Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.
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."
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.
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 misbehavior 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.
Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.