It’s a girl.
June doesn’t accomplish a physical escape in this episode, but she manages something almost as subversive- she gives birth to her baby girl alone, away from the toxic elements of the Gilead birth ceremony, and away from Serena Joy’s grabby hands. Then she curls up with HER baby, sleeping, sharing heartbeats and breath, and telling stories, without interruptions. That’s what a mother in America today can do with her newborn. But June wasn’t even supposed to be allowed to see or hold Holly before Serena did. Serena will view this as June having stolen those precious first moments, but she’s lucky June didn’t manage to make it to Canada with the baby.
This is a quiet episode, since June is alone in the closed up house where she saw Hannah last week. The silence is only broken by an argumentative visit from the Waterfords and June’s flashbacks to Hannah and Charlotte’s births, all of which serve as the counterpoints to what she could be experiencing as she gives birth. She doesn’t have emotional or medical support for the birth, but the baby is active and appears healthy. The only two people who matter are there, and get to have this time together before Gilead separates them, possibly forever. Holly will have a kernel of security deep inside her, from knowing somewhere inside that her mother wanted her.
We also see more scenes of June’s mother, Holly, and their tense relationship. Holly was there, part of the family, to celebrate Hannah’s birth. We’re shown an indelible image of June, our indomitable heroine; Holly, the strong, idealistic woman who raised her; and Hannah, her first daughter, who we know will grow up in difficult times, but who is a survivor. By naming her second daughter Holly, June brings the baby into that tradition, even though she can’t raise her within the family circle. She spends the night trying to impart as much of the family’s tradition of love and fighting spirit into Baby Holly as she possibly can. She has to hope that whatever Holly can absorb, and the baby’s good genes, will be enough to make her a survivor.
June promised the baby that she wouldn’t be born in Gilead, and in a sense, she wasn’t. June’s escape was temporary, this time, but Holly came into the world in a room full of love, not a room full of bizarre, toxic rituals and enslaved, tortured women. The international sanctions are tightening the noose around Gilead and its vile practices toward women, and the handmaids themselves are succeeding in making the Commanders question the wisdom of continuing to use them. Between the internal and external pressure, change will happen, the rules for women will loosen up, and eventually June will find an opening, and use it. She may stay in Gilead to fight or she may go to Canada, but her current situation won’t last forever, and neither will Gilead. Someday, she’ll have a chance to get her daughters out.
In the meantime, Serena and Fred are a disaster. They come looking for Offred but are so busy blaming and attacking each other that they assume she’s already gone, rather than doing a thorough search for her. That’s some guilt talking right there- they’re both thinking that if they’d been treated the way June has been, they’d take the baby and run, too. With no gossiping servants or information-gathering Eyes nearby to eavesdrop on them, Fred and Serena finally express their true feelings. The gloves come off, Serena uses profanities she probably hasn’t even heard in years, and the air is temporarily cleared.
The episode begins exactly where episode 10 left off, with June standing in the snow, abandoned, alone, staring down the road where the Guardians took Nick and the car. She’s been left behind at a house with no heat, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a winter storm. Hypothermia is a serious concern, whatever else June might be considering. Unless the house has a large supply of firewood, she can’t stay there long.
June runs down the driveway a bit, following the cars, but they’re gone, and she’s too pregnant to run far. She turns around and notices a garage. When she investigates, she discovers that there is a car stored there, but the garage doors are locked, so she searches the house for keys.
Before she goes back inside, a black wolf confronts her in front of the garage. It stares at her intensely and growls at her quietly. June walks slowly past it back to the house.
She ends up in the Commander’s office, and is brought up short when she sees how different it is from Fred’s home office. Fred’s office is dark, cluttered, and closed. No Girlz Allowed. This office is bright, open, and has a dollhouse on the floor next to the desk so that the Commander’s daughter can play near him while he works. June finds a photo of the Commander’s wife and daughter on the fireplace mantle behind his desk. The little girl is Hannah. This is her new family’s summer house. The commander has a framed painting on his desk of the family and their home made by Hannah. It’s obvious that she’s a very loved little girl.
June’s voiceover: “I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force, but there’s nothing I can do to change it. I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well.”
