After the opening 10 minutes of the new season of The Handmaid's Tale, the series seemed to call down for the first time. Once June escaped in the premiere, things chilled out further. Viewers spent an entire episode in relative peace in the old offices of The Boston Globe. This week's episode saw June moving again, but her journey, instead of being to a new hideaway, took her off course to a place neither the show or the books had ever been and fans are asking: Who are the Econo-People? Warning: Spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale Season 2 follow.
In Gilead, there are several layers of social order. The first season dealt with only four: Wives, Handmaids, Jezebels, and Marthas. But there are others as well. This season introduces two of them: First, there are Unwomen, out in the Colonies, who wear blue-grey and have large O cut out of the back of their outfits to designate their status. Then there are Econo-Wives, part of the Econo-People.
Econo-Wives are mentioned in vague passing in the novels, but not much is known about them, other than Offred noting most of them are "skimpy" (aka underfed.). As far as the book suggests they are the women who are married to Guardians or other lowly levels of society who aren't part of the Gilead hierarchy. As far as they are described, they are unable to hold jobs, spending their days cooking, shopping, cleaning and generally locked away until their husbands come home, attempting not to make any trouble.
June comes in contact with the Econo-people when her driver from the way-stop to the safe-house suddenly cannot complete her transfer when he gets word her destination has been compromised. His first instinct is to leave her there, but June is too desperate to allow this to happen. She cannot stay at the way-stop. if she can't go to the next point, she needs to at least go somewhere.
Faced with her determination, the guy crumbles and allows her to come home with him.
June thinks the following as they sneak up to his apartment:
So this is where the Econo-people live. It's where I'd live if I wasn't an adulteress; if I'd gone to the right kind of church; if I'd played my cards right. If I'd known I was supposed to be playing cards.
But in truth, June would have never lived there. Even if she hadn't slept with a married man and married him after his divorce, she *had a child.* She was fertile. One of the things about the Econo-people is they are the ones the upper classes don't have much direct use for. They may do things like "keep the sewers running" but the upper classes don't think about it, they just flush.
Mostly the Econo-people are those who live in fear. Fear of being noticed, fear of being taken away. While June is hiding out at their house while the family is at church, she discovers taped away under the bed is a prayer rug and a Quran. These people are pretending when they go to church, hiding their true religion away.
Also, though it's not spoken of in the show, the kid who greets June and wants to play with her is the son of the guy who helped her. But though his wife is clearly possessive of the boy, the chances of her being his biological mother are none. If she were fertile, she'd be directly useful to the upper classes and taken away to be a Handmaid. Most likely she's the woman he met and settled with after his fertile wife was taken, and she's just grateful to have a child to raise at all.