There is a lot of ‘baggage’ in this week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. The baggage of the past that people carry as a result of family conflict. The baggage of guilt that survivors of collective trauma feel. The lack of physical baggage that refugees carry with them when they flee their homes. Perhaps the best example of baggage in this episode is the conflicted feelings that June has for her mother, Molly, all explained in flashbacks that The Handmaid’s Tale is quickly becoming known for.
The episode starts out with June (Elisabeth Moss) running through the corridors of the Boston Globe to upbeat music. The scene is contrasted with Moira (Samira Wiley), June’s best friend who has escaped to Canada, running through a park in Toronto. Both women run past the memorials to Gilead’s victim, one an official memorial, the other one being June’s makeshift shrine in the newspaper’s printing room. As she runs June remembers her mother explaining ‘women are so adaptable, it is truly amazing what we can get used to.’ Both June and Moira have grown accustomed to their new situations. But becoming accustomed does not mean you are content. June obsesses over newspaper clippings at the Globe trapped in its silent offices. Moira exiled in Canada struggles to cope with living an everyday life after everything she has experienced. Both women are far from free.
It is in the silence of the Globe offices and in the many hours she spends alone among the remnants of responsible journalism that June begins to reflect on her relationship with her mother and to obsess over the beginnings of Gilead. What follows is some of the most detailed insight into June’s character that we have seen in the entire series. In trying to piece together how the world she knew descended into the hell she is now living in, June pastes newspaper clippings on the wall. She is starting to see how events unfolded, something that has eluded her before. No one saw Gilead coming apparently. But June believes her mother did.
The flashbacks that chart the relationship between June and her mother Holly (Cherry Jones) are believable and deeply sad. The relationship expressed on screen is as real as any mother-daughter conflict that happens in reality. Holly and June clash over life choices, ideals and both of them repeatedly disappoint each other. Holly is a feminist, strong-willed and passionate, a born revolutionary. June desires a more conventional life and to have a good career and a loving family. It is a shock to see June portrayed as the straitlaced one of the two considering she is seen as a rebellious adulterer in the eyes of Gilead.
There is also a longing in this relationship. It is clear in the writing that both women love each other. June desires her mother’s approval. Holly wishes for June to live the most fulfilling life that she can. Holly is fearless, something that June never wanted to be in the past and now years later wishes that she was. Born out of this contentious relationship is the first signs of Gilead. Holly senses the regime approaching. She helps women get abortions during a widespread infertility crisis and embodies the type of social reform and community action that would have been Gilead’s biggest threat had more people taken action earlier. The arguments between June and her mother are a metaphor for the very arguments that go on today about the future of America and American society. Should the state dictate women’s reproductive rights? What are we going to do about climate change? What do we want our future to look like?
Holly’s fate is sadly all too predicable. We knew she was never going to inhabit role of safety in Gilead’s social ranks. The last June sees of her mother is a photo of her in a labour camp. But perhaps Holly and June are more alike than either of them previously thought? Judging by June’s acts of defiance, it is likely that buried within her is an outraged revolutionary just like her mother.
‘Baggage’ is an episode of comparisons and contrasts. June’s decisions contrasting with her mother’s, Moira’s psychological captivity contrasted with June’s physical imprisonment. Onee of the most striking comparisons is that of June’s family with that of the resistance courier Omar’s family. June meets Omar (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) when he comes to collect her to take her to a safe house. When the safe house is compromised she forces him to bring her back to his home.
This is the first glimpse the audience gets of the world of Gilead’s lower classes and the Econowives. They live colorless regimented lives in small apartment blocks. Omar’s family are a mirror of June’s, a young biracial couple with a small child, except they are deemed respectable by the regime. June shrewdly observes this little family wondering if she could have ended up like Omar’s wife Heather ( Joanna Douglas) if she hadn’t had the audacity to have an affair with a married man.
Heather is less than friendly towards June. Not only is June a fugitive that she is forced to harbor in her home, but like the rest of Gilead, Heather has been systematically brainwashed to view Handmaid’s as women who give up their children to others. She can’t imagine how a woman could give up her baby and is quietly critical of June. Heather, of course completely misses the point, none of June’s fate is her choice. The writers of The Handmaid’s Tale have cleverly created a world where men make the rules but it is often the women who enforce them and pass judgement. Both Heather and June are subjugated in the same patriarchal system but that does not mean that either of them share a sisterly bond.
Everyone has their secrets in Gilead and June finds out that Omar has hidden a Muslim prayer mat and a copy of the Koran under the floorboards of his home. It is a touching moment of relief for the audience and for June herself, to discover Omar’s religious betrayal, which means she is less alone in her traitorous status. It is exciting for the viewer to start to get more of a glimpse of everyday life in Gilead. It is a system of violent suppression, but it is quite clear that there are little acts of rebellion taking place throughout the state on a frequent basis, from black market smuggling to secret helpers who care for and transport refugees.
Despite the help she receives, June must make the final journey towards freedom by herself. She disguises herself as an Econowife and slips into the woods in search of an airfield in upstate Massachusetts. In the forest she experiences traumatic flashbacks of her own failings as a mother. Hannah (Jordana Blake) was ripped from her arms and she knows full well that the little pink dress the state has given Hannah to wear is a red Handmaid’s uniform-in-training. With a gut-wrenching performance from Elisabeth Moss, June makes it to the airfield and finds the plane. It is now that she thinks of her own mother, forgiving Holly for past mistakes and hoping someday Hannah will forgive June herself. We, the audience, hold our breath as the airplane takes off and begins to leave.
But Gilead is not so easy to escape, neither the physical reality nor the psychological hold it has over everyone. The plane is shot down and the pilot captured and executed. This is the final piece of ‘baggage’ of the episode, June herself, dragged screaming from the hold, out of the plane and from her chance at freedom.
The Handmaid’s Tale is now airing on Channel 4 in the UK. What do you think of the new season?