Discovering that Hannah is being treated well is a blessing and a curse. Of course June wants the best for her daughter, but she wants to be the good, loving parent in Hannah’s life. If Hannah is happy, she could forget about June that much more quickly, and want to stay with her adoptive family instead of escaping back to her birth family someday.
June remembers when Hannah had a hard time separating while June was dropping her off for daycare. This is another difficult separation that she can’t dwell on. She goes back to searching for the keys, and finds them in the Commander’s desk drawer.
With the keys June easily gets into the garage and starts the car. She turns on the radio and looks for a station, settling on Radio Free America, with DJ Oprah Winfrey. Of course Oprah survived the war and made it to Canada!
“Radio Free America, broadcasting from somewhere in the Great White North. And now this news: The American government in Anchorage today received promises of economic aid from India and China. In the United Kingdom, economic sanctions on Gilead were announced, as well as plans to raise the cap on American refugees relocating from Canada. Now a tune to remind everyone who’s listening, American patriot or Gilead traitor: We are still here.”
The international community is following through on its outrage over the letters, and is imposing sanctions, which may mean food is tight for a while, but should help force Gilead to change its polices in the long term. The American government in exile is being recognized as the legitimate American government by other world powers and being given financial assistance. Three guesses as to what its main need for foreign aid might be. And the UK is allowing more refugees from the US to emigrate there, which will make it that much harder for Gilead to get them back.
These are all very hopeful, very concrete signs.
Buoyed up by Oprah’s words and Bruce Springsteen’s Hungry Heart, June decides to make a run for the border. She goes back into the house to collect some supplies first, like food, water, and a first aid kit. She fills a duffel bag and loads it into the car, then goes to the bedrooms to find warmer clothing.
June tries on the Commander’s black wool coat, which fits okay, except for her pregnant belly. She remembers preparing to go to a work party with Luke when she was very pregnant with Hannah, and how sexy he still thought she was in her tight little black dress.
Then she hears a car approaching and looks out the window to see Fred and Serena pulling into the driveway. Fred drove recklessly down the slippery road, sliding all over the place.
Fred and Serena jump out of the car and burst into the house, Serena angrily yelling for Offred while Fred calls out to Commander MacKenzie, the owner of the lake house. They argue over whether they should search the house or not. Fred is afraid that they’ll get caught there and make things worse. He assumes that Nick and June have left already, if they were ever there. Serena is determined that nothing will escape her, and she noticed the tracks outside, so she knows they’ve been there. She argues that it would be stupid not to check the house, so they do. Serena continues yelling for Offred like she’s selling hotdogs at a baseball game, if she hated the hotdogs.
It’s a tense moment, but seeing and hearing the very proper Serena yell like that is too funny. She says she’s not leaving without her baby, and, d*mn, she means it. The woman is losing her cool.
Fred searches downstairs, while Serena searches the bedrooms. There’s a neat mirror shot where Serena discovers June’s discarded cap and cape by closing a wardrobe door, and seeing herself and the garments reflected in the mirror at different distances, using a change in focus depth. The metaphor is obvious. We already know that wives can be punished by being turned into handmaids. But Serena wouldn’t be. As an infertile woman, it would be the Colonies or death. Nevertheless, June and Serena are both slaves at Fred’s mercy.
Serena grabs June’s clothes and storms downstairs to show them to Fred. Now she really has a reason to lash out at him. Fred is confused. Nick is so loyal, and Fred was so nice to June, letting her see Hannah. She should have been grateful. Why would she want to run away?
It’s not just a river in Egypt, kids.
Serena gets the same fierce, exhilarated look on her face that she had when she and June were about to start working together on new orders for Gilead, and June agreed to the scheme by asking for a pen. She’s about to break all of the rules, and it feels amazing. No matter what Serena thinks she wants, she’s a born rebel and she’ll never be happy unless she has a cause and a fight. God help anyone who messes with her child.
Serena reminds Fred that it’s insane to think that June would be grateful to him. He raped her yesterday. Fred throws back at Serena that it was her idea, as if that matters right now. She’s not the dolt who sent the pregnant handmaid and the baby’s father out in a car with a tankful of gas and several hours to themselves, the day after she was raped. From a strategical point of view, it’s one of the stupidest things a slaveowner could do, and I’m still not sure why Nick didn’t head for the border, except for the fact that this is a TV show and not real life. Maybe he didn’t have the guts to risk having to deliver the baby alone in the car.
