The Handmaid’s Tale: 2x11 Holly.
Last week, when it finally became too much to discuss this show as a fictional narrative without clearly pointing out how much our world has been twisting and turning towards Gilead in the last two years, Fred and Serena raped June to induce the birth, so as to get rid of this stain on their marriage sooner, then Fred attempted to atone for raping her by sending her off to a country cottage to meet her daughter. Things went wrong, Nick was arrested, June was left alone, and close to labour, in the wilderness. The unmitigated horrors of the episode, June’s suffering, her short reunion with her daughter and her attempt to instil strength into her to bear an unbearable situation, became utterly impossible to write about without mentioning the fact that the United States is separating children from their parents and is keeping them in literal cages.
So here we are now.
June: I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story, I’m sorry it’s in fragments like a body caught in crossfire, or pulled apart by force, but there is nothing I can do to change it. I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well.
We’ve never really asked this question before in the show, who June is telling her story to when she addressing a “you” in her speech, who she is recording her life for, who she is trying to reach. Sometimes she addresses it directly to Hannah, or her unborn baby, but just as many times, the identity of the “you” remains vague. It wouldn’t really fit in well with The Handmaid’s Tale if her story were specifically recorded for the purpose of exposing Gilead as what it is, like in the novel, when future scientists discuss the recordings she has left in detail, as a relic of a time long passed. June doesn’t think like that – she is too much alive, and too eager to save her children, than to consider a legacy that she is leaving of her own struggle. Even when she was given the life accounts of other people trapped in Gilead, her reaction to it wasn’t about the effect this would have if it ever get out (even though we have now seen that effect, and how it spoilt the Commander’s attempts to forge a diplomatic relationship with Canada), but the emotional overwhelming sensation of not being alone, of sharing her suffering and her grief with so many other women.
June promised her unborn child that she would carry it to freedom, but all of those plans have fallen through. Her escape failed. She returned to the escalating horrors of the Waterford household, a place that has, if anything, become more unbearable through the emotional instability of Fred and Serena. They have wreaked havoc, and the damage is done now: June is trapped by herself in a mansion without electricity, snowed in, with no means of escaping. She is also finally as alone as she was just before she managed to almost escape, and once she accepts her situation, she proves as resilient as she was then. She figures out her resources and the options open to her: a fully pantry, a garage with a ridiculous car. She makes a plan. When Fred and Serena visit and try to find her, she hides in the house like a ghost haunting her own story, and witnesses their marriage falling apart in mutual accusations, in frustrations, in Serena’s claim that Fred has taken everything from her, even though all she ever wanted was one baby (a baby that she is stealing from someone else, a baby whose mother she helped rape). She points a gun at them – in what amounts to one of the most emotional tense moments of the show so far – but then can’t fire it, because killing another person is a transgression that is difficult to make, even in Gilead, even after what June has been through. It doesn’t matter in the end – they leave without her, without ever realising how close they came to death.
I have mentioned before how much I think The Handmaid’s Tale owes to Underground, and how much I wish that Underground were given a chance to tell its story. Consider how much this episode thrives on June’s survival instinct, on her ability to overcome unbelievable odds – a winter cold, a house without electricity, no help from others – to deliver her own baby. Consider how the entire premise of the show The Handmaid’s Tale is that all these things that have historically happened to women, that are still happening to women all over the world, are now happening to privileged women like June.
In what was maybe the most memorable episode of television that year. Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee ran through swamps, buried herself, fended off a snake and drew its poison out with a leech, and did countless other things, while pregnant, to not only protect her baby, but also make it possible for that baby to be born in freedom – and for other people to be born in freedom too. In that third episode of the second season of Underground, Rosalee did what seemed superhumanly impossible, and she survived. I don’t care if this episode is a reference to Underground, or if whoever made this episode never saw Ache – having seen both, it’s impossible not to draw a line between an actual, historic account of a struggle for freedom, an actual, historic suffering that reverberates through today, caused by a racism that still costs lives, that still makes it possible for some children to be thought of as less, for some families to be thought of as less sacred than others, and this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which June gives birth, by herself, against all odds, to a healthy baby girl, through the sheer strength of remembering giving birth before, to another lost child, when she was surrounded by her loved ones. And maybe this is also a good time to remember that those loved ones already broke the boundaries of what Gilead considered family, because maybe one of the most radical things that this show has done is to insist that Moira is just as much June’s family as Luke, that she, as the godmother of the child, is as much part of their family unit as Luke is. Moira was there throughout Hannah’s birth – it was June’s mother who was late, due to snow, even though she promised she would be there.
This is an episode about June’s strength, which she finds in spite of her utter loneliness. She finds that strength within herself, even when she fails to open the garage door, when she can’t find the keys, when she is out in the snow, staring down the wild dog that is either a threat or a sign, and her water breaks.
June: I keep on going with this limping and mutilated story because I want you to hear it. As I will hear yours too, if I ever get the chance, if I ever meet you, or if you ever escape, in the future or in heaven. By telling you anything at all I am believing in you, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story, I will you into existence. I tell, therefore you are.
When June, in a moment of almost absurdity, being behind the wheel of a car again, finds a Radio Free America station – transmitting from Anchorage – and then listens to Hungry Heart, it’s fucking heartbreaking. Imagine not taking for granted to drive, and to turn on a car radio. And imagine not being able to take for granted that your motherhood or fatherhood will always protect your child, that nobody would ever separate that bond.
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