In episode 2, Baggage, June reflects on her complicated relationship with her own mother, Holly, as she faces leaving her daughter, Hannah, behind in Gilead when she escapes. June is moved from the Boston Globe offices and makes her way closer to freedom, so the reality of what she’s doing hits her in this episode. In Canada, Moira’s already physically free, but she and the other refugees must grapple with the lingering effects of what Gilead did to them and what it forced them to do.
June jogs through the Boston Globe building on what looks to be a well-traveled route. She’s been hiding there for two months and is still maintaining her shrine to the executed employees, with candles burning in remembrance. The employees must have loved candles. You’d think she’d have run out a long time ago. It’s a freedom of speech miracle.
She remembers her mother saying that women are so adaptable that they can get used to anything, and wonders what she’s gotten used to without realizing it. This mirrors Aunt Lydia’s statements that normal is just whatever you’re used to, and things in Gilead would begin to feel ordinary and normal to the handmaids before long.
Moira also still jogs, but she jogs through the streets of Toronto. Her route takes her past the refugees’ shrine for their lost American loved ones. It’s not so different from June’s shrine, except it’s outside.
Back at the apartment, Luke tells Moira that the Canadian and British militaries are doing more exercises along the Canadian-Gilead border. Luke says, “They have to be getting ready for an invasion, down through Upstate NY. It’s 1775 all over again.”
Moira ignores the political talk and makes eggs for Luke’s breakfast because he’s too skinny. Erin also lives with them and grabs something to eat, then goes back to her room. She still isn’t talking.
June has spent her time at the Globe researching the history of the rise of the Sons of Jacob and Gilead. In hindsight, it’s easier to look back and see which moments were important. She listens to an interview with one of the leaders of a local chapter of the Sons of Jacob.
Interviewer: So, tell me. What made you start this chapter of the Sons of Jacob?
Lars: Well, I read, I read about it online, you know, there is a Facebook group. And I guess I really got into it because of the kids. The kids in this community, they didn’t all have good homes, so I wanted to help them, get them out of gangs and away from their sinful families and into a better way of…
June goes through the archived old copies of the newspaper and cuts out relevant stories, then puts them up in chronological order. She notices that her mother shows up fairly frequently, and realizes how involved Holly was in the fight to stop the rise of the Sons of Jacob. But hardly anyone paid attention to this older women’s rights activist.
June remembers when she was a child and her mother said they were going to feed the ducks. In fact, it was another protest. The women were writing the names of their rapists down and throwing them into the fire. June remembers thinking there were so many names, and so much ash, “that it was like snow.”
Now the women don’t have to worry about being raped when they leave the house, because there are armed guards everywhere. And they’ve already been raped at home anyway.
Nick tells June that he thinks she’ll be moved soon, so she should be ready. He doesn’t know where she’ll be moved to. He’s trying to make arrangements for Hannah. June doesn’t want to leave without her. Nick says it’s better for everyone if June gets out safely. June replies with Fred’s line from season 1, “Better never means better for everyone.”
It’s definitely not better for Hannah if she’s left behind. And we haven’t seen anyone who’s escaped come back to Gilead, so I don’t think it’s easy to slip back in and rescue a loved one. Otherwise, Luke or Moira would have done it.
Nick goes to June, and they hold each other.
Moira works at the refugee center. She shows around a new escapee who’s a former Guardian. He’s crushed by the weight of the things Gilead forced him to do. Maura sends him to the trauma counselors on the 3rd floor. He mentions that he was in the army and was turned into a Guardian when the war ended. The Guardians aren’t all there by choice.
The driver who makes June’s weekly deliveries comes to pick her up this week instead. He doesn’t have any instructions for Nick or Hannah.
While she’s riding in the back of the open flatbed truck, June remembers a visit to her mother before the war. Her mother, a gynecologist, had just gotten home from a day of providing abortions at a clinic. Her mother’s fellow activists, who went with her to the clinic to escort patients past conservative protesters, were also there. The women were all bruised and holding ice to their faces from where anti-abortion protesters had attacked them.
