The Handmaid's Tale recap: 'Baggage'
What an illuminating, hopeful, ultimately devastating journey June Osborne goes on in this week’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Her path to leaving the confines of handmaid life, and sneaking into Canada, makes significant progress, so much so that — to the show’s absolute benefit — the episode is framed around the most difficult questions relating to escape: what it means to be free, for a person who’s been through so much and who yet would still have to leave so much behind.
“Baggage” juxtaposes June’s impending freedom with her relationship with her mother, Holly (played by Cherry Jones). The episode opens on June, still in the abandoned Boston Globe headquarters, gathering her strength: physically training herself, building up a shrine to the lost free press through a collage of articles and photographs, listening to old recordings by reporters. It’s been months since the events of the previous episode, and we see that in the time since, June hasn’t been able to get her mother out of her mind. Our first glimpse of their relationship is at a “Take Back the Night” rally, with Holly — evidently an activist — leading the charge and proudly holding her young daughter’s hand through the triumphant demonstration of sisterhood. “I loved seeing my mother like that,” June narrates.
The more we learn, the more we realize how complex the relationship between June and her mother really was — how their ideas of feminism and fulfillment were drastically different, generationally opposed. Holly criticized her daughter for entering the world of publishing — “When you were little, you said you wanted to be on the Supreme Court,” she reminded — and implored her not to marry Luke, arguing she needed to save her energy to fight back, with the country seemingly “going down the f—ing tubes.” (Well, she was right about that.) In the flashbacks, we see how the disapproval — the disappointment — gnawed at June. In the present, we see how it weighs on her — how her mother’s activism seems at once to guide her and hold her back. It gives our Handmaid’s Tale hero fascinating new dimension, reminding us that even in times of life-and-death stakes, what makes us human, in all of its complexity, remains.
June is informed by Nick, abruptly, that the next stage of her escape plan is being put in place — before long she’ll be transported to her next location. There’s precious little time to say goodbye. A man arrives with a truck, tells her to get in, and drops her off at another abandoned location. Then, another man arrives to pick her up, named Omar. This is it — he informs June he’s going to take her to an airfield, hands her a map, and guides her toward his vehicle outside. But then, he stops. His phone buzzes. He apologizes, and indicates he needs to leave her — presumably for dead. June refuses to be left behind. She begs him, slamming on his car window, to take her with him. Then she stands in front of his truck, in tears — unmovable. He’s heartbroken, and reluctantly, he brings her into the car. There’s that grit her mother was talking about.
Holly sung the praises of Moira in another flashback, gushing about her being a queer activist (as opposed to her “playing house” daughter), and we do indeed finally get to check in on June’s estranged best friend here. She’s in Ontario, living with Luke, slowly recovering from her unimaginable trauma. The contrast between her and June is clear — one is finally able to sink back into everyday life, but struggling, while the other is clawing at the chance to do so. (Recap continues on Page 2)
Ontario is a place of relative peace, if also one steeped in trauma and pain. Moira spends much of her time coming to the aid of others who aren’t as well-adjusted as she is. There’s another person staying with her and Luke who doesn’t speak; Moira and Luke provide a comfort merely through their presence. Moira also works at the refugee center, helping to transition the most recent of the escapees. We get a glimpse of the toll this takes: In one scene, Moira meets a gay man who worked for the army, and who was abruptly forced to execute “gender traitors” — including a man he dated in college. It’s unfathomable. Later, we see her in a gay club, a place that doesn’t exist in Gilead, unable to shed her “Ruby” identity, from when she was still trapped. It’s not easy to move on. Moira can only tell the army man that it gets better. She’s living proof — sort of.
June, meanwhile, is taken to Omar’s home in secret. He has a wife and a son, and they live a silent, fearful, but at least intact existence. Omar’s wife, Heather, is none too happy that he’s brought home an on-the-run-handmaid; they leave for church, promising to return, but it’s somewhat clear they won’t. It takes June a little while to figure this out, of course, and so she spends some time alone in their housing unit. The memories continue to haunt her — not just of her mother, but of her daughter. There’s unmistakable resemblance to her own family in this house, right down to the fact that Omar is black (and Muslim; there’s a Quran hidden under the bed) and Heather is white. June now can’t get her daughter out of her head — she’s occupying the same space as her mother. And it dawns on June that, should this escape actually be pulled off, she may have to disappoint and let go of her daughter in the same way, she felt, her mother did her. In a long, silent scene of building anxiety, Elisabeth Moss plays this moment beautifully, capturing the agonizing emotions without downplaying June’s determination to push forward.
June puts on Heather’s clothes and leaves the apartment. She’s on her own now. She snags the map Omar gave her, and in an unbearably tense sequence, walks in a row of identically clothed women, passing by men holding huge guns, trying to blend in. She makes progress, boarding a train and matching its route to what she sees on her map. She gets off at the last stop, continuing to blend in, and then in a split second veers off from the walking path — darting into the woods. She uses her map to try to find her way, but is, again, overwhelmed by memories — this time, of the moment she was separated from family, the last time she held Hannah. She hears the gunshots of that scene first witnessed back in the series pilot, relives the gut-punch of being torn away from her daughter. She also goes back to the moment she learned what happened to her mother: that Holly was sent to the colonies, surely to die. June again stays focused. “Raise your daughter to be a feminist,” she narrates. “She spends all her time waiting to be rescued by men.”
Against all odds, June gets to the airfield. It’s remarkable she made it this far; it feels, if only for a moment, like she’s really going to get out, set foot in Canada, reunite with her husband and her best friend. The pilot she was supposed to meet with lands his plane and agrees to transport her after a light quizzing; they’re joined by a rogue driver, also seeking escape. In the moment before June gets on the plane, she holds onto one last memory of Hannah before letting it go. She reflects, powerfully, as the plan reaches completion — as her perseverance is on the verge of paying off. “Despite everything, we didn’t do badly by one another,” she says, of her relationship to her mother. “We did as well as most. I wish my mother were here so I could tell her I finally know this. So I could tell her I forgive her. And then ask Hannah to forgive me.”
This is a key moment for The Handmaid’s Tale, as it allows us to see and grapple with the idea of June actually being set free — what that means for her, what she’d have to live with for the rest of her life. It’s also key because we probably won’t see her get that close again. Just as the plane begins to move, in a defeating turn, we hear gunshots. It’s a credit to the episode that the moment lands as shockingly as it does. Gilead is built so no one can get out, after all, and here we see, no matter how close June could get, it wasn’t close enough. The plane skids. The pilot’s head is blown off, gruesomely. The driver is dragged out. And then, screaming, so is June. Where this leaves her, we’ll have to wait to find out.