As soon as it’s clear June is alone in the middle of nowhere following Nick’s abrupt abduction by Guardians at the end of last week’s episode, it’s obvious where this scenario is headed: she’s going to go into labor. And while that’s exactly what happens in “Holly” this week, the way it plays out is both unexpected and cinematic: a powerful bottle episode in which Elisabeth Moss is almost entirely alone on camera. Her only dialogue is voiceover or whispered curses. Her only relief from her increasingly hellish situation are flashbacks. Her only co-star is a wolf. And it’s absolutely gripping to watch.
1) Who is June writing to in her narration?
“I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story,” June says in the opening voiceover, marking a striking departure from form: though her narration has always been a way into the show for the audience, she’s never directly addressed anyone before. It’s still unclear to whom she’s speaking (or writing?) by the end of the episode, but I have a theory. “I keep on going with this limping and mutilated story because I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours if I ever get the chance,” she says in the closing moments. “If I meet you, or if you escape, in the future or in heaven. By telling you anything at all, I’m believing in you. I believe you into being.” So she’s talking to someone who’s currently trapped, who needs to escape, and who she hasn’t met yet. I think she’s talking to a hypothetical person living in a future after Gilead. What she’s willing into being is a survivor—a person who will be free in the future, and will be able to hear June’s story.
This ties into the epilogue of the book, in which author Margaret Atwood reveals that the story is actually a collection of tapes made by Offred detailing her time in the Waterford household. Scholars transcribed the tapes and studied their contents, and in the epilogue, a male professor gives a talk on them at a university conference several decades into the future. I can’t see the series recreating that exact scenario, but this feels like the beginning of a version of it.
2) Oprah makes a glorious cameo just in time to give June hope.
If you thought you recognized the voice of the speaker on the resistance radio station, you were correct. After June finds keys to the garage in the house where she’s been abandoned, she climbs into the car and, thrillingly, it starts. The feeling of being behind the wheel alone is a powerful throwback to the time before, and things get even better when June tunes the car radio to a working station. The host serves up a little exposition about what’s happening in the wider world following Luke’s release of the Handmaids’ letters (for one, the UK has imposed more sanctions on Gilead and is taking in more refugees). “We are still here,” the host, WHO IS OPRAH, says, offering a rallying cry to the resistance before playing a little Bruce Springsteen. I’m just going to go ahead and believe that actual Oprah Winfrey actually runs a lit resistance radio station in this universe, because she would.
3) June comes close to shooting Waterford.
So close! But Yvonne Strahovski’s delivery of “You are such a fucking idiot” to Fred is a worthy consolation prize. When the Waterfords arrive at the house to search for June, she hides in the attic, where she finds a shotgun. Ultimately, she becomes a silent audience to a scene that plays out like a short, brutal two-hander play about a toxic marriage. This is the only real-time scene in the episode featuring characters other than June, and it’s a doozy.
Serena is justifiably furious with Fred for sending a heavily pregnant June off to another district as part of his sick ego game (he just wants June to be grateful to him again). She’s angry not only because June and her baby are both missing, but because she and Fred may now be in serious danger themselves. A Handmaid escaping once can be chalked up to bad luck, but twice? “They’ll say we’re part of the resistance. They’ll hang us on the wall!” It’s another hint that Waterford’s powers are more limited than we thought—and Serena knows it.
Fred is also, again, a fucking idiot. He’s convinced Nick would never be disloyal, and June is now so endlessly grateful to him for letting her visit Hannah that she’d never run away from him, even though—as Serena points out—he just raped her. Their argument escalates to the point where Fred shoves Serena into the wall and almost chokes her, and this is when June aims the gun at him. It isn’t clear to me whether she’s only aiming at Fred or is ready to take them both out, but after the way Serena held her down during the rape, it seems plausible June would want to punish both Waterfords. And yet, as soon as Fred backs off from Serena, June drops the gun. She seems deeply shaken by the realization that she even considered pulling the trigger. She’s not there yet.
4) Moira’s friend Bridget needs a spinoff.
Moira’s appearances here were brief, but they were exceptional. Trolling Luke for his terrible taste in music? A+. But this line? “My friend Bridget gave birth in the woods, in a stream. She YouTubed it and everything.” A++++.
5) Is the wolf June’s mom?
Okay, go with me on this. On three separate occasions in this episode, June goes outside and comes face to face with the same wolf, which initially growls at her but at no point attacks her, and by the end, actually seems to be watching over her. Maybe it’s just the strange trance state this episode put me into, but I saw a parallel between June’s tense dynamic with the wold, and her deeply ambivalent relationship with her mother, Holly, who clearly loves her a lot but is not always great at showing it.
During the heartbreaking flashback to June dropping Hannah off at daycare—and really struggling to leave her tearful daughter behind—the teacher offhandedly comments that June must have been through this process with her own mother. “Yeah… not really!” June cheerfully responds. Holly doesn’t seem the sentimental type. When June is pregnant with Hannah, Holly promises she’ll make it in time for the birth, but June knows better; her mother’s work has always come first, though Holly does show up right after Hannah is born. Once again, as we saw earlier in the season, there’s a lot of love—and a lot of tension—in this mother-daughter relationship.
During those flashbacks to June’s pregnancy with Hannah, it’s Holly who tells June the thing that will end up being a lifeline for her years later. Holly is trying to persuade June to give birth in some kind of holistic spa-type facility run by a friend of hers. June, clearly nervous, insists she wants a hospital with doctors and nurses and lots of drugs, and her mom responds: “You are stronger than you think.” When June slips and falls in the process of trying to pry the garage door open, she goes into labor and starts bleeding profusely. Then, she proves her mom right.
6) June is a goddamn warrior.
I don’t know whether it’s because this show has conditioned me to expect the worst, but I was sure the baby was going to be stillborn. Given the sheer amount of blood, and the fact she already nearly miscarried, and the fact she was alone without medical attention, and the fact that the doctor mentioned how large the baby is and how petite June is, the odds just seemed impossible. But as it turns out, this baby is resilient AF!
June gives birth alone, beside a roaring fire, and it’s one of the most powerful scenes The Handmaid’s Tale has ever done. Throughout, she’s flashing back to Hannah’s birth, surrounded by doctors and Moira and a devoted Luke. Back then, she was terrified, admitting “I don’t know if I can do this.” This time, she has no alternative. She has no time to be afraid. And in those moments, it becomes clear just how steely June’s resolve has become, forged in the fires of Gilead.
Interestingly, though, Gilead also plays a major role in getting her through. When the pain becomes almost unbearable, June recalls her training at the Red Center, where the Handmaids and Aunt Lydia all intoned, “Push, push, push. Breathe, breathe, breathe,” and Janine giving birth in Season 1. June gives birth to a daughter, whom she names for her own mother. As she rests with the baby, lights flash outside—they’ve been caught. Her father works for the regime, her mother is forcibly entrenched in it, and as much as June remains determined to get her out, Holly is a child of Gilead.
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