We told you The Handmaid’s Tale is about to get seriously dark. Yes, even darker than last year’s already grim freshman season. The series has proven us correct, as the close of each season 2 instalment has finished with some type of gut punch. In the premiere, June Osbourne (Elisabeth Moss) mutilated her own ear. In the second episode, she came to terms with Gilead’s massacre of the Boston Globe newsroom. Thanks to Handmaid’s Tale, even a single block heel can now make you want to sob.
But, amid all of these episode-ending devastations, one stands supreme in 2018. Of course, that instalment is Wednesday’s “Baggage,” which ends with June being recaptured by the oppressive, sexual assaulting forces of Gilead. “Baggage” reminds us just how deadly it is to merely hope in the world of Handmaid’s Tale. Now that is a truly crushing lesson.
At the close of the episode we see June, pregnant with her second child, hiding in the back of a teeny airplane, ready to take off for the freedom of Canada. Both she and the fans watching can finally see a light at the end of the hellish tunnel for the escaped handmaid. To drive that point across, the black market pilot (Trevor Hayes) helping June get to Canada asks her a question we’ve never actually seen someone say to the woman in a genuine manner: Is she “comfy-cozy?” He even asks if June needs a blanket — not because she might be able to foster a life in her womb, but because her comfort as a human, alone, matters.
Soon, June flashes back to a sunny day before Gilead when she went on a road trip with her mother, Holly (Cherry Jones). The Osborne women laughed and enjoyed the breeze on their face and were able to freely scream “Shit!” along to the tune of Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” At this point, such frivolity feels like a dream.
With June literally speeding down a runway toward freedom, it seems like she might be able to use PG-13 language and operate a vehicle to her heart’s content in a matter of hours. Then, you hear the gun fire. Within seconds, June’s fellow stowaway (Alex Harrouch) is shot, her pilot is executed on the very runway that was meant to save her, and she is dragged out of the plane kicking and screaming. The final shot of “Baggage,” with June grasping for anything that will keep her inside of the cargo area, looks like the opposite of a birth. So, essentially, a death.
The reason this is all so awful to watch is because Handmaid’s Tale plays on your expectations throughout the entire episode. As we’re waiting for June to get to Canada, we see what’s going on in the Great White North with her loved ones. It feels like a tease of what June’s life will soon be like. Her husband Luke Bankole (O-T Fagbenle) is alive, well, and in possession of a job where he has the late shift. The apartment he shares with June’s best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) is massive, and they make “Blessed are the fruit” jokes there. Jokes! No one makes jokes in Gilead. Moria even goes to clubs and has sex with women in Canada. Consensual sex without the air of doom hanging over every orgasm sounds absolutely radical through the lens of Gilead. And, as June stuffs herself into that tiny plane, it seems like she can soon be a part of all of this wild freedom. Blessed be the Froot Loops, indeed.
Along those same lines of priming fans for June’s victorious escape, her adventure out of Gilead isn’t limited to some flash in the pan arc of a single episode. Instead, she goes on a massive, lengthy journey over nearly three full episodes. She cuts her hair; she gets the tracker out of her ear; she has hot sex in an abandoned newsroom. All of these moments, peppered over 170 minutes of television, suggest an evolution towards June as a permanent free woman — as June, as opposed to her Gilead abductee name of Offred. Following decades of pop culture consumption, viewers know that after seeing June go through these beats, the next obvious, unquestionable, step, is getting out for good. She isn’t supposed to get pulled back into her prison after a literal movie-length amount of time in the real world.
But then, the Guardians come and literally murder all of June’s dreams, along with the ones viewers were tricked into subconsciously creating for her. Now, as previews for next week's episode “Other Women” show, June will be sent hurtling back to the house of horrors that is Waterford manor. Somehow, horrifically, chains will be involved.
All together, “Baggage” proves just how impossible it is free yourself from the claws of Gilead. You can literally be inside of a plane headed for the metaphorical promise land, and those fascist overlords can still find you. Even Moira can’t truly lose Gilead, despite the fact she is safely in Canada, surrounded by people who care about her. The episode nods towards as much during the former handmaid’s sex scene with a random woman named Caitlyn (Michala Brasseur). Although Moira is happy to give pleasure, she is made visibly uncomfortable when someone tries to return the feeling. Maybe Moria only wants to dominate others at this point, but the bathroom scene seems to suggest the woman is simply still traumatised by the sensation of physical touch. As a survivor of Gilead's systematic cycle of rape, it appears the regime has broken that part of Moira’s sexuality.
Clearly, Gilead isn’t merely a place, it’s a ghost that follows you forever. As someone who has seen the first six episodes of season 2, this is certainly the darkest conclusion of all.
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