her backstory was filled out. Perhaps most importantly, her trauma was addressed.
We first saw Moira in 2×03 (aptly titled “Baggage”), dealing with her new reality of living in Canada in relative safety. She’s working at a refugee processing facility and sharing an apartment with Luke and Erin (a.k.a. Froot Loops). However, she’s still suffering emotionally from her time in Gilead’s grasp. This was made plain by an interaction with a recently escaped refugee, a closeted gay Guardian. When he recounted a story of seeing an old boyfriend of his getting strung up on the wall shortly after the takeover, Moira looked about ready to break down herself. She had to calmly tell him to go talk to the trauma counsellors, very obviously not equipped herself to deal with anyone else’s trauma.
Moira: It’s a lot, I know. I was a zombie when I got here and it was just like, “Welcome to Canada, here’s your maple syrup!”
Later in the episode she had a run in with a woman named Caitlyn at a club. Caitlyn was making eyes at her across the bar and then the scene abruptly cut to Moira pleasuring her in a bathroom in the basement. Caitlyn wanted to return the favor but Moira declined the offer, shrinking away when she touched her even in a non-sexual manner. They exchanged names and Moira introduced herself as Ruby, the name she went by when she was working as a sex slave at Jezebel’s.
This scene had some incredibly uncomfortable implications. It was unclear whether Moira really wanted Caitlyn or if she kind of just went along with it because she was used to being used sexually and had boundary issues as a result. The fact that she used her sex worker alias certainly gave that impression. That’s not to say Caitlyn was at fault, Moira certainly consented, but there was clearly a lot going on under the surface for Moira. As it turned out, reclaiming one’s name was a prominent theme this season, and Moira was a part of it.
In 2×09, Fred Waterford (June’s Commander and a previous ‘client’ of Moira’s) made a trip to Canada. When Moira recognized him on TV she and Luke tried to get Rachel, Little America’s ambassador of sorts, to arrest him. While Rachel agreed he should be arrested, she said it was up to Canadian officials and there was nothing she could do because it wasn’t their country. Moira and Luke still ended up making an impact, though, after Nick passed off Chekhov’s Letters to Luke. At Erin’s suggestion, they posted them online and caused a public outcry, causing Fred and his contingent to get kicked out of the country and their diplomatic efforts terminated.
Moira was among the crowd at the airport mobbing the Waterfords’ car as they were on their way out, and she got a very satisfying moment of her own. Like many women in the crowd, she had a sign stating her name, a reference to how lots of the letters started with the women declaring the real names that had in many cases been taken from them. She broke through the crowd to get right up to the car and banged on the window, showing her sign to Fred. He seemed to recognize her and looked every bit as uncomfortable as he should be. As the car rolled away, Moira muttered, “Not Ruby. Asshole.”
Like Emily, Moira also had a flashback episode this season. While waiting to hear if June was safe after the bombing, in 2×07 Moira decided she needed to take control and find out for sure what had happened to her girlfriend fiancée, Odette. This attempt to gain closure led to a series of flashbacks that revealed how she met Odette and why she was a Handmaid. The book never explained all the intricacies of how Gilead established which women were fertile and thus able to serve as Handmaids. Since Moira was childless, I personally assumed it was because she got an abortion before she realized she was gay and stopped sleeping with men. In the show, however, it turns out Moira had indeed had a child, having served as a surrogate for a wealthy English couple. And lo and behold, Odette was her doctor throughout the process.
Some viewers expressed confusion at this storyline or claimed it was retconned, but it really wasn’t. Odette was mentioned several times in season 1, and we even heard Moira talking on the phone with her in 1×03. Anyone who thinks Odette was a shoehorned addition was not paying attention. I was hoping all offseason we would finally get to meet her, so I was very pleased. I also appreciated the explanation of how Moira became a Handmaid, that and how June was the supporting character to her in these flashbacks. We rarely get to see June as the supporting character to someone else, and to see the straight white protagonist supporting her black lesbian bestie through pregnancy was a nice little reversal.
The one thing that did feel a little retconned about the storyline was that what happened to Odette was inconsistent with the story Moira gave June in the series premiere. Back then, she said Odette was rounded up in the dyke purges and sent to the Colonies. But the pictures of Odette she finally found in the book made it look like she was shot in the street in Gilead. However, it’s possible Moira had only assumed what became of her or had been misinformed. In any case, the grief on Moira’s face when she found the pictures was heartbreaking. So was the moment she laid the picture of her and Odette on the remembrance altar of sorts in Little America. Samira Wiley knocked that whole episode out of the park.