June is picking up her immersion blender, and wearing her work clothes. She starts to tell the activists about her job as an editor at a small academic book publisher, but they aren’t interested. Holly mentions that Moira is building a website for a queer women’s collective. The activists are much more interested in that.
June gets delivered to a garage where prewar street signs are stored. She’s told to wait for someone to come get her. Before long, a man, Omar, steps out of the shadows and asks if she’s a good witch or a bad witch, which is, of course, a quote from The Wizard of Oz.
June replies, “Depends on who you ask, I guess.” Which really seems like it should be a quote from Wicked, but doesn’t appear to be, so I guess The Handmaid’s Tale writers get credit for that quotable answer.
June introduces herself. Omar asks for her mother’s maiden name (Maddox). June asks where they’re going and is told they’re going to an airstrip west of Worcester. He hands June a map. He doesn’t give her his name.
Omar’s taking her to a safehouse about a quarter mile from the airstrip. Tomorrow, after dark, a guy who flies a puddle jumper back and forth to Canada on supply runs of black market stuff will pick her up. He doesn’t know the names of the other people involved. “Someone brave or stupid, or both. There’s a lot of both.”
Omar gets a text as they walk to his bread delivery truck. He swears, and apologizes to her, then tries to leave without her. The safehouse is no longer safe. He tells her to go back in the garage and wait.
June refuses to be left behind. She pounds on his truck and yells for him to stop. Even stands in front of the van. He gives in and takes her with him, telling her to stay down so she won’t be seen.
They reach his apartment complex around dawn. He sneaks June in a back door to the building and they make their way carefully to his apartment. June looks around. This is the first time she’s seen where the Econopeople, what we’d call the working class, live. This would be her life if she hadn’t been deemed an adulteress.
When they enter Omar’s apartment, his wife and young son rush to the door to greet him. His wife, Heather, is angry when she realizes he’s brought an escaped handmaid home. The two married adults talk privately for a moment, and the wife must give in to her husband.
She tries to keep her son away from June. Heather tells June that Econowives are threatened with being turned into handmaids if they transgress.
Heather: I don’t know how you could give your baby up to somebody else.
June: I’m trying not to.
Heather: I would die first.
June: Yeah, I used to think that, too.
So the Econowives are kept in line with the looming specter of the handmaid, but they also convince themselves that the handmaids are beneath them. Somehow they think the handmaids’ actions are voluntary, using the fine logic that if you didn’t fight to the death, you didn’t fight hard enough. This was June’s logic in the book, as well.
Everybody listen to this right now: It’s a better strategy to live to fight another day than it is to die. Where there’s life, there’s hope, is a true saying. June wouldn’t have any chance of rescuing Hannah if she’d fought the Guardians to the death in the woods, and Hannah would still have been taken. Forget about looking brave or heroic. Look alive and like a survivor. That tenaciousness leads to winning long term. It’s okay to feel whatever feelings you need to feel, even if it’s terror or deep, dark depression, but stay alive. Be a survivor. That’s the best revenge.
Okay, PSA over. Moving on.
Omar and his family prepare for church. Their son, Adam, can’t find his shoes. June is reminded of Hannah. June asks Omar about church and he says they make a public profession of faith. Before they leave, Omar tells June, “We’ll be back by 2:00. Try to be quiet. Everyone here listens to everything.” Adam agrees, “They really do.”
June thanks Omar for taking her in. She teasingly asks if he’s brave or stupid, the words he used to describe the people at the safehouse. Omar replies, “I’m not brave, so, there you go.”
Omar seems like a decent guy, a good father and husband. I believe he’s the first member of the Resistance that we’ve gotten to know, not counting peripheral members like Emily.
Omar leaves, and June remembers more of the evening after her mother was hurt by protesters.
Holly complains that she doesn’t see enough of June, but June explains that Holly travels so much that their schedules never mesh. Holly says that her work is important. June understands. Holly reminds June that she was born when Holly was 37, but Holly really, really, really wanted her.
