Friday, July 6, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale, Season Two, Episode Eleven: Holly

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Though June is clearly the protagonist, this is the first time that Elisabeth Moss has been given nearly an entire episode to carry on her own. Holly is only a success because Moss is an absolutely brilliant actress and it would not surprise me to see just on the strength of this episode, a new Emmy awarded to Moss. Elisabeth Moss has away of infusing June's words with such power and a facial expression can tell hours worth of story.  I simply couldn't imagine this role being played by another actress and if I had any doubt, this episode proves this. 

When last we left June, she had been left alone after Nick had been taken into custody.  At first, June is stunned but she quickly gets into action. I found myself second guessing a lot of June's decisions in this episode until I realised that I was sitting comfortably on my couch and not in any kind of real danger. I really wanted June to take off running but really, how far would she have gotten in the middle of winter without supplies and heavily pregnant? Running would have put her life in even more danger. It's one thing to plan meticulously for months to escape and another to be thrust into a situation where freedom is potentially in your grasp but riddled with so much danger. 

When the Waterfords arrive to search for June, we are treated to one of the few unguarded and honest conversations between the two; like June, we are listening in. Even before Fred beat Serena to assert his power and control, it was clear that the Waterford marriage is absolutely devoid of any love. After everything Serena has been through, she feels betrayed by the very movement she helped build and now, the one thing that she wanted in return - a child, has potentially been ripped from her grasp.  Their search through the house for June is desperate and both worry that a handmaid missing a second time could lead to them both on the wall. Serena blames Fred for raping June and he is quick to point out that this was her idea. Even Serena's wails about a child hold no sway with Fred, who quickly points out that Serena wanted so much more than that and he even goes as far as to assert that June is missing because Serena didn't show her any kindness. The Waterfords play the blame game until it becomes physical, with Fred grabbing Serena by the neck. Realising that they might be well and truly screwed, they decide to return home and try to come up with a cover story.

I wanted June to kill them where they stood. For the first time, she had the chance to hurt them the way that they have hurt her. June struggled with her finger on the trigger but in the end decided not to shoot. I wonder if in that moment, June thought that by killing the Waterfords that she would be as bad as them? I'm fairly certain that this is what the writers wanted us to believe - that June didn't shoot because she didn't want to become a monster. I think that June's failure to act is perhaps the only unrealistic part of the episode. I simply cannot rationalise it given everything that she has been through. June clearly wasn't afraid of missing, so the quandary must have been moral and as a moral problem, her inaction doesn't work.

With the Waterfords gone, the viewer becomes the wolf as it takes in June's fear and frustration. We watch as she races through the house in a panic trying desperately to create an escape plan. First she can't get into the garage and she kicks it viciously. Then she races back to the house to find the keys and along the way stumbles on the little minutia of life. When she does finally find the keys, the garage has the most conspicuous get away cars. Surely, this is a hint as to how powerful the man who is kidnapped and is raising Hannah is. June however is in flight mode and doesn't pause to think about how the car will stand out on Gilead streets that only seem to be driven on by black SUVs. Now it's back to the house to get supplies but when she finally does return to the garage, the doors won't open. June however is not about to be defeated and she starts up the engine and tries to burst through but as powerful as the engine is, it's no match for a garage door that refuses to be open.  Finally, if she can't burst her way out, she tries to dig her way out and it's this that finally defeats June.  The wolf watches June curiously and even howls, signalling its location and June knows that it's time to give up, as the first labour pains hit her. 

This leads us to the meat of the episode.  As we know, this child is June's second and the circumstances of its birth are quite different from Hannah's.  With Hannah, June's only conflict was with her mother, who wanted her to have a natural birth, even though June was certain that her mother wouldn't even be there at the birth given how busy her life actually was at the time.  June instead chooses a hospital with all of the medical intervention that she can have with Luke and Moira by her side. This time, June is alone and only has her memories for support.  She flashes back to Hannah's birth and to the birthing lessons she was forced into at the Red Centre. The Red Centre may have been a horrible place to be but there she was prepared for labour and the lessons come in handy. The pain flashes across June's face as she struggles to give life to this new child and in the process not only is she linked to Hannah, as well as her own mother but to all mothers. Birthing is a unique female experience and it takes a strength of will, particularly when it must be done alone with no support. June names this new baby Holly, for a grandmother that the new babe will most likely never meet and for one brief night, mother and child are able to know and love each other. Hannah has now become another female in June's life that she loves but ultimately is bound to be seperated from. 

The birth of Holly is something that we've been waiting for since June found out that she was pregnant at the end of season one. I'm actually quite surprised that the writers didn't save this for the season finale, particularly when the episode ended with an unknown car pulling up. Given that June used the rifle that she found to fire several shots into the air, it's pretty safe to assume that she'll be taken into custody and once again forced into being a Handmaid. Whatever happens, it's clear that there will be repercussions. 

This brings me to the overriding problem with The Handmaid's Tale. At some point, the story must move on. We heard in the radiofree broadcast, that the world is clearly not in support of Gilead, despite the propaganda that they spread to the public. In a quick aside, it was super cool that the news came via Oprah. There's only so long that the status quo can be maintained. How long can we watch June and the other handmaids suffer?  It's time to either move to the future and see what happens after Gilead is brought down, or actually show an uprising.  In the books, a professor plays tapes the June makes and at least some of the narration in this episode leans heavily on this idea. From the book we know that Gilead survived for a few decades but what we don't know is how it fell. Something has to change before The Handmaid's Tale becomes so lost in its own story if it's to remain watchable.