Wednesday, May 2, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - Things Grow Even More Intense as June Works Towards Freedom in 'Baggage'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 2.03 "Baggage"

Offred reflects on her relationship with her mother as she navigates her way through Gilead. In Little America, Moira tries to cope with the trauma she endured.

Was it inevitable that June would be captured by Gilead and forced to return to her life as Offred? So far, the show has always been about June's life in this totalitarian society where she was forced to submit against her will for the purpose of procreation. Yes, the show has expanded its focus to the world around Gilead. It has introduced the Colonies this year where Janine and Emily currently are. It's also spending a lot of time up in Little America with Moira and Luke. All of these stories may not be converging anytime soon. The show has yet to return to the world of Gilead that June was a part of in the first season since she made her escape. No update has been given on how the Waterfords are dealing with her disappearance. They were so desperate to have a child. They believed a miracle had finally happened for them. And then, their surrogate disappeared. Commander Waterford had enough influence to ensure the search for her could be intense for as long as it took to find her. Here, June points out that she has been hiding out in the abandoned building of The Boston Globe for two months. It's a place she has made her own. She has learned as much as she could about the formation and reporting of this new world from the old newspaper clippings while honoring those who died here. And yet, she wasn't able to take any of that research with her. "Baggage" is such an intense episode because it focuses so intently on June on the run trying to avoid being captured by Gilead. It's agonizing to watch in a couple of instances when she is forced to fend for herself. She feels like she has made it to safety. Then, things come crashing back to reality - literally. It's such a brutal conclusion. But again, was it inevitable? Does the story need to be in Gilead in order for the emotions and trauma to be as potent as they have always been? That's a question the show is still asking and trying to figure out the best answer.

Right now, it's probably fine for June to return to Gilead and all of the danger there instead of being reunited with her family in Little America. Yes, the show could find a way to keep the Waterfords as engaging characters by showing the work they're doing as it seems likely that Gilead will invade Little America shortly. That's a plot tease that Luke drops in casual conversation to Moira here that is bound to have huge implications later on this season. Gilead is still just an experiment. But the leaders see it as a success and will likely wish to expand its influence very quickly. The takeover of the government happened in quick succession. The fall of the rest of the world could happen very soon as well if they aren't careful. Right now, it seems peaceful to be spending time up in Little America with Moira and Luke. No real update is really given as to what Luke's life is currently like in this place. But it is important to see that Moira has made the adjustment to this new way of life. She has her humanity restored to her. She's one of the welcoming faces to new refugees pouring into the country. She's helping people get established in this world with all of the luxuries that were gifted to her upon entry. She has used the past two months in order to adjust and fall into a familiar and normal rhythm with Luke. Of course, it's apparent that she is still dealing with the trauma she endured while in Gilead. That comes out when the show has her engage in bathroom sex at a club. She has the freedom to be with the person she wants to be with. She's having sex with a woman with no fear of any repercussions. But she refuses to be touched in the same way because of all the rape she endured while in Gilead. She was forced to be an escort to avoid certain death. The trauma that had on her mind is still being carefully revealed and analyzed with her only comfort coming from her new roommates.

Meanwhile, things are completely tense with June because she's on the move. She was impatiently waiting for this moment the entire time she was stuck in the abandoned newspaper building. She put her trust in Nick and the system in place to get her out of Gilead. And now, the attention on finding her has died down just enough for the underground railroad to be comfortable moving her. Again, it's been two months. June fell into a routine at these offices. Her shrine to the dead grew and so did her crazy conspiracy board. It's not clear if she learned anything new from these glimpses into the past or if she was searching through a pile of breadcrumbs for nothing. Nick didn't want her to go crazy. But she was desperately holding onto a connection of the world she wanted to live in while trying to better understand the current one. And then, all of that just has to be left behind. She's being moved without any guarantee that she'll see Nick ever again. He barely gets the updates on when she'll be moved and to where. The driver has no clue who Nick is. Every person on this railroad just knows their individual part to it. They are given instructions on what to do. They do so because they are committed. They live in this world but are sympathetic to the people who wish to escape from it. They may be brave for doing so. They are staying in a dangerous situation when they could have found a way out themselves. But they are trying to help others which is the most compassionate thing they can do. It also puts such a target on their backs. It becomes clear as the events unfold in this hour that everyone who tries to help June ultimately pays a severe price.

