Wednesday, June 27, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - June Explodes Her New Surroundings as She Strives for Freedom in 'Holly'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 2.11 "Holly"

Offred faces a grueling challenge as she recalls her life as a mother. Serena Joy and the Commander deal with the fallout of their actions towards Offred.

"Holly" is an absolutely haunting episode of The Handmaid's Tale. It once again provides evidence that sometimes the most effective and personal episodes are the simplest ones. This hour is primarily about June trying to survive as she aims to escape Gilead while also going into labor. Yes, there are crucial moments with the Waterfords as well as flashbacks to June giving birth to Hannah. And yet, so much of this hour is spent in that house in the middle of nowhere that represents June's latest way out of this brutal world. It's such a commanding performance from Elisabeth Moss as well. She has to communicate so much with her face here. Yes, there are moments where her thoughts are illustrated to the audience through the voiceover as well as her just talking to her baby. But the majority of the running time is spent with June in silence as she deals with all of the latest obstacles around this house that are getting in the way of her escape. It's absolutely crushing. It works entirely because of Moss. It could be tedious to spend this much time in silence with a less talented performer. Instead, she is so mesmerizing to watch because the audience has so much affection for June while also being incredibly heartbroken the moment it becomes clear that June is destined to be trapped here in this house and continue to serve as a handmaid in Gilead. It's a much more personal journey than June's previous escape attempt this season. She is still fighting as hard as ever before. She has hope that escape is possible after learning that Moira got out. She did so without relying on assistance from the resistance. And yet, they are in such completely different circumstances as well. No one in Gilead ultimately cared what happened to Moira because she was an uncooperative woman who was forced to work at Jezebel's instead of being shipped off to the Colonies. Meanwhile, June is a pregnant handmaid. That makes her such a high priority. Of course, the Waterfords are the only ones who know that she is missing. As such, her disappearance could have such vast consequences for them as well. This is such a destructive episode. But more importantly, it presents all of this as June's choice.

When June watches as Nick is taken by the guardians, she is acting out of pure instinct. She tries to run after them because they are hurting a man whom she loves. It's only after she runs out of breath after not getting very far that she remembers that she's pregnant and this is still the twisted world that they are living in. Commander Waterford chose this house for the big meeting between June and Hannah because he knew that the drivers would ensure it be kept short in order to avoid detection. This house has the reputation of being a place where no one has been in quite some time and no one should be seen around there either. If they are captured there, then they have some serious questions to answer for. As such, it was a risk for Commander Waterford to set this meeting here. It shouldn't be surprising that it ultimately came back to hurt his family. June is presented with another opportunity to escape Gilead. That's such a freeing moment. In that moment she can just be herself trying to stage her own escape. She got so far the last time relying on her own instincts. And now, there is the hope that she will do so once again in order to reunite with Luke and Moira in Little America. There are so many points along this journey where it seems like June is about to give up and just accept that there is no way that she is ever going to escape from Gilead. She made a promise to her baby that she would not have to grow up in this environment. She promised Hannah that she would find her again and save her from this life. And now, it seems like the world is forcing her into complying with the rules of Gilead. She has this opportunity to break free. But the specifics of this house seem so absolutely crushing to her because she cannot make her escape.

At first, June just needs to know if there is a car in the garage. There is one. Then, she has to find the keys in the house. That too paints a picture of what the family was like who once lived in this place. It may have just been another family created under the rules of Gilead. June sees a picture of the mother and daughter as well as a child's drawing on the desk. It too is a reminder of what life was like before all of this where she was the present and loving mother to Hannah. Then, she has to unlock the garage and see if the engine will ever start with the car. All of this goes well for June. She is even given a new message of hope by the radio which is playing a broadcast from the American government in Canada that wants the world to know that America and its values still stand strong despite the creation of Gilead. It's a powerful moment. And yet, June still decides to return to the house. She does so to collect supplies for this journey. She knows that it's going to be difficult to move on the streets of Gilead in this vehicle and dressed as a handmaid. She has to fool the world into thinking that she is a Commander. But that may be too difficult to do given her pregnancy. Moreover, it appears as if the garage door won't even open. There is running water in this building but there is no electricity. The lights won't turn on and the garage door won't automatically open. June understands that there is a manual override. But nothing she does seems to open this door. It's simply the most insurmountable obstacle facing her in this journey. She's ready to escape from Gilead. This one wall is the only thing that stands in her way of obtaining her freedom again and keeping her child. She gives it all she has even at the risk of monoxide poisoning or blowing her tires out in this garage. It doesn't work. It's a crushing defeat that sends her spiraling into the snow on the ground and the agony of labor.

