Warning: Spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” below!
Imagine giving birth to a baby girl in a place where even the richest and most powerful women are subjugated, oppressed and physically abused.
June (Elisabeth Moss) not only does this in Season 2, Episode 11, but she does it while stranded alone in the snow in the house of the couple that essentially kidnapped her first-born daughter, with no epidurals or doctors or even electricity, facing down a dire wolf.
“Holly” ― the name of the baby and the episode ― heralds a turning point for “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) are at each other’s throats as they hunt for their lost handmaid, reckoning with their own cruelty toward June and ultimately terrified of ending up on the wall. They trade barbs like a normal married couple, except not normal at all. “You raped her yesterday!” “It was your idea!”
June observes the grotesque marital spat of her captors from above, pointing a shotgun at them, while 39 weeks pregnant. But she can’t bring herself to pull the trigger, as satisfying as it may seem. Because unlike them, she is ultimately not a murderer.
Before her water breaks, June has a brief chance to escape from rural Massachusetts to Canada in a hot rod she finds in the home’s garage. But the garage door is, of course, iced shut. Luckily, the soothing voices of Oprah and Bruce Springsteen emit through the car radio to comfort her and remind her of what America once was.
Episode 11 ends with a dramatic, brutal birth scene. June is on the floor, naked and covered in blood, holding newborn baby Holly, whom she has promised to protect from the horrors of Gilead. Wolves and Gilead’s search team are closing in on them. Springsteen is still singing about hungry hearts.
It feels like it could be a season finale, but alas, there are two more episodes to go. Will Holly find freedom in Canada, or grow up in Gilead?
Emma: “I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story,” June says in her voiceover at the beginning of this episode. I felt like that was an apology not just from June to whatever future being she’s telling her story to, but also from the writers to the audience. Like, thanks for sticking with us through all this bleak shit, viewers! Just three episodes left until we likely leave you on an excruciating cliffhanger!
We pick up right where we last left off: June is wide-eyed and terrified, panting in the snow. All I kept thinking this episode ― besides that childbirth seems like the most primal and insane and exhilarating and terrifying process of all time ― is that June just can’t catch a fucking break in Gilead. How many obstacles had to occur for her to end up stuck in that house despite the fact that she found keys to a car and a gun?!
Laura: As someone who has battled with many a stuck garage door, it was incredibly frustrating to watch her literally spin her wheels trying to break free ― in the least chill getaway car imaginable.
So, June has been left to the wolves. An actual wolf is staring her down. And while there is that impending sense of danger throughout the episode, I got the sense that she isn’t afraid of the wolf so much as she is drawing strength from it, maybe even relating to it. Her animal instincts are kicking in ― the maternal ones and the survival ones ― to keep her and her baby alive.
I want to jump to my favorite scene in this episode: the fight between Serena and the Commander. It was cathartic for two reasons: 1) They seem to be on equal footing here, finally, as Serena takes her gloves off and lets him have it. 2) She finally uses the word “rape” to describe what he did to Offred. “You raped her,” Serena says, dropping all the biblical bullshit and excuses they had been using before to justify that act of violence.
“That was your idea,” says the Commander, reminding us of Serena’s complicity. And June hovers over them like a sniper, holding a rifle, so close to murdering them in revenge. But she doesn’t, perhaps because she still has a shred of humanity left in her that the two of them lost long ago.
A part of me wanted June to kill them both with one bullet, but I think it was satisfying enough just to see Serena and the Commander look each other in the eye and finally admit to being rapists.
Emma: I’m with you. This scene gave me life. I was glad that June didn’t shoot the Commander and Serena. It would have been temporarily satisfying, for sure, as vengeance often is. But as you said, it would make June a killer, and rip a piece of her away. She is so much better in every way than the people who have raped and tortured and held her captive. I wouldn’t blame her for murdering them, but it was also an important reminder that June is not someone who is comfortable killing in cold blood. Gilead has not yet taken that from her.
