After watching 11 hours of The Handmaid’s Tale, I am breaking down the fourth wall and will be writing these reviews in the first person. As my fellow reviewer Kelechi Ehenulo wrote in her review of last week’s episode, this show is too affecting to review objectively. ‘The Last Ceremony’ devastated me, more than any other single piece of television both as a woman and as a human being. I am not ashamed to admit I cried hot angry tears as I watched June (Elisabeth Moss) be separated from her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) yet again. The fact that the episode was written months before the recent controversy surrounding the separation of immigrant families and children at the US/Mexico border, makes The Handmaid’s Tale even more uncanny and frightening in its prophetic storytelling.
As upsetting as last week’s episode was, this week I was offered some respite. ‘Holly’ is an episode full of frustration and fear, but it is also a testament to female strength. Last week June was held down and raped by the Waterfords, this week she gives birth alone in a mansion in the woods all by herself in what is a basically an hour-long survival story.
‘Holly’ picks up straight after the ending of ‘The Last Ceremony.’ Nick (Max Minghella) has been hauled away in a black car by Gilead agents and June is left alone in the giant mansion, heavily pregnant and without obvious means of help or support. It does not appear anyone is coming to collect her. The mansion is situated in a remote area of upstate Massachusetts in the middle of a snowy woods. Immediately I felt June’s desperation. Most of her scenes contain almost no dialogue and it is down to Elisabeth Moss’ exceptional acting that I remained fully engaged in June’s actions as she is shown exploring the house, collecting supplies and preparing to escape. She never explicitly explains her plans, but you can almost hear her inner thoughts and each step of the way I cheered on each little success; found some tinned food! Found a large warm coat! Found a car! Found the car keys!
Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale has revealed how truly brave June can be, but we have rarely seen her as resourceful as she is now. She stumbles from one challenge to the next, heavily pregnant and out of breath but with a look of determination on her face. She even stares down a large black wolf in the snowy landscape outside the house. There are moments of pain which threaten to overwhelm her, such as when she aims a gun at the Waterfords, who unexpectedly turn up at the house, or when she slips on ice falling painfully on her back. As she searches through the house she comes across photos of Hannah with her new family and the sight proves to be so painful that she must sit down. Moss’ portrays the scene as if she has been stabbed in the gut by the discovery, the sheer agony of it forcing June to relieve her memories of Hannah’s first few days at Kindergarten.
But there is hope too. June finds an old car in the garage. In a scene that had me screaming at the TV in frustration, June tries everything to get the garage door open, including ramming it with the car, but she simply cannot force it open. She may fail to escape in the car, but in turning on the engine she hears a broadcast from a rebel radio station playing music for Americans trapped in Gilead. The news that the UK has increased its sanctions on the regime and the sound of Bruce Springsteen playing out of the radio causes June’s face to dissolve into joyful tears of relief. There is a bigger world beyond Gilead and the international community have not forgotten those trapped behind its borders.
The cinematography in ‘Holly’ is striking. The empty snowy woods seem vast and remote, the landscape is shot from above and at a distance. The house is filmed with wide shots to emphasise its eerie emptiness. The black wolf that appears in the episode is beautifully captured, standing starkly against the white snow. It is never clear if the creature is a figment of June’s imagination or a real animal. But traditionally the wolf is a symbol of instinct and as much as June wants to escape, I think the animal is there to remind her to use her instincts to protect her baby and stay in the house to safely give birth. Once she starts bleeding, June knows she has to call for help and put her baby’s safety first even if means revealing her whereabouts and being taken back to the Waterfords.
The majority of the dialogue that takes place in the episode happens between the Waterfords themselves. Once it is discovered that June is not coming back, they have come looking for her. Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) is furious, marching through the house screaming June’s Gilead name: Offred. Her anger is so intense that it is almost more frightening than Fred’s (Joseph Fiennes) quiet cruelty. There is sort of perverse delight in watching Serena and Fred yell at each other. Any love that existed between them has now been fully driven from the marriage. They hurl abuse, recriminations and insults at each other. Each believes the other to be to blame for their Handmaid’s hatred of them. Their perfect Gilead masks have fallen away and the facade has crumbled to reveal how truly frightened and disappointed they really are. Gilead is a world of their making but they are as trapped as June and could easily end up on the wall themselves.
Although June is very tempted to shoot the Waterfords with a gun that she finds in the attic, and I was half hoping she would, she is interrupted by the onset of labour and lets her captors leave unharmed. Through flashbacks we see that June’s mother Holly (Cherry Jones) wanted her to give birth naturally in a home environment without medical intervention, which is all the more ironic since in the present day June has no choice but to knuckle down and push on the floor of the mansion to give birth with no pain relief whatsoever. The birth scene is edited with scenes of Handmaids practicing childbirth, of June delivering Hannah in flashbacks, all of it emphasising that the straining and the struggling to bring new life into the world is a raw primal experience shared by women everywhere.
It feels like a huge success when June’s daughter is born (who she names Holly after her mother). It shouldn’t feel like a moment of hope. June has given birth to a child that will definitely be taken away from her. But I cheered for her anyway because June has a moment alone with her daughter before the rest of Gilead intrudes, something that would never have been allowed if she had given birth in the Waterford household. As she held the newborn Holly and whispered to her, I knew she had failed to escape, but I thought maybe she had triumphed after all.