Throughout all of this, the Waterfords actually show up at the house looking for Nick and June. They are the only two people in the world who know where they could have possibly gone. Commander Waterford wanted Nick to get back before Serena Joy even knew they were gone. He wanted to keep this meeting with Hannah a complete secret. Instead, Serena Joy is absolutely furious at the prospect of losing the one thing she has been willing to sacrifice everything in order to obtain. She just storms into this home not knowing what she'll fine. She demands to know where Nick and June are. Commander Waterford still wants to be cautious while believing there is a rational explanation that can be solved in just a short amount of time. Instead, Serena Joy only finds more damning proof that they have lost their child. She sees one of June's red robes. She knows that she was here and that something has happened to her. Of course, June is still here and weighing whether or not she should actually shoot these people who have caused her so much pain. She has ample opportunity to do so as well after discovering a gun on her perched ledge. The two of them are fighting down below. It's such a destructive moment for them because they are two selfish people finally just exploding on one another. It's also so fascinating that Serena Joy is willing to call what they just did to June as rape even though she was completely complicit in the action. As such, that reveals that she has a fundamental understanding that everything that is happening in Gilead is wrong and abusive. And yet, she props up the system in her pursuit of a child. And now that that is gone, she just lets loose on Commander Waterford even though he has the power to hurt her in this moment for speaking out of line. The two of them should definitely be worried about what will happen after it's discovered that their pregnant handmaid has run away yet again. It could destroy their entire lives and make them seem like traitors within Gilead. As such, they need support from each other even though things are very volatile at the moment.

All of that is just a brief interlude from what's really happening in this episode though. So much of it is still told from June's perspective and wondering whether or not she will actually shoot the Waterfords. But it's also in that moment where the audience comes to understand that she's probably not going to escape because she is going into labor. She is having painful contractions. But it still takes awhile for June herself to accept that despite how destructive that reality is going to be for her and her baby. She doesn't want another child to grow up in Gilead. And yet, there's no escaping this place before the baby arrives. June has to deliver her child by herself in this house. It shows just how much strength she has now versus when she gave birth to Hannah. At that time, she was still bickering with her mother about what she actually wanted the experience to be. June wanted to get drugs and deliver in a hospital. She saw that as the safest environment to do this. And now, she's delivering a baby all by herself in a completely unknown environment. It's scary and horrifying to watch. It's so primal as well. June just lets out these horrendous and eery screams as she endures this pain in order to be gifted with her latest miracle. There is so much about all of this that could go wrong especially in the world of this show. And yes, there is that moment of almost paralyzing fear where it seems like June has once again lost too much blood in order to do anything of substance for this child. But it's in that moment where she decides that she can't escape now. Yes, it's her breaking her promise to her daughter. But right now, she needs to signal for help after realizing that she is dealing with more complications from her pregnancy. Of course, that too is eery because Gilead may not wish to endure all of this with her again. She may not get a new posting considering how many complications and trouble she caused this season. Or she could also be rewarded for signaling for help after realizing she was giving birth and needed people to properly care for the baby. She is a mother putting her child's needs above her own. Yes, it's still going to be a destructive decision where the new child is subjected to the horrors of this world just like June and Hannah. But it's such an uplifting and inspiring moment as well because June names her daughter after her mother - Holly. Again, the two of them had such a tense and complicated relationship. But now, June is truly grateful for the teachings and strength that her mother gave her. Plus, she also has the clarity to know that that relationship is now gone and the spirit and strength of her mother needs to reside in her daughter if they are both going to survive in this world.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Holly" was written by Bruce Miller & Kira Snyder and directed by Daina Reid.
  • It's fascinating how this episode uses June's narration as a way to tell her story to whomever may be listening in at the moment. It's not her simply reacting to whatever crazy thing is happening in her life. Instead, it is much more introspective and almost plays as a future version of the character telling the audience what happened to her. But more importantly, it's her sharing her story to Holly in the hopes that she will remember her and the journey it took getting to this point even if they are separated. June doesn't know what the future will hold. She just knows that she needs to remain strong for her daughters.
  • A wolf comes into play throughout this story as well. June is never presented as being in imminent danger by this vicious creature. She could easily have to run for her life after the wolf starts chasing her. That could make her fear going outside. But instead, the show uses the animal as a symbol. It represents the fear and terror that is lurking around everything that June does. Whenever she goes outside, the threat exists that the world of Gilead will once again rip her away from freedom. But when she accepts that she needs to be found by Gilead, the wolf just completely disappears.
  • Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" is used as a way to highlight the patriotism of the American community that still exists throughout the world. It's notable that the show also mentions that there is a fraction of the American government operating out of Alaska. They are taking in refugees from this crisis as well. Even England has opened its border to those displaced by the creation of Gilead too. But it's mostly just a way for the show to play a cool song in this moment.
  • It's also so absolutely twisted that June knows exactly what to do to deliver this baby by herself equally from her time delivering Hannah and her time learning from Aunt Lydia about how to perform the birthing ceremonies. She was there as the rock for Janine as she went through this ordeal last season. She is still supportive of Janine as well. But it's also such a powerful moment when the show uses this montage of so many events from June's past to show her getting her strength and courage to deliver her baby herself.
  • Of course, it should also be very interesting to see how the Waterfords manage to put a spin on all of this chaos. Their pregnant handmaid was found in this abandoned house after having delivered her baby by herself. Meanwhile, their driver was also found at that property. He was arrested and possibly shot. Those repercussions still have to be felt as well. But all of those could cast even more of a shadow over this family.
  • I didn't find her name listed anywhere in the closing credits. But I can confirm that it was Oprah Winfrey's voice when the radio comes on in the car. That's so surprising and such a delight hearing here. She has always been a beacon of hope and inclusion. As such, her casting in that very minor role is so crucial because it means so much to June. She manages to get a radio on and it's Oprah's voice that she hears all of these updates about the world at large.