What Really Happens In The Colonies Of The Handmaid's Tale?

Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.
The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale laid out the world Margaret Atwood established in her 1985 novel with precise, horrific detail. But as of season 2, The Handmaid’s Tale has officially gone off script. Instead of adhering to the plot of Atwood’s book, the writers are using Atwood's world as a rich setting in which wholly original (and wholly disturbing) storylines can unfurl.
“Now that we’re able to step away from the source material, obviously, we’re exploring the Colonies,” Samira Wiley, who plays Moira, told Refinery29 during a recent phone interview. “That’s not pretty. It’s not a fun place. It’s a dark place.” That might just be the understatement of the year. The Colonies are a site of extreme subjugation, and are also the manifestation of one of Gilead's guiding tenets: Women's bodies are meant to be used.
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We’re first introduced to the bleak, radioactive wasteland that is the Colonies in the episode “Unwoman.” Emily (Alexis Bledel) is one in a line of blue-clad women, toiling away in a tan, dusty landscape. Some women, like Emily, use shovels to dig soil into bags with radioactive symbols. Others use hoes to break the cracked land. The women stop, briefly, for a mandated prayer.
Ostensibly, the woman are removing contaminated land from the site in order to make the land fit for growing crops again (though we don't know if cleaning up radioactive waste really works like that). Since pollution is to blame for the global problem of infertility, one of Gilead’s core missions is undoing environmental damage in order to produce more successful births. In the past three years, Gilead switched to growing exclusively organic crops and successfully reduced carbon emissions by 78%. The initiative seems to have worked – whereas birth rates in other countries have plummeted, Gilead consistently produces healthy babies.
The actual cause for the environmental decay in the Colonies remains vague, like much of Gilead's backstory. What is blazingly clear, however, is that the Colonies are not fit for human life. Colony workers are completely battered by this landscape. Though they wear headscarves and gloves, the pollutants in the air and land still do visible damage their bodies. Strange white flecks of the pollutants flutter in the air and land on the women's skin. The women’s teeth fall out, their nails peel off. They toil, and they die. Only the Aunts have protection from the landscape with their breathing masks.
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In Atwood's novel, Moira gives a devastatingly detailed description of the Colonies: "In the Colonies, they spend their time cleaning up. They’re very cleanminded these days. Sometimes it’s just bodies, after a battle. The ones in city ghettoes are the worst, they’re left around longer, they get rottener. This bunch doesn’t like dead bodies lying around, they’re afraid of a plague or something. So the women in the Colonies there do the burning. The other Colonies are worse, though, the toxic dumps and the radiation spills. They figure you’ve got three years maximum, at those, before your nose falls off and your skin pulls away like rubber gloves. They don’t bother to feed you much, or give you protective clothing or anything, it’s cheaper not to."
The official, on-paper goal of the Colonies is to restore a radioactive landscape. More significantly, though, the Colonies exist as a dumping grounds for those considered unfit for Gileadean society – a population also known as “Unpeople.” What constitutes an Unperson? Here are a Colony-worthy crimes: Emily was sent to the Colonies for stealing a car and running over a Guardian; Janine (Madeline Brewer) was sent to the Colonies for trying to take her life and her baby's life; the Wife (Marisa Tomei) was sent to the Colonies for cheating on her Commander husband. The Colonies are also home to old women, handmaids who fail to conceive, and "gender traitors."
According Moira's description the book, both men and women are sent away. "I’d say it’s about a quarter men in the Colonies, too. Not all of those Gender Traitors end up on the Wall," she says. But this maybe another aspect in which the show has deviated from the source material. In the show, it seems men are automatically hanged for their crimes, some women — like Emily's lover — are hanged, and most are sent to the Colonies.
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With a term like “unpeople,” Gilead strips Colony workers of their personhood. They treat them like disposable chattel, to work until they die. It is a bleak form of modern slavery. In that way, the Colonies also function as a barely disguised threat. Every citizen in Gilead is acutely aware that misbehaviour may result in an inescapable life sentence at the Colonies.
Essentially, the Colonies manage to accomplish three things for Gilead: Undo the damage of pre-Gilead America, ship the problem people off to the Colonies, and terrify everyone else into submission.
Try as it might, though, Gilead can't break all of its citizens. Surprisingly, the depraved landscape of the Colonies also the setting for some of The Handmaid's Tale's more overt instances of camaraderie and affection. Once the women return to their two-story housing unit after a day in the fields, they tend to each other’s bodies and spirits. Emily bandages her friends’ wounds, and brews a dying woman tea made with mint from the garden. She even has the energy to make jokes. The women’s strength and dignity in the face of such torture is one of the season’s more optimistic, and most heartbreaking, points.

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