About halfway through “Baggage,” this week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, a flashback brings us back to the re-education center for handmaids. Moira and June sit silently, as Aunt Lydia shuffles through a slideshow1 filled with the sins of mankind, with the arms-crossed expressions of resolve mixed with willful indifference we’ve come to expect as the token of protest handmaid’s can hang onto. As the slide changes though, it’s broken, Moira’s hand reaches out to comfort June as a single tear runs down her cheek. On the projection is June’s mother, working in “The Colonies,” which we found out last week is a nice name for concentration camp.
“I told her it wasn’t safe, what she was doing” June whispers to Moira later.
“You were right,” Moira whispers back.
“So was she.”
“Baggage” focuses its flashbacks on June’s relationship with her mother, a feminist activist who saw the oppression of Gilead coming before everything changed. She had tried her best to bring June into the fold, bringing her to late-night protests from an early age, but June instead opted for the more traditional life we’ve come to know, marrying her husband Luke and starting a family.
We’ve always been led to assume that June comes from a fairly liberal background. She returned to work before her daughter turned one, refusing to be identified as only a mother. She has an interracial marriage with a man she met while he was married and her best friend Moira is a proud lesbian. That’s all well and good to her mother, but it misses the point.
As it turns out, June isn’t exactly the child her mother longed for. She says as much quite bluntly, telling June not to settle, get married, and waste her energy on something so much less important than fighting the good fight. It’s not enough just to live that way, it’s something that has to be fought for.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes time to not just remind us that the dystopia June lives in used to be a city, but that it used to be Boston. Today, Boston has a reputation as a fairly liberal city and is generally at the forefront of progressive movements, but that reputation ignores key parts of the city’s identity. It’s among the most segregated cities in the country and has a Puritan history that would make Aunt Lydia quite proud.
As June looks around one of her safe houses, she finds the discarded street signs of Massachusetts, which have been stripped away as easily as the city’s identity. This idea is hammered home as she comes to rest in front of the sign for Salem, a town notorious for its witch trials. Just like the residents of Salem, June chose not to stand up to injustice and rested on her liberal lifestyle.
It’s weird to think that what might be the most uplifting (read: least horrifying) episode of The Handmaid’s Tale is one that most closely parallels The Holocaust. On the other side of the border, a defecting guard from Gilead tells Moira how he was ordered to kill an ex-boyfriend of his, raising allusions to the Nazis who hid behind the excuse of following orders. June hides under beds and as a stowaway and helped by other oppressed minorities. In flashbacks, June’s mother is attacked while escorting women at an abortion clinic by “nazi prick a**holes.”
And yet “Baggage” maintains a rare bit of optimism for most of its run. June’s flashbacks don’t reveal oppressive horror and trauma but instead the pure relationship between a mother and child, one that June now understands from both sides as escaping will force her to leave her daughter Hannah behind. The violence is left off-camera this week2 and someone in the current timeline even makes a joke!
Even the pop anthem anthem that the first season leaned on too heavily works here: June reminiscing on singing along to “Hollaback Girl” with her mother in the car, wind blowing through their hair, a picture of liberation.
Of course, it can’t last. June’s plane is attacked just before it can take off, its pilot executed, and its passengers dragged out. What this means for June is uncertain, but what is clear is that she won’t be able to run away from what’s happening. She’s going to have to stand up and fight that injustice head-on, just like her mother.
2. Well, almost. There’s a decent amount of violence in the final 90 seconds. Wouldn’t be an episode The Handmaid’s Tale if it didn’t cringe just a little bit!↩