The Handmaid’s Tale is, to put it far too lightly, often difficult to watch. Former viewers sometimes send me messages, explaining exactly when they had to call it quits — in season two after the forced surgery to remove Emily’s clitoris or when Loaves and Fishes was shot up in season three. (Some of you poor souls didn’t make it past the first season’s ominous ending.) And right now, in the late spring of 2021, just as large parts of America are reopening and the roses are peeling open outside my window, it’s somehow harder than ever to tune in. When dark art follows you into lighter times, its former meaning sometimes turns into an affront.
“Vows” isn’t an especially violent episode. Yet it was the most trying 50 minutes of The Handmaid’s Tale in a while because the show’s writers finally keyed back into the original resonance of Margaret Atwood’s novel: that the biggest burden of the Gilead regime is the way it entirely sweeps away the past. The women (and men) locked inside Gilead are still in their home country, sometimes their own towns and cities, but their everyday lives are wallpapered over with some alternative reality. They have their memories — of neighbors who used to chat over fences, or coffee shops where they met up with colleagues, or the spot of sidewalk where their son first rode his bike — but the past and the present are entirely disjointed.
The emotional rigor of “Vows” feels like a return to form, or at least a hiatus from the catch-and-release tension of this season and the last. “Will June get caught?” has been replaced by “Will June ever find her daughter?,” a far more rewarding and fascinating tension, not least because to save herself, June has had to essentially give up on saving her child.
As unlikely as it is that Moira ends up in Chicago on a humanitarian mission at the same time June is in the city, and as even unlikelier as it is that Moira wanders down the exact street where June has just survived a carpet-bombing, Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley are so good together — the current of love that zips between them is so forceful and apparent — that it’s a joy to watch them. Moira has floundered in Toronto: The writers needed to keep her close to June, so they saddled her with Nichole and Luke, as if Moira wouldn’t need to reclaim some of her own identity. But in both the flashbacks and their scenes in Chicago and on the boat, the character came alive again. She got that old zip back.
It’s probable that June didn’t recognize the urgency of the situation or the divine luck of finding her best friend among the rubble because of her concussion. (June can be dense and stubborn, but let’s chalk this one up to the traumatic brain injury.) And her insistence on finding Janine is laudable — she might be waiting for help under rubble just a few feet away or dazed herself in a nearby alley. Moira seems certain that Janine is dead, but what she doesn’t know is that this is The Handmaid’s Tale and anyone, anywhere can stay alive if the writers’ room wills it.
If we’re meant to be invested in the moral quandary of whether or not to stow away June on the boat or turn her over to Gilead authorities, well, it wasn’t much of a question. As the humanitarian workers argue over the merits of either alternative, I just found myself wondering what the hell such a mealymouthed agency believed it was doing inserting itself into such a volatile situation. Oona (whom I have been calling Luna for weeks because closed-captioning doesn’t work on screeners — sorry, Oona!) makes the valid point that if they’re found out for hustling Gilead’s most wanted out of the country, there will be “no more returns, no more food, medicine for all these people.” But she and most of the crew also express no moral ambiguity about turning June over to people who will certainly rip her fingernails out, gut her like a fish and then hang her up on the biggest wall in Gilead. June isn’t some common handmaid — she’s an international symbol — so while Gilead’s blows will be all the heavier when she turns up in Canada, her escape will also provide the Americans in exile with the spokeswoman and mascot they need.
Not to mention the fact that a simple solution of passing June off as one of the crew has existed all along! When Oona turned to her shipmate and blurted out, “Print her an ID,” I thought my ears must be deceiving me. Certainly, if the solution is so simple — no need to scramble manifestos or rip up floorboards or keep June hanging on a rope over the side of the ship while inspectors came onboard — someone would have brought it up earlier. “Oona, why don’t we just print her an ID with the handy-dandy ID-maker onboard and give her one of these official vests?” And yet here they were, ready to offer her to butchers! (Tack on the fact that Moira is also pretending to be Canadian to work on this mission and we have ourselves one seriously creatively devoid group of aid workers.)
June and Moira’s second confrontation, the one by the side of the lifeboat, would have made more of an impact if not for the virtually identical conversation they had hours earlier. June’s hesitation makes sense for the character — sweet God, absolutely nothing could convince that woman to save her own skin until now, and if she had immediately hightailed it for that little cargo ship in Chicago, I might have lost my grip on reality. But the acting! Oh, the acting! Moss and Wiley perfectly execute on the stakes here. The fury, the shouting, June’s shifting blame — it’s all exquisite.
And it brings home the reality of how hard it is for June to show up in Canada without Hannah. After torture (and more torture), rape (and more rape), and escape attempts (and more escape attempts), she is about to step onto Canadian soil and immediately reap the benefit of that safety. And she didn’t, couldn’t, bring along her innocent child, even though she saved the lives of so many others. “If I don’t go back now,” she shouts at Moira, “Hannah is gone forever.” And she’ll have to explain to Luke why she failed at that which we expect of all mothers: to put her child first, to die for her child, to take on superhuman capabilities.
The flashbacks with Moira were sweet touches, reminders of their fierce love and complicated friendship. But it was the scene in which June tells Luke she’s pregnant that hit me like a brick. Her rush to tell him the news, even at the expense of her “plan,” just rang true. And it restored June as a wounded being, not an unstoppable force able to take on anything to keep her child alive and well in her arms. The Indestructible Mother is a dangerous trope that insists women can and should absorb any blow for their babies. Giving birth or adopting or sheltering a child doesn’t bestow some cloak of immortality on parents. June smashed through every barrier for far too long — it’s far more gripping when she finally comes up against one she can’t surmount. And at its heart, this is what The Handmaid’s Tale can be: the story of a mother’s imperfect but buoyant love.
So when Luke bangs through that door and sees his wife for the first time in years, it makes sense that her first words are an apology. “I’m sorry I don’t have her … I’m sorry it’s just me.”
Now June needs to work her magic from across the border.