I don't know about you, but I'm absolutely fascinated (and horrified) by the Colonies in The Handmaid's Tale. Margaret Atwood's novel briefly describes the Colonies, but Season 2 of the Hulu series really dives into the radioactive landscape in an attempt to help fans better understand Gilead. While we know who gets sent to the Colonies (gender traitors, people who try to escape, old women, and others), one thing is a little unclear: What are they cleaning up in the Colonies on The Handmaid's Tale? Here's everything we know about the depressing wasteland that houses Gilead's "unwomen."
The Colonies are first introduced in Season 2 Episode 2, "Unwomen," when it was revealed that Emily was sent there after trying to escape by stealing a car and running over a Guardian. Emily has likely been there for months, slaving away as she puts steaming, radioactive soil into bags. Emily and her fellow "unwomen" are supposedly removing the Colonies' radioactive soil so that Gilead can plant crops in the area — the idea is that removing pollution will help solve the fertility crisis — but their labor is just as much a solution as it is a political tool.
Sure, the Colonies are meant to restore the polluted landscape, but they are also used to threaten citizens into submission. During the handmaids' lessons at the Red Center, they're taught about the Colonies and are told that if they don't behave, they will be sent there and worked to death. Fans don't see the instruction provided to the Marthas, the Eyes, and Gilead's youth, but I have to imagine that they are taught similar things about the Colonies in an attempt to deter rebellious behavior.
Before Gilead can grow organic crops in the Colonies (which I'm skeptical is even possible), its laborers have to clear away all the radioactive debris and pollution, a task that proves fatal for more than a few of these workers. Every woman in the Colonies is consistently exposed to toxic gas and high doses of radiation, and it takes a huge toll on their bodies: Their fingernails fall off, their skin becomes raw and exposed, their teeth fall out, and in some cases, they become fatally ill. If the back-breaking labor and lack of food in the Colonies doesn't kill you, the toxic environment likely will.
In The Handmaid's Tale novel, Moira describes the Colonies and the different (but still awful) tasks that each Colony is expected to complete. Some Colonies are responsible for cleaning up after an uprising, some are responsible for burning bodies, and some, like Emily's, are responsible for clearing radioactive waste:
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 Handmaid's Tale Season 2 may be deviating from the original source material, but it definitely seems like the show is sticking with Atwood's novel when it comes to depicting the Colonies.
Despite living in the absolute worst of conditions, the women in the Colonies share a sense of camaraderie. Emily uses her background in science to serve as a "doctor" for her cabin: She dispenses black market medicine and creates homemade remedies to ease everyone's pain. When Janine is sent to the Colonies for trying to jump off a bridge with her baby, Emily helps her learn the ropes and teaches her how to survive. Later, Janine organizes a wedding for two women who have fallen in love. One of the women is gravely ill and dies shortly after the wedding, but for a single moment, those two women — and everyone who gathered to watch the wedding — were happy.
The Colonies are an awful place, but as fans saw later in Season 2, women aren't always stuck there forever. After the Rachel and Leah Center was bombed, Emily and Janine were brought back to Boston as handmaids (although they probably shouldn't be having kids because of the radiation exposure). In Gilead, pretty much every job is bad except for Commander, but at least we won't have to watch Emily and Janine die a slow, painful death in the Colonies.