Then Holly gets to her point. She wonders if June can really be happy at that bourgeois publishing house. When June was little she wanted to be on the Supreme Court. (That’s something Holly could be proud of. She’s not a writer, so she doesn’t understand the importance of a good editor.)
Holly: You really want to spend all day reading other people’s words, looking for typos? (June: Yep.) I sacrificed for you and it pisses me off that you’re just settling.
June: Well, sorry. Guess I’m not your justification for existence.
Holly doesn’t know when to quit, so she moves on to the next offensive subject and asks how Luke is. June says he’s been working a lot so he can take time off for their wedding.
Holly takes a deep breath, then says, “I don’t think you should marry him.”
All June came over for was her immersion blender, and instead she’s getting told her entire life is wrong.
June asks why Holly would say that.
Holly: June, you are so young. You really want to take all that energy and passion and give it to a man? (June: No, to Luke.) Luke is fine. But, come on. This country is going down the fucking tubes. It’s time to get out in the street and fight, not just play house. (June: I’m not playing.) I think it’s a mistake. (June: Okay.)
So, that’s a lesson in how to not convince your kid of anything. For one thing, if Holly wants soldiers for a street fight, it’d be better to recruit Luke as well, instead of trying to separate him and June. Holly has spent her life fighting for women’s rights, but forgets about the importance of children, family, and the ability to live a normal life. June has become immune to her mother’s warnings and thinks that all of the important work has already been done, so she can have it all without much of a fight. In their universe, they both have a point. Everyone needed to fight hard, but what’s the point of the fight if you forget to have a life?
In the present day, June peeks out the window to watch Omar and his family leave. A neighbor knocks on the door, calling to them, asking if they’ve left yet. Worried that the neighbor will come into the apartment, June hides under Omar and Heather’s bed.
She finds a prayer rug and the Qur’an hidden in the underside of the bed frame. Omar said that the family makes “a public profession of faith” because in private they are practicing Muslims. June is moved to see that the family has remained loyal to their faith, despite the danger.
She spends the afternoon quietly puttering around the house. The toys bring up more memories of Hannah, and other times.
She flashes back to the Red Center. Aunt Lydia is giving a lecture with a slide show. She describes how man poisoned the world and ourselves and now Gilead is cleaning up both the world and the people, so that we can heal and earn back the favor of the Lord. Through these efforts Gilead will make the world fruitful again, instead of a barren wasteland. One of the photos in the slideshow is of Holly dressed as an Unwoman and working on a farm. June is shocked, since she didn’t know what had happened to her mother. Later that night, as they lie in bed, Moira and June wonder how Holly got caught. June says that Holly always knew what was coming.
At 5:00, June is still waiting for Omar to come home. She decides that she’s waited long enough. She waited too long once before, and swore that she’d never do that again. She puts on one of Heather’s Econowife outfits and takes Omar’s map so she can find the airstrip.
Then she goes outside and tries to blend in with the Econopopulation. There are Guardians posted every 20 ft, but no one notices her as she walks to the train station with other Econowives. She gets on a train and has to carefully check her map against the route map, since her map has print on it and she would lose a finger if she’s caught with it (and she’d be, y’know, caught).
June takes the train to the last stop. Once she’s off the train, she leaves the path and makes her way through woods and fields to the airstrip. She stops at one point because she’s reminded of when she and Hannah were captured. Remembering how hard it was to travel with Hannah, June decides that it’s for the best if she escapes without her this time. Having made peace with the decision, she’s able to get up and go on.
June arrives at the airstrip at sunset and sits down under a derelict plane to wait for the puddlejumper.
“Raise your daughter to be a feminist and she spends all her time waiting to be rescued by men.”
Or not rescued, as the case may be.
Moira hooks up with a woman in the bathroom of a club. She takes care of her partner, but refuses to let the other woman reciprocate. When they exchange names, Moira gives hers as Ruby, the name she was given at Jezebels.
When Moira gets back to the apartment, Erin is having a bowl of cereal and Luke is half asleep on the couch, which seems to be his bed. Erin and Moira look at each other, and Moira says, “Go f**k yourself.” Erin looks at her cereal box and says, “Blessed be the Fruit Loops.”
