The central premise of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is that a world overrun by male corruption enslaves a large portion of its female populace for breeding purposes. A woman assigned the name of Offred is condemned to sexual servitude as a “handmaid.” The story contrasts her memories of relative freedom as she helplessly slides into her current torture under a fascist state. The Hulu series based on Atwood’s book expands on the story, connecting it to our current political and cultural state.
This show has been a real rollercoaster through Hell for most of its cast, but there’s something to be said for the unique torment inflicted on Emily. She’s gone through the horrors of child separation, watched a lover be executed before her eyes, was surgically mutilated, discarded to work in unlivable conditions at a camp, and, most recently, nearly drowned in a river while trying to make it to sanctuary. Halfway through season three, she has made it to safety, but it remains to be seen if she will be capable of returning to any semblance of her former identity.
In the book, Emily is known only as Ofglen. Much as we see in the TV series, she initially seems devout and compliant only to ultimately reveal herself as a revolutionary. When Ofglen offers Offred the chance to help overthrow the corrupt government that holds them all down, Offred finds that she has become so comfortable among her oppressors that she declines. All we truly learn of Ofglen is that we’ve learned nothing of her, as Offred detachedly observes she never even learned her real name.
In contrast to this, Ofglen quickly introduces herself as Emily in the TV series. In some instances, the show has improved upon the book by introducing more complexity to its characters, and there’s no question that Emily has benefited greatly from a deeper look. As a side effect, she has given the central premise of the story a great deal more depth. In the TV series, Emily has helped to provide us with some much needed queer representation to a narrative explicitly written to question gender politics.
Another added element of this is that Emily’s revolutionary work is irreversibly tied to her queerness. This is not another character who just “happens to be gay,” it’s an active part of her story. She was a professor whose career came under threat due to her being an out lesbian. When her also-queer contemporary urged her to conceal her sexuality for the sake of her career, she reacts as many of us would – she outright refuses. In the beginning, we see a character that prizes her honesty above all, and through that lens we can later see that living a lie even under threat of death causes her a great deal of pain. The complicated nature of seemingly simple concepts like truth and honesty in many queer lives is reflected through her struggle.
Her contemporary is then killed by hanging, with a homophobic slur spray-painted on the ground beneath him. Not only was this her peer, it was someone that she had judged for his secrecy, who was then destroyed for his truth. Emily’s devastation is contrasted by the relatively disinterested bystanders. So much of the Handmaid’s Tale is about acceptance of horror as a social norm. In the same way our society normalizes the consistent dehumanization of immigrants, or the justification of privatized prisons as a public necessity, or the shrugging off the escalating number of queer people attacked or murdered every year, characters in The Handmaid’s Tale seem not to notice the rise of atrocities that quickly become a totalitarian regime. Like many of us, Emily is forced to watch as the new power systematically shuts down her defenses. Outrage fails her. Truth can no longer protect her. The need to hide is learned at a terrible personal cost, but it soon becomes Emily’s most valuable tool for survival.
Emily tries to go through the correct avenues of escaping her fate again and again only to find them closed to her. She is told by immigration that her marriage is null and void, and that she’ll have to stay behind while her wife and child go ahead. This all leads to a terrible, unpreventable series of events in which she is unable to escape the rise of facism and is ultimately forced into life as a handmaid.
Rather than accepting her fate, she spends much of her time gathering information on her oppressors. Early on, when warned to be careful of her own subversive tactics, she notes, “I’m pretty sneaky.” Yet, in Gilead, even the sneakiest are under constant surveillance. Emily is eventually found out, not for being a spy, but for being a queer. She is caught in an intimate moment with a Martha, for which they’re both immediately put on trial. Emily is deemed worthy of saving by virtue of her functional reproductive organs. Meanwhile, the Martha is openly executed right in front of her.
Emily awakens to find herself covered in bandages below the waist. She has been surgically mutilated, and the point driven home by her captor, Aunt Lydia. She observes that Emily experiencing pleasure from sex is unneccesary in her function as a handmaid. The implication that with her sex organs actively destroyed Emily would be any less queer is the kind of reductionist philosophy one would expect from this regime, but obviously this is devastating for Emily in ways that are difficult to even begin to fathom.
