This is a deep dive into the events of Episode 11 of Series 2 of The Handmaid's Tale, which is available to stream now at SBS On Demand. Spoilers are a given, as we discuss all of the plot points within the episode.
Watch episode 11, 'Holly', at SBS On Demand:
I don’t know about you, but I don’t care for those think pieces that have seemingly become fashionable, in which people boldly make a case for why they have stopped watching The Handmaid’s Tale. My eyes can’t roll back into my head fast enough when I hear the cries of “Torture porn!’ about the show's frequent depictions of oppressed women being brutalised for their efforts to reclaim their agency, their bodies, their names. Come off it. It’s true that the show is often gruelling and exhausting and sad, but...it’s framed as a first-person account of state-sanctioned misogyny and ritualised rape. What did you expect?!
In last week’s Eyes on Gilead podcast, I spoke to director Daina Reid, whose episode, ‘Holly’ premieres this week. At the time of speaking to her, we hadn’t been given access to her episode yet, but I asked her about her reaction to these knee jerk responses to the show, by people who want their dystopian oppression to to be more palatable:
“I’ve read something and they’ve gone, ‘It’s too violent. It’s too violent for me’, Reid said. “And I think, Look at the news! They burnt an Indian girl for reporting a rape, and you can’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale?! Gimme a break! I mean, seriously, that kind of backlash, squirmishness! Everyone on that show is just so aware that there is no way this becomes anything else other than a comment on society and the society we’re in and I find it hilarious that people go, ‘It’s violence for violence’s sake’. It is nothing compared to what is actually happening to women in the world, and has already happened. It is a reflection of that and i feel like kind of shaking people and going, ‘Wake up! If you can’t watch that, then you must be losing your eyes to what is actually happening’.
You can hear Daina’s entire interview here, but it strikes me now, how much her entreaty to people to wake up, sounds like June’s firebrand mama, Holly, during her memorable rant in ‘Baggage’ (episode 3 of this second series - watch it here). In railing against what she considers to be June’s misaligned priorities, Holly bellows: “Come on, this country is going down the fucking tubes. It’s time to get out in the street and fight, not play house.”
Fitting then, that Holly’s presence looms so large within this, Daina’s episode, which is named for June’s mum, and which features a poignant monologue dedicated to the memory of a formidable woman who paid a high price for her foresight. An incredible hour of television, ‘Holly’ has fast become my favourite in the series to date.
“I’m sorry there is 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,” June says in the opening voice over, in comments seemingly directed right at us. (I mean, last week was rough, right?!)
“I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well.”
This week’s episode represents something special for those of us who are sticking it out with June through thick and thin. We all get a prize for showing up, almost as if Oprah Winfrey herself was still handing out presents to audiences, and she’s gifted us with a week away from Gilead (or, wait, has she?!).
We get a baby, we get a ridiculous muscle car, and we (almost) get a kill shot on Fred and Serena. Two out of three ain’t bad.
‘Holly’ opens mere moments after the close of ‘The Last Ceremony’. June is outside in the snow at the abandoned lake house. Blindsided by Nick’s abduction. Overwhelmed by her wrenching reunion with Hannah. Aching from the savage rape by the Waterfords. Heavily pregnant. And completely alone.
A garage offers hope, as do a set of keys -- eventually (after a real-world nod to the angst-ridden riffle through the detritus of household drawers). Of course the keys’ corresponding car is ridiculously conspicuous, because if anyone knows a thing or two about being conspicuous, it’s a near-term Handmaid, in a blood-red dress, on a snowy day, at an abandoned house, in Gilead.
The garage is sealed shut, but June puts her pedal to the metal in a full-throttled attempt to burst through to the outside world (and the Great White North that is within radio range). She’s mere moments away from realising her own little leadfoot is equally anxious to break free - of her.
I confess I recoil at most on screen birth moments, which fall into one of two categories: wincingly-graphic-and-terrifyingly-off-putting, or super-quick-no-problem-and no-sweat (a quick “khee-khee-khoo” breath and it’s out!). But June’s birthing of her second baby is something else, and is like nothing I’ve seen on screen. It’s an incredible showcase of Elisabeth Moss’ range, and as on screen births go, Holly junior’s entry into the world sure beats the hell out of the hokey harp ritual Serena had planned back at her house of horrors.
June’s thoughts drift time and again, to the birth of Hannah, and to Hannah’s first days at Kindy. In these scenes it’s Holly Sr’s presence, as much as her absence, that provides the dominant, disappointing, driving force behind June’s actions. We know that Holly wasn’t one to go down without a fight, even in discovering that she ended up donning the light blue garb of the Colonies. When June sounds the alarm to bring medical attention to her newborn, we know she is mindful of her own mother’s sacrifices, and is following suit.
June holds a faint hope that Holly might yet remain in the Colonies, but could she, as tough a nut as she is, have lasted in the radioactive wasteland for the year(s) since June saw her photograph at the Red Centre? Wherever her mighty mum might be, June acknowledges her in a voice over that is ambiguous enough to also apply to the baby she is cradling (and which is about to be seized from her side): "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.”
”We did it, Holly.”
June's SOS is bound to bring more bad things her way, and create a sizeable hurdle in her ability to make good on her episode five promise to her baby that she would "get you out of here". But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We'll take whatever gifts come our way, and truly, this episode was one. Sucked in to all the lightweights who have stopped watching.
Want more of a debrief of this episode? Listen to Eyes On Gilead, as we recap 'Holly' and theorise about the wolf, why June didn't shoot Serena, and what this episode shares with 'Mad Max: Fury Road'