Ultimately, each episode in The Handmaid’s Tale is a story of survival. June (Elisabeth Moss) is a disadvantaged person carefully navigating a treacherous environment. Actually, everyone, except for the Commanders, are some degree of disadvantaged. But this remarkable hour was The Handmaid’s Tale’s first foray into a Call of the Wild adventure story, canines and all.
As of last episode’s end, June is stranded in a cold mansion in the middle of a New England winter. Nick (Max Minghella), her protector, has been shot and carried away by guards. She’s just about ready to give birth. When she ventures out of the house, she encounters a black wolf. The wolf is very much a real presence, but it’s also a metaphor. In a flash, the wolf could annihilate June. Gilead is trying to contain people’s wildness, but the wolf is a reminder that humans still exist in a natural environment. All the dogma in the world can’t protect them from wolves, and people’s inherent wildness breaking free.
Over the course of the episode, “Holly” unspools two birth stories, and thereby contrasts pre and post-Gilead. In the present, June races to escape the mansion before her baby is born. Her desperate, high-stakes maneuverings are contrasted with her first pregnancy, during which she was surrounded by love, support, and a sexy husband. In the present, she wears a handmaid’s costume tattered from running around. In the past, she fit a skin-tight dress over her belly bump and went to a book launch with Luke (O-T Fagbenle). Essentially, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, everything is different in Gilead — and all for the worse
As it turns out, this mansion is Hannah’s adoptive parents’ summer house. June sees her daughter’s drawings on the wall. She’s still in trauma from separating from Hannah once again. In a flashback, she remembers dropping a weeping Hannah off at pre-school. The show does a good job of rubbing in the lasting horror of parent-child separation.
Since it’s the winter, the house is empty — but there is a car in the garage. All June needs is to hold tight and drive across the border. This isn’t the first time June sits in a car. Earlier this season, June tried to run away with Nick’s car, but then realized there was no escaping. Now, she’s emboldened to move forward because of a little message she gets from the official American government in Anchorage over the car radio — delivered through the voice of non other than Oprah, who's broadcasting from the government stronghold. Through the radio transmission, she hears about international sanctions against Gilead. Then, we hear the Bruce Springsteen song “Hungry Heart”, which is about a man who runs away from his family. Like Bruce, June is ready to run away from her crappy Gilead family.
June has her Commander overcoat on and is almost out the door when her crappy Gilead family drops by. Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) waltz inside the house with a gust of bad vibes. They have no idea what happened to Nick and June, but they know this looks bad. After a shoddy search of the house, Serena emerges with June’s cape and concludes June must be gone. She’s not — she’s just hiding .Foiled again! Fred and Serena are like Gilead’s really twisted Team Rocket. And they’re in trouble. Gilead may accuse them of being co-conspirators, and possibly hang them.
Perched on the second floor and looking through the window to the foyer, June has front-row seats to the destruction of a marriage and a mutually held illusion. Fred and Serena blame each other for losing their handmaid for the second time. Everything unsaid between the Waterfords is finally said. The first argument: Who is responsible for losing June? Fred accuses Serena of being unnecessarily mean to June, causing her to run away. Serena accuses Fred of being a “fucking idiot” for sending her to meet Hannah with the father of her child (I guess Fred knows about the Nick situation). Thehe said/she said escalates into ludicrous territory. Serena says June ran away because Fred raped her; Fred says it was Serena’s idea, and thus her fault.
As they seethe, June watches on the second floor with a loaded rifle. She’s pointing it right at Serena (or Fred’s) head. In a flash, she could rid herself of her tormentors. Instead, June trembles as Serena’s resolve melts, and she becomes a broken person. “I have nothing. You left me with nothing,” Serena wails. She has no child, no Gilead, no husband. I hope we’re not supposed to feel bad. I don’t.June decided not to kill them — but she did see them break.
Just because the Waterfords leave doesn’t mean June can. Though the car works, she can’t leave. The garage door has been frozen over. It doesn’t budge even after she accelerates the car into the door. Alas.
So instead, of driving away like the start of an epic road trip movie, she goes into labor while outside. In front of the wolf, which really is lurking around like an unsubtle metaphor at this point, June emits a primal scream that is an expression of all of her inward trauma. Realizing she’s trapped and going into labor, June at last fires the gun. With three gunshots, she gives a signal that she’s at the mansion.
And so, the birth begins. I’ve never seen birth shown on TV with such intensity.As June gives birth in the mansion, we see her in labor with Hannah and Janine (Madeline Brewer) in labor with her daughter, Charlotte. The interspliced birth scenes are a meditation on fertility and modernity, as is this entire show. Gilead reduces women to a role; June’s role is to have children. Finally, she’s giving birth without an epidural in an “all natural” environment, just like her mother wanted (though this is certainly not how Holly envisioned that). But even though June is giving birth the natural way, like Gilead wants, nothing about Gilead’s family set-up is natural. When June was in the hospital, surrounded by modern technology, motherhood could a source of joy and fulfillment and pride. It still is; but it’s warped. Gilead upsets the natural order of things.
June, who we shall now call Superwoman, delivers her own baby. She names her Holly, after her mother. They spend a night together in the house, intertwined. June knows that people are coming to separate them — but in those hours, she’s able to tell Holly the story of her birth. June’s been talking to her baby all season. By doing so, she hopes to imbue her with life, some memories of a more natural love. In the wild, June and her baby were able to bond freely, like the animals we all are. They’re about to go back to being “socialized,” Gilead style. I hope June’s seeds of rebellion were planted in little Holly’s heart, because she’s going to be raised in the most toxic world ever.