Escape the Womb: The Handmaid’s Tale, “Holly”

“I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story,” June tells her very-soon-to-be-born daughter in a voiceover that raises questions about the circumstances in which she’s telling it. Having taken much of the season to recover her rebellious inner voice, this is the closest she’s sounded to the Offred of Margaret Atwood’s novel (who, spoiler alert, winds up recording The Handmaid’s Tale on cassette tapes for future academics to mull over) in quite some time. “I’m sorry it’s in fragments. […] I’ve tried to put some good things in, as well.”

For all the talk of fragments, “Holly” has a pretty tight focus on June herself: alone in a huge, (mostly) empty house, struggling futilely to escape Gilead when her baby decides that it’s time to enter it. What follows is the most harrowing birth scene I’ve ever seen on television (and perhaps you’ll agree), as the Handmaid must deliver her blessed fruit without a doctor, without drugs, without even the other Handmaids to chant her through it. But out of it comes the rare good thing: Holly.

Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale 2×11 “Holly”

In dystopian tales, the protagonist always finds a way out: the right clue or memory or bit of training, the deus ex machina of a silver parachute dropping out of the sky at the exact time it’s most needed. It was rather refreshing that despite being in a mansion with a coat and a shotgun and a sports car, June still can’t make a break for it. She can’t walk far, between the hungry wolf prowling and the miles of icy terrain between herself and civilization. It takes forever for her to go through the house to find the keys and other supplies, and that’s before she almost gets caught by the Waterfords.

The Handmaid's Tale 211 Holly television review labor baby

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

This is, hands-down, my favorite exchange between Fred and Serena, who sound more like cheesy villains than anything else: “You raped her yesterday!” “That was your idea!” And the darkly funny undercutting of the admittedly high stakes they’re facing, having lost their Handmaid twice: “They’ll put us on the Wall!” Serena moans, while her husband snarks, “Maybe they’ll hang us side by side, just my fucking luck.” Oh, Fred, you can still make me laugh even though you are a monster.

But as June watches from above, with a shotgun loaded and pointing at them, the Waterfords go from silly finger-pointing to true despair—mostly Serena, who cries “I gave up everything for you, and for the cause. And I only ever wanted one thing in return: I wanted a baby.” I’m with Fred, I don’t believe that this was the only thing she wanted, but Yvonne Strahovski still acts the hell out of Serena’s breakdown. I don’t blame June for hesitating to shoot her, as she’s moaning about how “I have nothing.” (Though Serena should really consider that, compared to most of Gilead’s women, she’s still doing fairly well for herself.)

The Handmaid's Tale 211 Holly television review labor baby

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

The Waterfords spend surprisingly little time searching the house, especially after Serena finds Offred’s Handmaid cloak, before they drive back to the city. I really expected them to tear that place apart, but perhaps they assume that Offred got a head start and is hiding out in the woods somewhere. Or they need the time to go home and come up with an alibi; maybe this time they won’t go with the kidnapping story but will accuse Offred of actually making a run for it. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

By the time June does locate the keys and pack up the car, she can’t actually get out of the garage because the doors won’t open and the emergency cords won’t work. (Is this the McKenzie family’s summer home? And if so, do they just disable everything when they’re not there? Again, this feels more deliberate than unfortunate circumstance.) The two big moments in the car were both so fascinating, yet so different. There’s the Radio Free America (hah) broadcast June manages to pick up on the radio, with none other than Oprah (!!) providing encouragement in an uncredited cameo, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” to keep the fight alive. There’s something cruel to the fact that June can hear people fighting back against Gilead so close by (is this an underground radio station in the States, or a recording from Canada’s Little America?), yet can’t reach them. The other moment, of course, being June trying so hard to ram the car through the unyielding garage gates, screaming as the wheels whir fruitlessly.

The Handmaid's Tale 211 Holly television review labor baby

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Every attempt that June makes to escape this house, she is forced back inside. And so she retreats back to the main room, setting up in front of the fireplace to let nature take its course. At key points in her labor, she flashes back to delivering Hannah, radically different for the hospital, epidural, and presence of Luke and Moira within reach, yet terrifying in its own way for the complete lack of knowledge about what was to come. This labor is also new territory for her, as she has no choice but to embrace the pain—just like her mother Holly, who bragged about wanting to be present for her own labor, and who manages to catch June right after she’s delivered Hannah.

Now Holly is in the Colonies, or likely dead, but clearly her memory, and her reassurance that “you are stronger than you think,” provide some small security for June to hold on to. Elisabeth Moss fully inhabits all of June’s fear, and agony, and disappointment, and bravery—naked, moving from kneeling on all fours to squatting, following whatever her body needs. She takes a moment that could have seen this series’ protagonist at her most vulnerable to forces beyond her control, and instead instills her with some primal power. While she doesn’t make it out of Gilead before giving birth, June has managed to step outside of Gilead’s system in delivering Holly. She is guided by the Handmaids’ chants, but only in her own memory, on her own terms. In all other regards, she has bucked Gilead’s “proper” ways for new life to be brought into this world.

The Handmaid's Tale 211 Holly television review labor baby

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

And so Holly is born, named for a grandmother she likely will never meet, and baby and mother spend their first night together. It may be their only night, depending on who responds to the gunshots she fired into the sky as beacons, but at least they have this. And June continues to tell her “limping and mutilated story” because she envisions a possible future “if I meet you, or if you escape. […] By telling you at all, I believe in you.”

Do we think June eventually escapes Gilead? Does she leave this recording for Hannah and for Holly, wherever each may be? While I doubt the remaining two episodes will jump this far ahead in the story, regardless I like hearing June speak like this—of a future, of hope.

 

Scraps

  • Serena’s been robbed of her miraculous birthing ceremony. She’s gonna be pissed.
  • Anybody else take one look at that dollhouse and think of Hereditary?
  • Next week, Eden is missing (called it), and… is that Bradley Whitford, looking like his politically-correct-except-completely-not character from Get Out? Hell yes.

Natalie Zutter wants Holly to be brought to the Waterfords if only for Nick to get to meet her, however briefly. Talk The Handmaid’s Tale with her on Twitter!

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