Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Last Ceremony”
There are plenty of things in life we humans take for granted. Most of you reading this, and myself included, are lucky enough to have certain privileges that allow for a life of relative ease. Some of us are undoubtedly, and unjustly, luckier than others. Most of us, though, assume each day will allow us the freedom to do such seemingly banal things as read, write, eat the food we like, love who we want, etc. The choice to do so is what really makes us fortunate, and it’s that choice that’s been stripped from the majority of Gilead’s subjects.
This lack of freedom and forced subjugation has manifested in several different, harrowing ways throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. There are the more visceral moments, like in “June” or “The Last Ceremony,” and then there are the quieter moments of horror. Moments that sometimes hide behind the veneer of hopefulness. At first blush, June spending the night with her newborn baby, alone and peaceful, feels like a win. Upon a closer look, you realize this is simply something anyone giving birth might expect.
Even if most new mothers don’t sleep with their newborns right next to them on the first night, they certainly don’t expect their baby will be ripped away from them immediately, never to be seen again. June’s night with Holly is what passes for a victory in Gilead, but it’s just yet another horror when viewed through our own, more privileged, lenses; June should get to spend every night with her baby.
Unfortunately, for now anyways, that one night is all June has. As the morning approached, it’s clear someone had come to rip her and Holly from their dreams, and force them back into the nightmare of Gilead. And though it was her decision to be found, conceding to defeat for her baby’s sake, June did everything in her power to make an escape plan work. At the end of last week’s episode, things looked simultaneously hopeful and impossible for June. She was alone, with a chance to disappear, but how?
The majority of “Holly” was spent exploring that “how” and was rife with profound tension while doing so. As June made repeated trips back and forth – garage to house, house to garage – there was a deep and troubling sense that anything could go wrong at any given moment. The stakes felt incredibly high; Fred knew where she had gone, he and Serena would likely go to extreme lengths to ensure they didn’t have a second runaway attempt to cover up, and it was only a (very short) matter of time before June went back into labor.
It was hard not to want June to hurry the hell up and just get out of there already, but she was playing it safe. There have been so many situations where I’ve wished June had kept her mouth shut or just been a little bit smarter about her rebellions, so I appreciate that she seemed to be considering all angles of this escape. As good as those car keys were, her journey would have been for naught if she’d died of starvation or lack of heat. There was no way she could hide her pregnancy, but wearing a black coat instead of the telltale red was at least a start.
With each new provision she obtained, June’s future looked more and more promising. In the same respect, the longer she lingered at the empty house, the better her chances were at being caught. By the time the Waterfords showed up, the suspense was dizzying. Their screaming match – one rich with hypocrisy, which saw them taking turns blaming one other for an atrocity they both committed – only heightened the already anxious atmosphere. As June aimed the shotgun towards her rapists, I felt as though my heart might be racing fast enough to launch itself out through my mouth.
Though I’m sure seeing either Serena or Fred killed (or badly injured) would have brought most of us some joy, the release of tension from the air as the Waterfords walked away and June lowered the gun, was nevertheless welcomed. All that stood in June’s way now was that pesky garage door. An escape was just never meant to be, though, Try as she might have, June was never going to get that car outside the garage walls. Not before her baby came.
The first two-thirds of “Holly” felt a lot like watching an episode of The Americans; its use of suspension was both purposeful and fair, it never felt as though the episode was just killing time before the inevitable. Even on a second viewing, the tension holds up through every frame. As usual, Elisabeth Moss’ face was more than adept in carrying much of the narrative’s emotional weight. She’s able to convey so much with just a furrowed brow or the steeling of her jaw. When that’s not enough, the sheer passion she imbues into the word “fuck” more than suffices.
This episode had a more singular focus on June than most this season, and her voiceover was given more emphasis than ever. The question of whom June is speaking to has always been intriguing, but has typically taken an understandable backseat to the more pressing visuals surrounding it. This time around her words were more pointed, far less easy to overlook. At first they seemed like a direct message to the audience: “I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story.” As the episode was concluding, it seemed as though she might be speaking to her children: “I want you to hear it. As I will hear yours, too, if I ever get the chance.”
Margaret Atwood’s novel had its own explanation for June’s story, and while there’s no reason to believe this adaptation won’t follow suit, we’re not there yet. For now we can speculate about who June’s words are meant for, which, at this point, I’m inclined to believe are for herself. Not selfishly, but rather for self-care purposes. Without knowing if she will ever be free, these words, this story, has become June’s coping mechanism.
In recounting her days, her assaults, her small victories, she can keep hope alive. June can convince herself that someone must be listening. That there is someone out there who will hear her story for the nightmare that it is, and, if someone is listening, then surely something can change. June sums it up better than I do:
“By telling you anything at all, I’m believing in you. I believe you into being, because I’m telling you this story. I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.”
In deciding to give up her position at the abandoned house, June had the illusion of choice. She could stay put, give birth, and attempt another escape. Or, she could ensure Holly’s (relative) health and safety, even though it would come hand-in-hand with submitting her daughter to the clutches of Gilead once more. In telling her story, regardless of who she thinks might be hearing it, might be the only semblance of real choice that’s left.
Under His Eye
- With hindsight, June must feel guilt over every situation in which she had to leave Hannah behind. Every one of those memories must be laced with questions of what if? What if she had let Hannah stay home from school that day and they had spent it together instead? What if she had just given her daughter one more hug before leaving for work? School drop off is such a normal activity for most parents. Here, it’s just another example of all the activities and normalcies we take for granted; the idea that June would see her daughter again in just a few hours.
- I was so happy when Holly showed up at the hospital, even if she was late. She and June have their fair share of mother-daughter issues, but I’m glad this didn’t turn out to be the catalyst for another one. I believe this is one of those “good things” that June is attempting to include in her story. Naming her new baby after her mother was a touching tribute, even if June will be the only one to ever know about it.
- What did everyone else make of the dog? I took it to mean June had someone watching over her, at least until she delivered the baby safely. It’s probably something darker than that, though, given what show we’re discussing.