Moira was also in 2×11 a bit, in flashbacks to June’s first pregnancy. This nicely reminded us of how important a figure Moira was in June’s life, as well as the adorable rivalry she had with Luke. It was rather cute too, after seeing June support Moira in similar circumstances in 2×09. It was a little funny seeing Moira back in the supporting role with June given how much she had her own storylines this year, but I liked the show reestablishing how important they are to each other. There were also some flashbacks of the two of them in the Red Center in 2×03, so we had enough episodes where they interacted to remember that Emily is not June’s first lesbian bestie. Sorry, Emily.
Conclusions and Aspirations
Overall, this was a great season for queer representation on The Handmaid’s Tale. The actresses portraying Emily and Moira had more emotional content to work with and it showed, their performances landing both of them their second Emmy nomination in as many years. Their characters also spent less time playing second fiddle to June, branching out into their own stories. And thanks to the long-awaited flashbacks, we got to meet both of their love interests. Some of their best content stemmed from these relationships, too. We got a good sense of how much their partners meant to them and therefore how much it hurt to lose them, which helped make them more relatable to queer and straight viewers alike.
Emily’s arc was perfectly satisfying this season. Not only was it larger, it flowed seamlessly from her experiences in season 1. Last year I thought her running someone over seemed out of character, but they continued that character trajectory and now it seems perfectly in character. It is now clearer that that event was intended to be Emily’s breaking point. And while they gave her more to do this year than be the sacrificial gay intended to elicit sympathy from and educate the straight audience, I’m glad they didn’t drop this storyline. Some queer people would rather they did, no doubt, but as a queer woman raised in Evangelical culture I think these stories are extremely important. We can’t let ourselves or our allies forget how precarious our situation is, how many people would see us treated as second-class citizens or disposed of altogether.
On other hand, I was disappointed that the retcon/clarification about Odette’s fate obscured the fact that she was killed for her sexuality. Some viewers thought the sweater she was wearing in the pictures was a doctor’s coat and that that’s was why she was killed. (We now know thanks to 2×08 that not all female neonatal doctors were killed, but that misinterpretation persists.) There was no mention in the episode of why she was murdered. Moira said she was rounded up before the war broke out after the government takeover, and maybe the reason was meant to be implied. However, considering how many people seem to have forgotten that Odette even exists, the audience could have done with a reminder.
As for Moira herself, while she was not part of the main plot as much, she was the central character in her own plot and the Canada storyline in general. So although the quantity of screen time and number of episodes went down, the quality went up in a big way. And I can understand why there were so few episodes in Canada, given how much was going on in Gilead. I would have liked to see more, but with how much quality queer content we got this season, I really can’t complain. And though it took until 2×09, it was nice to see the refugees finally affect the larger story when they released the letters. Other than that their plots were mostly character studies, but that’s not necessarily bad. I’m okay with this being Moira’s introspective season as long as she becomes more active again in season 3.
Until recently I was concerned that Moira would remain in obscurity and Emily would disappear into the Canadian ether. After all, while we want our characters to be safe we also need them to be relevant. But according to a recent conference call with Bruce Miller, both Emily and Moira will have important roles next season. He said Moira’s journey in season 2 was understanding that she can’t put Gilead behind her and needs to become more active in opposing it. Also he assured us that we will continue to follow Emily and her journey with June’s baby, Nichole.
Hopefully now with Nichole in Emily’s care and headed to Canada, the characters there will become part of the main plot again. While it was nice seeing Emily and Moira lead their own side plots, that development dovetailing with the main story would allow them to become active and important players, which is all I’ve ever wanted. This is of course contingent upon Emily and Nichole making it to Canada. It’s not guaranteed, but I doubt even this show would go so dark as to have Nichole recaptured and returned to the Waterfords. Getting her out was the season’s big win, after all.
Actually, there are lots of possibilities for what could happen once Emily makes it to Canada, god willing. She might seek out Luke and Moira to hand over Nichole, she might go looking for her own family, or both. After her remark that she isn’t Oliver’s mother anymore, I am interested to see what happens if she finds her family in Canada and now has this new baby with her. Particularly if Sylvia has moved on in the five-ish years since their separation and Oliver now has a new second mother. It could open up the same complicated questions regarding June’s involvement with Nick while still caring very much for Luke.
No matter which way they take her story, I am thrilled that Emily looks poised to take on a more central role next season. And whether or not she finds Luke and Moira and loops them back into the main plot that way, it sounds like Moira is going to be more active next season too. After such improvements this year, I have faith in this show’s commitment to queer representation. And perhaps it is foolish to wish for anything positive to come out of The Handmaid’s Tale, but I have high hopes for season 3.