Serena tells Fred what I just said, but he’s convinced that the problem is simply that Serena wasn’t nice enough to the slave they raped together every month. Out in the country, with no servants or neighbors to hear them, Serena finally has the chance to say everything that the Commander’s Wife isn’t allowed to express, and she lets loose. Fred doesn’t hold back either. She calls him a f**king idiot and he asks when she became such a b**ch. Lol Fred, she’s always been smarter than you, and you know it.
Then the freak out starts, as Serena worries that they won’t get Nick and June back. There’s no way to explain losing a pregnant handmaid, twice, that doesn’t look bad for them. Gilead will say they’re part of the Resistance and put them on the wall. Fred laments that with his luck, they’ll be hung on the wall side by side.
Serena tells Fred that she gave up everything for him and for the cause, and all she ever wanted in return was a baby. Fred tries to argue that she demanded more, but she won’t let him. She says that all she wanted was a baby, and his sick obsession with June has ruined everything. Fred angrily tells her not to dare talk that way, and shoves her up against the wall. He says that he’s trying to think, while Serena repeats that he’s left her with nothing, she has nothing.
June is hiding upstairs on the third floor, out of sight, but listening to everything. She notices a box of shotgun shells on the cabinet next to her, and carefully peeks inside the cupboard. The shotgun is inside, so she slowly, carefully eases it out and loads a shell into it. She is in a hallway overlooking the front atrium where the Waterfords are arguing. She silently opens the window to the atrium and aims the gun toward the Waterfords as Fred has Serena held up against the wall. She aims toward their heads and prepares to shoot, but holds her fire. She shakes as she battles with herself, but in the end, she backs down. She’s not a murderer. And she probably isn’t proficient enough with a shotgun to take them both out and escape before someone found her.
But which Waterford’s head was she aiming at?
Serena cries that she’ll never hold her baby and shoves Fred away from her. Fred decides that it’s time to go. They’ll call security again from home.
That’s probably the most honest and real the Waterfords have been with each other in years.
June goes to the window to make sure the Waterfords are really gone, then collapses with a contraction. She remembers touring a birthing facility with her mom, Luke and Moira. Her mom really loved the birthing facility, but June felt more comfortable giving birth in a hospital, in case something went wrong. Her mom was an OB-Gyn surgeon, but promised to drop everything to try to get to the birth on time.
June carries the rest of her supplies to the car, then tries to get the garage door open. It’s frozen shut, and nothing she does works. She tries the manual release, ramming it with the car, and breaking the ice with a shovel, but it’s too frozen. While she’s shoveling, June slips on the ice and falls on her back, causing her water to break. Labor will be imminent now.
She’s distraught. The wolf, which appears each time she has a decision to make, is back again. June gets up and walks back to the house with as much dignity as she can muster. She builds a roaring fire in the fireplace (they don’t show June carrying wood while in labor, because that’s a cruel fantasy) and makes a nest on the floor of sheets and blankets. Then she
passes out rests on her nest and dreams of her labor with Hannah. It was a typical hospital birth, with Luke and Moira fussing over her, making sure she had everything she needed almost before she thought of it, and nurses in the background measuring everything.
She wakes up in a pool of blood, which is absolutely terrifying. She looks at the blood, sighs a deep sigh, and says to the baby, “I know I promised…” June’s body had already accepted that she and the baby weren’t escaping this time, probably because her body knew she wouldn’t have the strength to keep going after this labor. This is the point where her mind accepts it.
June goes out into the snow and fires off the shotgun four times. The wolf is there, watching. It disappears after the first two shots, which must have been enough to ensure she’d be found. Her face is determined but bitter and resigned.
Back inside, she goes through her labor alone and naked in front of the fire, following her instincts to get through it. It’s primal and intimate in a way that Hannah’s birth wasn’t. As the baby is born, memories of Hannah’s birth, Charlotte’s birth, and the handmaids’ childbirth training flow through her mind. She hears everyone telling her to push and breathe.