She is returned to her role as a handmaid, but is clearly traumatized. Rather than becoming more docile, Emily takes the first chance she sees and jumps into a police car, openly running down one of the cops in front of a crowd of handmaids. Acting without a plan, the desire to destroy her oppressors becomes great enough that she no longer seems to care if she destroys herself. In context of her reeling from a specific and cruel surgical mutilation as well as the brutal public murder of a lover, this action might be reckless, but it is beyond understandable.
This act of rebellion gained Offred’s extended trust and respect, though Emily then vanishes from the series for the rest of season one. In season two, we discovered that she had been ejected from society to be worked to death in The Colonies. Here, in only a handful of scenes, we discover many different extremes of Emily’s developing character. One, caring for the doomed “unwomen” that surround her, calmly and quietly assuring them and devoting her energies to the hopeless quest of making life easier for those that are damned and forgotten. Another, her past, as this was where we saw much of what happened to her academic career and what motivates her to remain secretive. Then, the final facet of Emily’s extremes – rage. Emily is a kind person, but her sense of injustice and anger was forged in the fires of Hell.
A former Wife is sent to the camps for having an affair behind her husband’s back. She is treated badly by the “unwomen” for her role as a Wife and what that entailed. Emily reaches out a hand in kindness, and seems to exhibit genuine compassion towards this woman. Yet, as she reflects on her hopeless situation, and as she views the lives of the unwomen alongside her, Emily’s empathy can’t undo her deep outrage for everything they have lost. The wife slowly realizes that Emily has been actively poisoning her. As she dies, she invokes their shared womanhood, which only leads to Emily coldly reminding her of her crimes against all women. Despite her incredible empathy, she won’t let a fascist escape justice.
Emily may very well have sympathized with the Wife, but it didn’t stand in the way of her decision to enact corporal punishment on her. This ruthlessness may have surprised and dismayed her former self, but now it defines much of the sense of injustice that fuels her desire to survive.
Emily is a true revolutionary from the very start. While much of the premise focuses around Ofred growing generally too comfortable with her oppressors and her subsequent rebellions, Emily’s story shows an extended sense of defiance in response to all forms of oppression. Despite her secrecy, Emily’s despair is tangible every step of the way. Whether she lives a lie or not, the end result is much the same. Even at her most compliant, her queerness still led to life-shattering retribution from the system. The murders she has committed are wild attempts at striking out at an institution that oppresses her and so many others.
Emily never stops trying. Even when she doesn’t even seem to fully remember what exactly she’s fighting for, she’s still fighting. Again and again, Emily fully recognizes the potential consequences of rebellion, and every time, even when she has no overall goal, she always chooses to fight back. She refuses to hide her wife and child to save her career. She stays bravely behind when she is separated from her family. When given a chance to become compliant to the system that scarred her emotionally and physically, she rebels by running a stolen car over an oppressor. In the camps, she helped to care for the other “unwomen.” While no one else seems to know what to do, Emily jumps forward and stabs the magistrate Aunt Lydia in the back and kicks her down the stairs without thinking twice about it. When given care of Ofred’s child, she puts her life on the line to get her to safety. Emily is easy to root for, even in her most violent moments, because she consistently puts her life on the line to do what’s right.
Emily and her wife and child have finally been reunited, returning her to a relatively safe environment. She is baffled when she is treated kindly, and is so untrusting of the hospital that she refuses to be separated from the child she has carried to safety. Her fear of contacting her family and Moira’s ability to coax her into giving it a try brought us long overdue glimpse of what exactly Emily is afraid of in life – not death, but trying to navigate life with the memory of everything she has seen and done hanging over her.
It is up to Emily to understand what happens when the war ends, or at least, what happens when she’s free from its immediate horror. Yet it is a horror that is ever present, as incredibly few people seem to ever fully escape Gilead. After what she’s been through, is it even possible to return to any semblance of her former life? After such trauma, is she the same as the woman she was before? These are compelling questions that will ring true for a lot of people who have undergone significant trauma in their lives only to find themselves desperately trying to fit back into a familiar routine. In the end, commentary on this aspect of Emily’s journey has the potential to be a healing element in a show that is in desperate need of some catharsis. Yet, as one of the show’s true revolutionaries, it’s difficult to imagine that Emily will be able to reconcile herself with a life of inaction, even if it brings with it a relative sense of safety.