The safe house where she was only suppose to spend one day was compromised right before she even got there. Her new driver was ready to bail the moment he heard that news. June was safe in the abandoned building all by herself for two months. Now when she's trying to actually move, she runs into problems. It's a risk this guy doesn't want to carry but June forces him into doing so. As such, he brings her back to his home. It presents yet another new aspect of Gilead. The show so far has really only shown this community from the perspective of the commanders and handmaids. The community is still much larger than that. There are lower levels of society. The families that already existed and are willing to commit to the faith of Gilead. That's the level these new allies are in. June is surprised to see a normal and functioning family existing within Gilead. She meets a man, his wife and child. They go to church just to keep up appearances while also aiding the underground railroad to safety. Of course, welcoming June into their home is a significant risk. Even though they apparently go about their day as normal, something happens to them. They don't return in time to take June to her next destination. She needs to get there all by herself. That's the most terrifying aspect of this hour. That sequence where she is roaming the streets always looking over her shoulders at the guards who could detain her is so agonizing and anxiety-inducing. There are so many teases that someone is about to notice her or interrupt this mission of hers. And yet, it's absolutely miraculous that she gets to this airfield and is greeted by the pilot who will fly her into Canada. It's only after takeoff that the troops of Gilead arrive to shoot the plane down. Yes, it's very convenient that June doesn't get hit by any of those bullets. That's a risk those soldiers needed to take. They may not have known who was on the plane exactly. But it is still a crushing blow to this network as well as June's plans of escaping this life. Now, she will be forced to walk around as Offred once more in a world that will be asking her to give up her baby.

Of course, it's also devastating to think that June is completely willing to walk away from ever seeing her daughter, Hannah, again. It's a story told through her relationship with her own mother. Cherry Jones appears as June's mother, Holly. She is a hardcore feminist from the generation that felt the need to be liberated and stick it to the man in every aspect of life. It's something that is always on the forefront of her mind. It's what causes such a rift between her and her daughter as well. Holly sees June's life choices as playing into the conventional life of a woman who is not taking ahold of all of the opportunities that the previous generation fought for. She sees June as a disappointment simply because she buys into the convention of marriage. She doesn't support June wanting to hand herself over to a man. That's not how June sees her relationship to Luke. She sees it as true love that grows stronger because they support one another. It's such a fraught relationship that at times feels like it is tacked onto this episode in order to really highlight the themes of complicated motherhood. June fleeing for her life in the middle of the woods harkens back to the very first episode where she lost Hannah and was forced into life as a handmaid. She was taken while making a run for it in the woods. The tension is still incredibly high here as well. This time she is choosing to save herself by abandoning her daughter. It's one of the most difficult decisions she has ever had to make. It forces her to have a newfound respect for her own mother and how no parent or child is what the other ultimately imagined they would be. It's such a complicated relationship. June makes that sacrifice. She is willing to leave Hannah behind in this world. And then, she too is thrust right back into it.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Baggage" was written by Dorothy Fortenberry and directed by Kari Skogland.
  • It continues to be so eery whenever a large group of people are all wearing the same colors. It proves just how divided this community really is. The people are defined by the clothes they wear. That's the immediate judgment that determines who they are and what the outside world should expect from them. It also allows June to blend in as she makes this journey by herself despite the guards and suspicious looks.
  • This family points out that the neighbors in their apartment building are always listening in on one another. It's something the little boy even knows to be true. As such, June has to be very quiet in the apartment for a couple of hours. Perhaps she makes too much noise. It's not clear what would be the cause of that. But it also feeds into the idea that everyone in this world is being monitored at all times - even when they think they are being private.
  • There are moments where it seems like Holly is more proud to know Moira than to have June as her daughter. She sees Moira as fighting the same fight for equality. She's using her skills to form a website of engagement for LGBTQ+ issues and concerns. That's what makes it so tragic that June and Moira are together at the Red Center when they learn that Holly was one of the first scooped up and sent to the Colonies. That means she's more than likely dead now.
  • It might actually be better that the reason for June's capture by the soldiers of Gilead is left as a mystery. It may just be a pure coincidence. Commander Waterford assigned everyone to this very important mission. But it could hardly be the only thing of importance for them to investigate. They could have been tracking June to see where else she would lead on this network of spies. Or it could be one instance of discovering a safe house leading to the clues at the airfield and happening to find June there.
  • How is everyone going to react to the news of Offred returning to Gilead? June will resent it. She'll despise having to wear the red clothes again and be a servant to the Commander and Serena Joy. Everything will be much more intense in that household. But it will also place June in close proximity to Nick once more. That could be a form of freedom as well because of how isolated she has been over the last two months.