They both burst out laughing. It’s the first time we’ve heard Erin speak. As far as we’ve been shown, she’s been mute since she escaped from the Red Center in the beginning of season 1, and escaped to Canada with Luke.
As darkness falls, the puddlejumper arrives. June rushes out to meet the pilot. She proves she’s a handmaid by showing him where she cut her livestock tag out of her ear. As they’re about to take off, another man arrives who says he’s Commander Wells’ driver. He wants to escape, too. They all get into the plane.
June remembers driving in a convertible with her mom, shouting out a loud song. They were happy and free.
“No mother is ever completely a child’s idea of what a mother should be, but I suppose it works the other way around as well. But, despite everything, we didn’t do badly by one another. We did as well as most. I wish my mother were here so I could tell her I finally know this. So I could tell her I forgive her. And then ask Hannah to forgive me.”
The plane begins to take off, but suddenly, it’s hit by bullets that kill the engine. Guardians pull the pilot out and shoot him, then the driver. June is dragged out last, then dragged away, back to Gilead.
In episode 2, as she rode to the Boston Globe office, June wondered if Gilead had been absorbed so deeply inside her that she would no longer be able to truly escape it. One of the most profound and literal ways that she’s been forced to accept Gilead is through the monthly ceremonies, where she was raped without a condom. She’s been forced to absorb the semen of her rapists into her body every month for years. It might turn some people off to think about it, but this is the reality of serial rape and living in a woman’s body. Few other crimes literally get inside a person the way rape does.
The baby is, at least, not a result of rape, even if it’s not a result of freedom either.
In this episode, June remembers watching rape victims burning the names of their rapists when she was a child. One of the traditional uses of fire is to purify, so by burning the names, they hoped to burn the influence of the rapists out of their bodies and minds. It’s a memory of women fighting back in some small way, even when society wouldn’t take them seriously in any other way.
June is looking for her own way to fight back. Even symbolic gestures can still have power in the world. Her shrine honors the dead who Gilead says should be nameless and forgotten. Her daily runs in prewar clothing allow her to take back ownership of her body. Her study of the history of how the US fell and Gilead came to power allows her to come to terms with her own place in history. It also involves taking back the forbidden practice of reading, and keeping alive the true history of the rise of Gilead, something they’d like to see forgotten. No matter where June goes from here, she takes all of these experiences with her, and can pass on what she’s learned during this time.
Moira also struggles with rape and the depth that she’s absorbed Gilead into her body. During her sexual encounter in the bar, she’s unable to enjoy herself. She’s so traumatized that even consensual sex feels like nonconsensual prostitution when she’s in the moment. She’s going through something that very few people in Canada will be able to understand. Unlike the handmaids, however, who don’t have a close real world, modern day counterpart in the Western world, sex slaves like Moira exist in the millions worldwide.
(If there are large numbers of real world forced surrogate pregnancy slaves, let me know, with links, and I’ll make the correction. I think the Marthas would be the counterpart to domestic servant slaves.)
June mentions in the Boston Globe building that she’s grasping at straws with her research, but that straws can be useful. After all, one of the three lttle pigs built a whole house of them. Except that house fell down, just like this escape attempt. It took three tries at building a house for the pigs to get it right. The Big Bad Wolf and the Big Bad Sons of Jacob are always waiting to jump on any sign of weakness.
I can’t believe Omar’s judgy wife is named Heather.
Omar and Heather’s apartment wasn’t bad. It wasn’t very big, but it had decent furniture, Adam had a significant number of good quality toys and there was a yard around the building. Each apartment appeared to have its own small garden plot. The Econowives moved freely, even taking the train on their own. It looks like the Econopeople have a reasonable standard of living and the least oppressive way of life in Gilead. As long as they follow the rules, of course.
Veteran actress Cherry Jones, who plays June’s mother, Holly, was nominated for an “Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama” Primetime Emmy for this episode.
Images courtesy of Hulu.