The Handmaid’s Tale: What Are the Colonies?

Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale is a remarkable study of the human spirit that embodies exquisite acting, titillating visual imagery, and more tension than my poor smothered teddy bear can handle. But there is an arc to this season that is more than troubling–a xenolith of torture porn that exhibits no forward movement or even the promise of it: Emily and the colonies.

It isn’t just an interesting band name. “Emily and the colonies” is the bone spur of this season. There is no virtue or entertainment in watching women pull out their teeth and fingernails, and dig at the steaming earth over and over. There is no purpose to witnessing their decaying bondage, other than to string out June/Offred’s tale. The arc is so far gone in degrees of hope, and even reality, that it is a face-punching anchor on the entire season.

You may disagree with me entirely. But, even if you find a smidge of virtue in watching rotted bodies digging in the earth and washing their skin away at the sinks, you have to admit, there are some major problems with this storyline. So many questions. So much that makes no sense.

What are the colonies?

The answer is that we do not exactly know. Margaret Atwood–the source-material author–never explicitly states what or where they are, only that they are toxic and horrible. It is pretty easily inferred, however, that they are massive areas that were hit by nuclear bombs (or other weaponry). This explains the radioactivity, and (sort of), why they are digging at the soil. Presumably, the idea is that my scraping away the top foot or so of earth, the land may be livable again some day. Many, many, many years from now.

Why aren’t they using bulldozers?

So there are the unwomen, and the aunts, and the guardians, all slowly (verrrry slowly) digging and picking at the earth and shoving it all into bags (bags!). But why the hell don’t they have big machines to make the job go monumentally faster? The technology exists, the fuel exists.

We know that Atwood remarks the unwomen cannot have protective gear because Gilead won’t bear the expense, but surely, sending a fleet of bulldozers to cut the job time 1,000-fold, is more cost effective than the labor of the aunts and the guardians, the food provisions for everyone, the cost of all those damn bags, and the utility costs of maintaining these camps for years upon years.

Damn it, Gilead! Dig down a long way into the earth, pour a concrete shell with a nice lead lining for good measure, and then bulldoze a whole lot of toxic earth into the subterranean concrete vault, seal the thing up, and move on to the next site.

What in the name of Janine are they planning to do with those bags, anyway?

Handmaids Tale - Colonies bags

Why are they wasting their labor?

Listen, if they just want these women to die, and the pointless bags of toxic shit are just hamster wheels to run their lives out of them, then this is one inefficient theocracy.

Think about it, these women are built-in slave labor. As horrifying as it is, this is shackled labor that can farm crops, repair infrastructure, and perform any number of menial tasks to serve the “upstanding” population of Gilead. So why are they being tossed out like used tissues?

If they are meant to be executed, then shoot them. Otherwise, put them to real work and stop toying with them in meaningless ways. There are plenty of really ugly jobs they can do that won’t cause them to rot from the inside out.

But someone has to clean up the toxic areas, you say? Fine, give them bulldozers (and maybe some protective gear), and get the job done in a fraction of the time with a fraction of the crew. Oh, and while you’re at it, get them a clean water source. Because, according to my husband–who, to his credit, did study nuclear physics–the physical exposure to the environment isn’t what’s killing the ladies so quickly; it’s probably the drinking water.

Handmaids Tale - colonies women.jpg

Then, boom, you have miserable labor that’s accomplished a goal and can be reassigned to working oil rigs, or cleaning out stables, or whatever. And yeah, they probably won’t live until 70, but there is still a lot of labor left in most of them.

All of a sudden, I sound like a cruel monster, I’m realizing this as I’m typing. But in order for this whole story to be truly scary and maybe even a tad cautionary, there has to be a ring of authenticity to this. And no theocracy, plutocracy, etc. would be so wasteful and bizarre.

Why are they called “the colonies”?

The word “colonies” implies satellite control over a region, presumably one in which there are settlers. Strictly speaking, there could be ways in which Gilead is remotely located from the colonies, but then what other nations are there that stand between the mother country and her colonies? I guess “colonies” just sounds generic enough to be terrifying (like when I tell my daughter, “if you don’t do this, there will be punishment!”). Eh, Atwood can have a pass on this. But, barely.

Who bombed them?

Let’s back up here. What nuclear power attacked a portion of the former United States? Was it the religious Commanders of Gilead who had control of the American nuclear stockpile? Or was it a fleeing American government (that is supposed to be holed up in Alaska) that destroyed nuclear stockpiles?

Handmaids Tale - colonies.jpg

The latter has been suggested, but makes very little sense, from my perspective. A scorched-earth exit is rarely what a body does if it has any hope to regain power later. It seems like an unnecessary, obliterating overreaction to a coup d’etat.

So, might Gilead’s powers used the nuclear arsenal to drive back the U.S. government? Or the rebels? Or allied forces? It isn’t impossible, but given how well-coordinated and strong the Sons of Gilead were in securing their new nation, it seems like using a machete to slice an onion.

Where is this going?

That’s really the ace question for all of us viewers. Why are we watching this? Can we hope that Emily is going to make a move? And if so, what are they spinning their wheels for? I would personally like to beg the writers that until you’ve decided to provoke real action from this beleaguered crew, let’s not visit them anymore. I’ve seen enough body parts pulled off to last me quite some time.


One thought on “The Handmaid’s Tale: What Are the Colonies?

Add yours

  1. Well said! This is exactly what I’ve been thinking. If they wanted to use imagery of the slavery or concentration camps, then some real job would have seemed more logical. Though sure, the imagery does work as it is now, but like you, I would prefer more realism.;)

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: