The Handmaid's Tale recap: Life, death, and Oprah
“I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story,” Jane narrates at one point in “Holly.” “But there’s nothing I can do to change it. I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well.” It’s a well-timed sentiment, if nothing else: After last week’s truly brutal episode, it’s practically a relief to hear the show itself calling attention to its horror.
“Holly” isn’t a denouement, exactly, but it wraps up one of the season’s crucial arcs in quiet, tense fashion. It is a frequently wordless episode, a one-woman nature play heavy on symbolism — deliberately, the inverse of this season’s previous escape episode, a riveting action thriller propelled by close calls. This one works, largely on the strength of Elisabeth Moss’ performance — perhaps the best showcase she’s had this season.
The episode’s first image is a replica of the previous episode’s final image: June left alone, abandoned in the snow, with a baby soon on the way. Nick has been taken away, and there’s no sign of anyone coming back to find June. At first, in “Holly,” she runs — toward a locked outhouse, then toward a locked garage, then by a growling black wolf, who lets her speed along without any trouble. She winds up back in the mansion where she had been briefly reunited with her daughter, rifling through drawers and cupboards, seemingly without a goal. She encounters photographs of Hannah, then drawings, and is reminded particularly of a moment she had to leave her daughter for school, sobbing — the pain of separating when she didn’t want to be separated. It’s an acute feeling for June at this moment, given that she’d just relived it, yet again on a far more severe scale.
June finds a pair of car keys, and then, getting into the aforementioned garage, an actual car — with a working engine, a radio, and everything. She revs it up and sighs in near-catharsis at the feel of the rumble. She turns on the radio and hears a strong voice reading the news, smiling as the updates go by swiftly. “Now, a tune to remind everyone who’s listening, American patriot or Gilead traitor,” the voice says. “We are still here.” Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” plays, loudly. It’s a powerful image, June sitting silently as she absorbs lyrics like “We fell in love I knew it had to end/We took what we had and we ripped it apart,” but there’s one thing no discerning viewer should be able to shake: The person voicing the radio newscaster. Yes, that really was Oprah. And yes, having her play a soothing, omniscient #Resistance figure makes insanely perfect sense.
It’s a smarter choice than a starry cameo ordinarily lets on— Oprah’s recognizable voice offers an extra bit of optimism to the scene, a calming effect reflective of her place in popular culture. June gets out of the car with newfound determination. She heads back into the house where she heads to the master bedroom, and goes through a set of hanging clothes. She finds a warm jacket, and puts it on, holding her stomach in the mirror. The shot is juxtaposed with another flashback, this one of June getting dressed for a party with Luke, while pregnant with Hannah. It’s a scene filled with love and hope.
Unfortunately, the memory gets cut short — someone else has arrived at the house. It’s none other than Serena and Fred, in as deep of a panic as we’ve ever seen them. They wander in as if nobody’s in the house, June disappearing into God-knows-where. Fred suggests they leave; Serena commands, I’m not going anywhere without my baby.” They keep screaming for “Offred” and Nick but to no avail. Serena decides to snoop around anyway, confident her handmaid is still on the premises. It’s an incredibly tense sequence, if only because we have no idea where June is; the camera only traces Serena’s movements. She reaches the bedroom, where June took the jacket, and then, in the mirror where June was inspecting herself, sees a handmaid robe in the bathroom. Serena screams for Fred; it’s all the evidence she needs that June has gone. We then cut back to June: She’s still there, hiding. (Recap continues on Page 2)
What follows is the scene between Serena and Fred that we’d been steadily building to all season. It’s raw and full of rage, yet another indication of Yvonne Strahovski’s prowess in this role. They throw blame at one another, Serena indicating that Nick and June have run off together. “I let Offred see her daughter,” Fred says, delusional. “She would’ve been grateful.” Serena says June hates him. Fred says June wouldn’t have kept trying to run away if Serena had shown her kindness. Then Serena barks, remarkably, “You raped her yesterday,” with June listening right above them. The fight only gets uglier and crueler, until Serena finally breaks down — the feelings that have been festering coming out in one pained monologue. “I gave up everything for you and the cause,” she laments. “And I only ever wanted one thing in return — I wanted a baby … You’ve left me with nothing. I have nothing.” Watching her in this moment, breaking down, it’s hard to argue with her.
As this is all going on, meanwhile, June is upstairs preparing for something drastic: She’s found a shotgun in a chest. She creaks it open, and loads it, vying with all her might to keep quiet — and she does. She even gets to the point where she has a clear shot at both of them. But as Serena cries, June shakes, woken up to the reality of what she’s about to do. Serena and Fred abruptly leave, since they shouldn’t be there either, and June sets the gun down. She couldn’t do it.
As the car drives away, June again roams outside. It’s clear she’s struggling at this point. She packs a bag with various essentials and heads back to the car. But the garage door is locked. The electricity is out. And she can’t muster the strength to open it manually. So she starts the car, revs the engine, and floors it. No luck. She tries again. No luck. Third time, she just keeps her foot on the gas pedal — the roar of the engine turning overwhelming, but also still futile. She finally gives up. She heads outside to shovel snow, and clear the pathway, only to slip, and rest flat on her back. She repeats “no” to herself, her face overcome with anxiety. She’s about to have the baby.
June sets herself up as nicely as she can: Back in the house, pitch-dark outside, with a fire going and a blanket spread across the floor. She yelps in pain, gasping and groaning in between, trying to calm herself. Snippets of her previous pregnancy continuously creep in. First, it’s June with her mother Holly (Cherry Jones), who’s trying to get her daughter to have the baby in an alternative setting, out of a hospital. (June responds, “I want doctors and drugs and nurses and lots of drugs.”) Holly also promises she’ll be there when she has the baby, to which June tells her not to make promises she can’t keep. And later, June in the present getting closer to giving birth is placed against images of her first childbirth experience — with Luke and Moira surrounding her in the hospital, playing music, encouraging.
But “Holly” doesn’t merely work in such blunt contrasts. In a sequence that builds in force and power, we see the visual symmetry of June’s two pregnancy climaxes — her heavy breathing, her smiles slipping through screams, the sense of wonder. The sequence then moves into her life in Gilead, particularly those birthing “lessons” with Aunt Lydia — the refrain of “breathe, breathe, breathe; push, push, push.” She remembers when Janine had her baby. She remembers when, after Hannah was born, Holly ran into the hospital room, showing up after all, overjoyed. These pivotal moments from June’s life, building on one another to this moment. She lets out a sustained scream, then another one. And then the baby is born.
Earlier, June had realized she was putting herself in danger all alone — the blanket had been stained in blood, and the pain was turning too intense to bear. June did the responsible, defeating thing: She made her way outside, locked eyes with the wolf wandering the woods one last time — the lone witness to her second attempt, and failed, escape — and shot her gun in the air. When she has the baby back inside, it’s as sweet a moment as you’ll get in this show. She names her Holly — after her mother, the woman who has loomed heavily for June through both of her rebellions. It’s when she looks back on her most intimately, and it’s thus fitting that she’d grant her this legacy. June kisses and cradles her baby, smiling. Car headlights shine outside. She says, “We did it, Holly.”
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