She’s pushes the baby out with a big scream, and catches her as the baby begins to cry. They lie down together in their nest. June remembers holding Hannah and introducing her to her grandmother right after she was born. June tells the baby that her name is Holly, for her grandmother, and that she has a big sister, Hannah, too. June connects Holly to the unbroken female line of her family by giving her June’s mother’s name and giving birth to her in Hannah’s house.
I keep on going with this limping and mutilated story because I want you to hear it. As I will hear yours too, if I ever get the chance. If I meet you, or if you escape. in the future, or in heaven. By telling you anything at all, I’m believing in you. I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story, I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.”
June dozes off with the baby sleeping next to her. She wakes up when a car pulls into the driveway.
“We did it, Holly.”
Serena knows the truth of Gilead, its treatment of women, and its treatment of the handmaids, and now June knows for sure that she does. There’s no question that both Fred and Serena were being their honest, true selves in that scene. The Gilead that Serena designed is not the Gilead the men created. She went along with the changes to her design because she had no choice, and she was desperate for a child of her own. Fred has completely drank his own kool aid and believes his own lies. While Serena always knows the ceremony is rape and the handmaids are slaves, Fred never admits it to himself unless it’s a situation like this, where Serena won’t let him dodge it. And then he blames her for everything.
Always remember exactly whose idea it was to have handmaidens and ceremonies, to keep women from reading and writing, and to strip them of their rights. That was the Commanders, including Fred, not Serena Joy. Serena was promised the women would still have rights, and then the rules changed after she helped them win the war. She was used. Yes, she’s still a monster, but the worst of Gilead isn’t her fault.
June also saw how much Serena wants a baby, and how hard she’s willing to fight for her child. Just as seeing signs of Hannah being part of Commander MacKenzie’s life put a different spin on Hannah’s adoption for her, I think that this is the first time that June looked at Serena and saw her as a mother.
It’s not a coincidence that she went into labor right after Serena left the house. Of course June doesn’t want to give up Holly or Hannah forever, but for the first time she’s able to see that the Commanders’ families are capable of being decent parents who love their children. That allows her to make some kind of peace with the loss of her children.
The wolf is a complex symbol, but one of its meanings is to represent the battle between June’s instinct to free herself into the wild and to stay with her pack, her created family, and take the safest course of action for the baby (in the short term). The wolf is there and hostile each time she has the possibility of escaping, then howls sympathetically when she gives up. It leaves when she fires the gun to call for help and it knows that the baby will be safe. In that sense, it’s also June and Holly’s guard dog, the spirit of the people who would keep them safe if they could be there, like Luke, Moira and Nick.
The trip to the lake house also has elements of Little Red Riding Hood to it, as does The Handmaid’s Tale in general, which makes the wolf the Big Bad Wolf. June has to travel away from home, through the woods, to get to the house, to visit a female relative (the grandmother vs Hannah). She has to figure out who she can trust and who is dangerous to her (the wolf vs everyone in Gilead). Even though everything seems quiet and safe, great danger lurks around the corner (the wolf vs labor/letting Hannah and Holly go). The danger follows her into the house symbolically, in the form of the wolf being present when her water breaks, and then her labor takes over as the Big Bad Wolf of the story. She has to confront the wolf/danger/fear on its own terms, then come out on the other side, in order to be free of it. Little Red Riding Hood is meant as a cautionary tale, to teach little girls to be aware of their surroundings and not to trust people they shouldn’t trust. In the printed versions of the story, Little Red and her grandmother are eaten and saved by a hunter or woodsman, but in older versions Red saves herself and her grandmother. In this story, June becomes the hunter and saves herself and Holly by firing the gun to bring help, freeing herself from the paralyzing fear of losing her children.
June now knows that her daughters aren’t alone in the world without her, and she knows how strong and capable she is. The theme of this season has been motherhood and what it means for the handmaids. June now understands her own mother much better. Grandma Holly felt that being the best mother she could be meant putting her energy into making the world a better place for her daughter. I think June now understands that she can’t be a physical mother to her girls right now, but she can fight for their freedom. She’s spent much of the season preparing herself for the loss of Holly and what might come after, as she saw what happened to families when things go wrong in Gilead, she learned the intricate history of Gilead and how her mother fought its formation, and she found godmothers for her daughters. She’s ready for her role in Gilead to broaden in some way.
