At the start of episode 3 of season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, June (Elisabeth Moss) reaches a conclusion that many women do at some point in our adult lives: Her mother was right after all. June, hiding out in the abandoned headquarters for the former Boston Globe, has compiled headlines indicative of the coming change in America — the change that would congeal into Gilead —into categories, like militarization and the curtailing of civil rights. Placed together, the headlines are a prologue to a grim story.
"You were there all the time. But no one noticed you," June says. Then, June thinks better of her pronouncement. "All right. Not no one," she concedes.
June's mom, Holly, played by a perfect Cherry Jones, saw the signs of Gilead coming. That’s why Holly protested so vehemently in the pre-Gilead days, and took her young daughter to marches that resemble Take Back the Night protests. That’s why she escorted women to get abortions during a time of a global infertility crisis, even if it meant people threw bottles at her head. That’s why she enmeshed herself in a community of supportive, feminist women — the kind of social formation that would become Gilead's biggest threat. Holly fought precisely because she knew change was coming, and she believed that women could not lose their rights She, unlike the rest of society, unlike June, kept her eyes wide open.
Sitting on the floor of the Boston Globe during the collapse of civilization as she knew it, her mother strikes June as a visionary and a prophet. Yet, as we learn from flashbacks, June didn’t always consider her mother with such idealized reverence. June and Holly were extremely different people, with extremely different priorities. To some degree, their problems were typical mother-daughter rifts: Holly thought June’s creative potential was hindered by her job as a book editor; she thought June was getting married too young. You could imagine these conversations taking place over crackling phone connections across the country, today. The tones of gentle disapproval; the pauses of feelings hurt.
Looking back from the vantage point of Gilead, these rifts take on a more ominous tone. June and her mother weren’t just fighting about June’s future. They were fighting about America’s future. At one point in the episode, June tells Holly about her plans to marry Luke. Holly had already seemed unimpressed by her daughter’s career and her conservative clothes, but now she seems fed up. Her daughter, clearly, does not get it.
“Luke is fine, but come on,” Holly pleads.”This country is going down the fucking tubes. It’s time to get out in the street and go fight, not play house.” To some degree, Holly disapproves of June’s conventional nature; that she aspires to cook dinner from Mark Bittman's cookbooks with Luke and read other people's books for a living. But mostly, Holly is aware that complacency from women like June – feminists who believe in the cause, but don't fight for it— would leave the entire community vulnerable. Instead of busying herself with wedding plans, June should be protesting.
At the time, June was dismayed by her mother’s reaction (understandably, considering Luke is an actual dreamboat, and who could disapprove of him?). Clearly, June thinks, she can never live up to her mother’s expectations. While June admired Holly, she could never become her – and that’s apparently what Holly demanded from her daughter: complete mimicry.
Eventually, mimicry did take place. It only took the collapse of the United States government and the rise of a society based on Old Testament ideals for June to channel her mother. Now, after meeting Holly, we know where June derives the strength that has carried her through her years as a handmaid. We know where she gets the strength to look Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) directly in the eye, and jab her vulnerable ego with sly comebacks. We know why June became a revolutionary among the handmaids, and eventually a Mayday stowaway: She is her mother's daughter.
While training to be a handmaid at the Rachel and Leah Center, June finds out how Gilead caged her mother’s spirit. During a presentation about the Colonies, June sees a photo of Holly balancing a bag of radioactive soil on her shoulders. “You know she’ll fight like hell,” June says. And, as it turns out, June will too.
Before Gilead, June’s mother’s expectations had been “baggage,” the title of this week's episode. Now, that baggage has become June’s source of strength.
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