Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale Season One, and episode three of Season Two.
Season Two of The Handmaid’s Tale is proving to be the (very brutal and very disturbing) gift that keeps on giving.
In episode three, entitled Baggage, June (Elisabeth Moss) finally makes an attempt to escape Gilead and cross the border into the relative safety of Canada.
But in the show’s traditional storytelling method, all does not go according to plan.
What’s just as interesting in this episode as June’s desperate attempt to board an aircraft and flee the country, however, is the weighted glimpse we are granted into a previously unseen section of Gilead.
After the first part of June’s escape plan hits a bump in the road, she is forced to seek refuge with Omar. He’s a member of the resistance movement Mayday, who was helping her escape the country, and reluctantly agrees to hide her.
As June is snuck into the bleak and overcrowded apartment block where Omar and his family reside, we are granted our first real introduction into the lower classes of Gilead and June comes face-to-face with Omar’s wife Heather, who is known as an Econowife.
It’s a term that we barely heard mentioned in Season One of the TV series, or in Margaret Atwood’s original novel, yet it’s a title you need to understand in order to really grasp the significance of women’s roles in this episode and in the show going forward.
In Margaret Atwood’s novel the Econowives barely have any presence at all in the story, but there is a passing description of them within the pages of the novel that has been fleshed out here for the small screen.
Econowives are the women married to the poorer men of Gilead, the men who work as laborers, Guardians and farmers.
In some instances, Econowives are expected to fulfil all the tasks set out for female members of the community all at one time.
They act as Marthas (the women who work as house servants and maids in Gilead), Wives (the upper class women who are married and subservient to their husbands) and in some cases Handmaids if they are able to bear children.
The Econowives cook, clean and shop for their families while also holding no power and prestige in the world, they live completely by the word and law of their husbands.
One of the biggest differences between them and the Handmaids, however, is that they are permitted to keep and raise any children they bear.
And, very much like the Marthas and the Wives, they perceive Handmaids as promiscuous, the very worst kind of women, and are taught to scorn and fear them.
Interestingly, June notes that the life Heather now lives could have been hers, saying to herself in a voice-over, “this is where I’d live if I hadn’t been an adultress, if I’d gone to church. If I’d played my cards right. If I’d known I was supposed to be playing cards.”
Every huge clue and plot twist that you missed in The Handmaid’s Tale, season one. Post continues.
Heather’s disdain and distrust of June is clear from the moment they first lock eyes, although she must allow her into their home and abide by her husband’s wishes.
Heather even goes as far as to say to June, “I don’t know how you could give your kid up to somebody else. I would die first.”
Without a moment’s hesitation June responds and says, “Yeah, I used to think that, too.”
Their stilted interaction proves that Gilead has not only succeeded at gaining power, but it has also indoctrinated women into turning against each other. They are not just pretending to live by their ideals, they also very much believe in them.
After-all, in another life and time, Heather and June may well have been friends and comrades.
It just goes to show that even if you are a women who is perceived to have some sort of freedom in Gilead, if you are a Wife or a Econowife, at the end of the day, they are all locked in the same cage with no way to escape.
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