The Handmaid’s Tale Recap: Good Pain vs. Bad Pain

“I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story,” June says directly to us at the open of this episode.

Many have wondered about the depiction of violence in The Handmaid’s Tale (myself included) but here June addresses the issue head-on in the clearest rebuttal yet from the show: “there’s nothing I can do to change it.” The Handmaid’s Tale won’t or rather can’t tone down the horrific violence or pain present in its story, because pain is at the heart of what this story is about.

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Credit: Hulu

We rejoin June exactly where we (and Nick) left her. She’s stranded in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, very pregnant and even more alone. On its face, there’s not much that happens in this episode. June ends the episode in the same spot she started after several failed attempts to escape and one narrowly avoided Waterford family. After everything, she’s been recaptured and it looks as though things will probably return to normal, only now, Chekhov’s baby has finally been born.

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It was touch and go there for a little bit but we can now welcome Holly into the hellscape of Gilead. Credit: Hulu

But this episode was rich in tension. While dialogue was sparse and the total runtime for the episode came in at just over 47 minutes (where most episodes are closer to a full hour), June’s struggle to escape was full of fits and starts as she worked against the clock, trying to escape before she gave birth. Of course, each success brought a new obstacle. She thinks about running away on foot, but there’s a wolf. There’s a car in the garage, but it’s locked. She finds a gun, but can’t kill the Waterfords (to steal their car). She finds the car keys, but can’t open the garage door. She tries to pry it open, but she falls and her water breaks. She’s gives birth, but there’s a lot of blood and she needs help. Each new opportunity brings with it a setback as June struggles to stay afloat.

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I’m not an expert but that seemed like an unhealthy amount of blood to me. Credit: Hulu

Now is as good a time as any for the weekly Elisabeth Moss appreciation section. Despite having no other actors to talk to and only making eye contact with a wolf for the majority of this episode, Moss’s performance gives story to an episode that doesn’t inherently have much of one. Moss breathes life into the silence, whether she’s admiring herself in a commander’s jacket, spinning the screeching wheels of a sports car against the garage door, or hiding from the Waterfords in the attic.

“Holly” could have easily fallen flat without this amazing performance because the material is so full of nuance. It isn’t so much a story of her escape, but one of her pained struggle, something that we only truly have access to through the window of Moss’s face. It’s almost as if she saw Yvonne Strahovski’s performance throughout the season and effectively said over the past two weeks, “hold my beer.”

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Credit: Hulu

Throughout the episode, we get a different kind of flashback. Instead of a single story from June’s past, we’re treated to a collection of memories from her pregnancy and early motherhood with Hannah. While these flashbacks are different than the ones The Handmaid’s Tale is accustomed to using, the end result is largely the same. These past experiences of pain help color June’s state of mind in the present, mirroring her current journey.

June remembers her tearful goodbye to Hannah on her second day of school right after watching her go away with a different family at the end of last episode. Once she gets the car in the garage to start and hears American radio being broadcast, she is filled with the hope of escape, and remembers excitedly waiting for Hannah to be born with Luke. But even in that hope, there was doubt, just as June doubted that her mother would be at Hannah’s birth. Finally, the pain of June’s labor in the past is intercut with her current one. While she didn’t have her mother back then, and she is on her own now, she isn’t alone in giving birth. Luke and Moira guided her through the process then and the community of handmaids are with her in spirit now.

Nearly all of the flashbacks are filled with the same pain June is experiencing now, but pain isn’t at the center of this show for sadistic reasons. Even as June acknowledges that this story is “limping and mutilated,” there can be value in pushing through. Pain is not something to avoid, but something that must be endured and struggled against, even though it can never be fully defeated.

In Gilead, pain is coming whether you try to avoid it or not it is inevitable. But while both fighting and giving in lead to pain, they are different. It’s a subtle difference between the two comes into full focus in this chapter.

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Credit: Hulu

As Serena frantically searches for June in the abandoned house with Freddy, she becomes more and more unhinged. Over the course of this season, we’ve grown familiar with what Serena gave up in the construction of Gilead, and how it has weighed on her soul. She took a bullet, lost her leadership and power, and became a second-class citizen in the society she willed into existence. She endured each concession so that she could have a baby to call her own, but now with that ripped away for a second time, what was the point? Her willingness to compromise herself has created a special kind of agony that festers inside of her she can’t hold it in any longer, echoing over and over: “I have nothing.” It’s a pain far worse than the whipping she suffered at the hands of her husband just a few weeks ago.

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Credit: Hulu

The only way to deal with pain here is to embrace it, take it on the chin, and make sure that it is earned. As much as The Handmaid’s Tale is a story of pain, it is even more so of endurance the will to go on in the face of evil. It’s only fitting that June would name her newborn daughter Holly, after her mother, the woman who taught her that lesson. Even though she’s called the Gilead authorities to her with those gunshots, this is a reminder that she isn’t giving in.

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Credit: Hulu

The episode leaves us with the headlights of cars coming to take June and Holly away, and with that, the end of the show’s second season. Nick’s status is still very much up in the air, with even the Waterfords being unaware of his capture. Serena mentioned that with June running away for a second time, they look awfully suspicious as members of the resistance. That, along with their clearly deteriorating relationship, might lead her to throw Freddy under the bus in order to save herself.

Other than that though, there wasn’t much more to be gleaned from the finale in this episode. The show will have its full runtime to devote to what happens after Holly is born since she popped out this week, which is a good thing, but doesn’t provide any clues as to which direction the show might take. The only thing that is safe to assume is that Gilead will attempt to separate June and Holly, but if this week is any indication, June isn’t afraid to fight through pain for what needs to be done.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • Hot take: that wolf was chill and was given a bad rap because wolves are chronically misunderstood creatures. Maybe it just wanted to see what would happen so it would know if it had to raise Holly in the Gilead reboot of The Jungle Book.
  • “Yeah maybe they’ll hang us side by side. Just my fucking luck.” Even facing utter catastrophe, married couples find time to bicker.
  • A lot of great nuggets as June searched through the house, but the most interesting might have been the maps on the wall in the den. Is that a history of Gilead’s expansion, or a plan? Either way, it feels interesting that Gilead would arise out of so many separate geographic areas and then be joined together.
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Credit: Hulu
  • States we know are still part of the United States now include Hawaii and Alaska. Could it be that the whole lower 48 is now Gilead?
  • On a similar note, good to know that other countries haven’t fallen into complete disarray since China and India are providing economic aid to the remaining United States and the United Kingdom is pushing sanctions on Gilead. Where are the colonies then?
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