I was impressed with how quickly June gave up on the fact that it was Hannah’s house. She didn’t even go to Hannah’s room. I would have gone to the room, looked over everything, stayed in there a while just to feel closer to her, maybe even taken some small item to remember her by.
It could be that be that the best thing to happen to the women of Gilead will be for Serena Joy to have a daughter to raise, educate and defend. It’s one thing for Serena, who’s already lived a lot of life, to be denied reading, writing, work, travel, driving, education, the right to vote, the right to decide who’ll she’ll marry, the right to own property, and all of the other rights of free citizens that Gilead has taken away from women. She doesn’t even feel the loss of some of those rights, since she’s so high up on the food chain, and she’s been so focussed on a baby that she hasn’t taken the time to consider the importance of the others. But when she’s faced with the implications for her own child, it will be a different matter.
Holly is the strong, fierce, intelligent daughter of June and the granddaughter of OGHolly. She’s already proven that she’s a survivor and a fighter. They’ve shown us how ridiculously limited Eden’s life is, with all of her thought’s forced to be about cooking, decorating, and whether Nick is paying enough attention to her. The next generation of girls, with even less education than Eden, will have even less in their heads. It’s hard to imagine Serena accepting that for her little girl, the child she fought so hard and waited so long for.
She’s going to want the best of everything for that child, not to be told that her daughter is worthless for anything other than producing more babies. And she will be told that. That’s how Gilead is set up. To remind females of all ages of their place, and to train them in the correct behavior. And harshly retrain them, or eliminate them, if necessary. When Serena takes a good look at Gilead and the threat it poses to her baby girl, she’s going to rethink some of her positions.
Oprah Winfrey was the voice of Radio Free America, based on Radio Free Europe. She’s a big fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, so the showrunner, Bruce Miller, thought of her when he had the idea for the rebel radio segment, and she said yes. Radio Free America is based on Radio Free Europe, an organization that broadcasts (often illegally) in countries where a free press is prohibited, such as Eastern Europe during the Cold War and other authoritarian regimes today. RFE brought news to countries that weren’t allowed news from unbiased outside sources and encouraged rebels to keep fighting.
The fact that RFA is broadcasting over the open airwaves at least as far south as Boston, and isn’t being jammed by Gilead, is huge. Radio Free Europe was used to give rebels tactical information, like when invasions were happening or other support might be headed their way. RFA could be used to send all kinds of information, coded and uncoded, to the Resistance. And there is enough of a Resistance, with members in high enough places, that Serena and Fred are worried they’ll be suspects.
Anyone with access with a radio can get hope and encouragement from the RFA. Individuals and small cells can do a large amount of damage, as Lillie showed us. If you get someone like Emily involved, who could teach people how to make bombs and poisons with household materials, then suggest how to make the use of them look like accidents, you could create a significant number of casualties.
A strong Gilead would be jamming the RFA signal and banning radios. I’m not sure we’ve seen a radio anywhere else, so they may have banned them. Or they may still be in every car, and lots of people sneak out to their cars to listen. In the Soviet Union, the black market for radios that would pick up RFE was hot. You’d think Gilead would have the same thing going on, if only to get the music.
Hopefully this won’t be the last we’ll hear of RFA and the Resistance. MayDay seems kind of lame. Maybe there’s another group that’s more daring. Maybe that’s who gave Lillie the grenade.
I really want to discover that OGHolly escaped from the Colonies and is in hiding somewhere on the edge of Gilead, running the Mayday network of Martha spies. For sure she organized the unwomen at her camp and staged a coup, maybe even converted the aunts to her cause.
If Isaac and Eden didn’t have anything to do with taking Nick, and it wasn’t a regular patrol of the neighborhood, maybe it was the Resistance taking him in order to recruit him. It’s a long shot, but we can dream.
Commander MacKenzie has 2 different sets of US maps in his office, each comprised of 3 maps showing successively larger sections of the US shaded darker. In the last map in each set, almost all of the continental US is darkened. There’s no explanation as to what the maps depict, whether they indicate conditions improving or getting worse, land gained or lost, strategy or fact. I screencapped a couple of the maps in each set:
Images courtesy of Hulu.