The Handmaid’s Tale
Occasionally you’ll notice a tendency among some moms to exaggerate, or at least dramatize, their labor and delivery stories. An unscheduled C-section turns into an “emergency C-section,” despite the fact that the patient was calmly wheeled into the operating room and the doctor performed a perfunctory bit of routine surgery. Long hours of labor are stretched just a little farther than probability allows (we all know that woman who claims to have labored for 50 hours, despite the fact that no OB/GYN in the country would allow that to happen for fear of skyrocketing insurance premiums). Perhaps it’s the trauma of the event that makes us amplify the details: It certainly feels like you’re in labor for an ungodly amount of time. It’s an occasion so momentous — physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically — that we need to anoint it with an extra dose of significance to make sense of it all.
June, however; well June’s delivery story doesn’t need exaggerating, just as many of you beautiful commenters predicted it wouldn’t. No hand to hold, no epidural, no medical care of any kind, no electricity. No hope of escaping Gilead before her daughter came into the world.
The showrunners must have anticipated some of the criticism about just how brutally Handmaid’s Tale has treated June. “I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story,” she explains in a voiceover that sounds much closer to the novel’s narrative voice (in which, spoiler alert, June has left audiotapes explaining her story that are studied by a college class much farther in the future) than her television persona. But she has to keep telling it. “I keep on going with this limping and mutilated story,” she offers towards the end, “because I want you to hear it.” The suffering of women, for so long classified as hysteria, or nerves, or vapors, or else simply ignored, is now too rampant and unremitting for June to keep even a single detail to herself.
Left alone in snowy rural Massachusetts, 39 weeks pregnant, having just survived a savage rape and having her firstborn daughter ripped from her arms yet again, June’s already had a day worse than any you can imagine. The pace of this episode — nearly the entire first half is taken up with June’s search through the house and attempt to ride free — could have felt slow, especially compared to action-packed earlier episodes. But there’s so much tension to every minute and so much, if you’ll excuse the pun, riding on June finding the keys and zooming out of the garage, that it’s as anxiety-producing as her earlier near-escape. And that’s not to mention the animal — is that a goddamn dire wolf? — that appears, baring its teeth at June and threatening to pounce.
In its own way, the exasperation of the moment is oddly relatable. First, June can’t get into the garage, despite fiercely kicking at the door the way an action star might. (We’ve all been there.) Then, the search through the house yields countless drawers full of paperclips, twist ties, ballpoint pens … anything but the keys. (Yep, that sounds like a weekly occurrence.) When she finally lays hand on the keys and accesses the garage, where the world’s most inconspicuous getaway car awaits her, June realizes that she has to head back into the house for supplies. (Check.) And then not only will the garage doors not open, but the emergency cords don’t work, and all that horsepower can’t send the car barreling through the door, à la Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
But the scenes are full of heartbreak, too. The house belongs to the McKenzies, the family with whom Hannah has gone to live, and the photo of her grinning next to her “new mom” is an added kick to June’s ribs. The radio station she stumbles onto in the car is some sort of underground transmission, something she can only pick up because she’s so close to Canada — and freedom. And while it’s unclear whether or not June is meant to know that it’s Oprah talking, or whether Oprah was just brought in for the viewers’ amusement, it’s touching to hear such a beloved and friendly voice crooning, “Stars and stripes forever, baby.” Not to mention the sheer American-ness of Bruce Springsteen blaring through with “Hungry Heart”:
Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Ain’t nobody like to be alone
The camera has been following June from above, tracking her like prey in the snow, or like an escaped prisoner being stalked by a helicopter. When Serena and Commander Waterford show up, the dynamic flips, and it’s June watching them from above, peeking through the interior cupola. The argument she oversees is almost absurd in its premise: Each half of the couple blames the other for driving June away with cruelty, when it’s truly been a team effort. (“You raped her yesterday!” “That was your idea!”) With June gone, again, there is no good excuse they can offer to the other Commanders. Lose a handmaid once, shame on her. Lose a handmaid twice … Ending up on the wall is real possibility; Commander Waterford allowed his friend’s arm chopped off for far less.
Their argument is the grand unburdening of the anger and resentment that’s been brewing in their relationship for years. And underneath it all has been Serena’s desire for a baby. It’s a sharp indictment of our parent-centric society, of the idea that successful adulthood necessarily includes parenting. Despite her prominence, her beauty, and her wealth, Serena actively abandoned her intellectual freedom — and helped oppress an entire nation’s worth of other women and dissenters — for the promise of a child.
So why doesn’t June take the shot? Pulling the trigger on the double-barreled shotgun she discovered in an attic chest would guarantee a head start towards freedom. Even a wound would prevent Serena and Commander Waterford from giving chase, and their waiting car is a perfect substitute for the lowrider trapped in the garage. June is probably about four hours from the border in a rural area — with the right hat and the men’s coat she’s wearing over her crimson Handmaid’s dress, she just might make it to the border. It’s possible that Serena’s speech, her crying out that the Commander has left her with nothing, evoked some small amount of pity in June. But it’s more likely that potentially killing the Waterfords, or even shooting at them, must have June worried that it will debase her own character. If she lashes out with bloody retaliation, even against the oppressors who have done her so much harm, is she any better than them?
But first, that beautiful, dramatic birth scene.
The birth of a long-awaited baby on a show’s season finale has long been a trope of television. When Game of Thrones chopped off its protagonist’s head in the penultimate episode of their first season, they changed the rules of the game. They then established a pattern of including big battle scenes or escapes prior to the finale, and the change freed up the narrative possibilities for GoT and the rest of prestige TV. Now Handmaid’s Tale has sent June into labor with two more episodes to go, leaving us to wonder whether her gunshots will bring anyone to save her (and return her to Gilead), or if she’ll somehow head north, baby in tow. A lot can happen in two hours of cable TV.
Admittedly, I worried that June’s labor and delivery would feel ham-fisted, like they’d shoehorned it in there to lure female watchers with an emotional touchstone. And the spread of bright blood, reaching out like a gruesome red carpet beneath her, adds a touch more melodrama than the scene needed. But Elisabeth Moss brings so much dignity to a scene that must have been incredibly difficult to shoot. Naked and sprawling, rocking from hands and knees to an upright perch, with her face contorted and deep groans and screams ripping out of her throat, June looks the way all women unknowingly look while laboring: powerful and vulnerable all at once.