What was even more satisfying than seeing Serena and Fred dead was seeing them be honest for perhaps the first time. They sounded like a modern American dysfunctional fucked-up couple ― but with more ritualized rape. My favorite exchange of the episode was when Serena panics and yells, “They’ll put us on the wall!” Fred wryly responds, “Yeah, maybe they’ll hang us side by side, just my fuckin’ luck.”
As you alluded to, the artifice of biblical bullshit is gone. We see Fred’s delusion that he’s a magnanimous captor get stripped away. “How could you be so stupid?” asks Serena, when Fred implies that Nick and June should be grateful to him for his kindness. “They hate you! She’s always hated you.” We also learn what will break Serena, which is what we had guessed in previous chats: the inability to become a mother. She tells Fred, through sobs, that she gave up everything for him and the cause. She has nothing, and all she asked for in return is a baby. And now she doesn’t even have that.
This is what happens when you align yourself with a system that was never designed for you: You end up utterly screwed.
Laura: It’s almost as if the Republic of Gilead was not set up to benefit women!
Serena helped to install this theocracy under the delusion that it would give her the one thing she wanted, and it has left her childless, powerless, physically beaten and bored. She even has to wear the same green dress every day. That is what she gets for facilitating the enslavement and rape of other women.
I think Serena’s tantrum about her childlessness perfectly sets up the rest of this episode. Because while June is certainly in intense danger, is alone, and faces a ridiculous amount of obstacles trying to escape, she still has the one thing Serena would kill for: a baby inside her. And ultimately, despite falling and bleeding and staring down a wolf and driving into walls and almost getting recaptured, she is able to have this beautiful and emotional birth scene by a fire and bond with her newborn. Who knows how they’ll survive or stay together from here, but Serena would still probably trade places with her at this point, and that is at least a small victory for June.
Emma: Yes. June gets to experience something that Serena never will in this society. And Serena will always hate her for that.
Something I really loved about this episode was that it didn’t shy away from the birth scene. So often on television, and really anytime we talk about childbirth publicly, it’s sanitized. But “The Handmaid’s Tale” doesn’t sanitize anything, so birth was no different. We see June’s memories of childbirth ― her labor with Hannah, breathing exercises at the Red Center, Janine’s labor, June’s mother talking about her own labor ― seamlessly mixed in with her current solitary labor. We had to know she would go into labor as soon as she tried to make an escape. (There’s a Season 3, people ― no getting out of Gilead yet!) But there was something kind of incredible about watching June set up her own sheets next to a raging fire, climb onto all fours and just scream as she pushed. Women’s bodies may be built for labor, but it also involves intense pain and bodily trauma. June is really fucking strong, and she carried that wolf-like spirit into her labor.
The calm after the labor was such a beautiful contrast: mother and child laying together, June whispering into her new baby’s ear. And we finally learn why this episode is called “Holly.” Holly was her mother’s name, and now it’s also her baby’s. Even Gilead can’t steal away June’s power to honor her mother and speak to her child.
Laura: I have thoughts about the music choices in this episode, as I always do. Why Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” when they could have gone with Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf”? Too on the nose?
I was frustrated that this episode didn’t give us any hint about what happened to Nick. His baby was just born. Is he alive? Will we see him again? At the same time, I think getting rid of Nick for the birth scene made an important point about pregnancy, which is that it’s ultimately something a woman has to do on her own. She didn’t need any men around ― no Nick, no Luke, no Commander, no doctors ― because her body is entirely responsible for carrying and birthing that baby. Not to knock dads, who are very important, but that’s a very feminist message ― especially set against the backdrop of a society that used June as an incubator and tried to strip her of all agency and identity.
Also, sidebar, I didn’t realize there was a Season 3 until you just said that. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. How many more ways can the writers think of to traumatize us?
Emma: I suspect many! They do have quite a talented crop of writers on this show. I’m sure they can find some creative and horrific things that happened in history ― or just pull from the Trump administration! The possibilities are truly endless.
Laura: Praise be.