After the most intense episode of The Handmaid’s Tale so far, we ask: what the f**k happens now?
Fair warning: This article contains spoilers for episode three of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale (and drops some heavy-handed hints about what’s to come later, too).
Was this the most traumatising episode of The Handmaid’s Tale so far? Without a doubt.
It all started so well: after two months at The Boston Globe, June (Elisabeth Moss) has proven that she is (as ever) adaptable. She has a workout regime, she has been maintaining her altar of sadness, and she’s been using newspaper cuttings to create a collage of Gilead’s rise to power. And, looking at headlines like “Militarisation” and “Curtailment of Civil Rights” (sound familiar?), she has found that this was no immediate switch-over.
“You were there all the time,” she says, “but no one noticed you.”
This, though, is not exactly true: someone did notice. And that someone was June’s mother, Holly (Cherry Jones).
In flashbacks, we learn that Holly is a doctor at an abortion clinic, and a staunch activist for women’s rights. So much so that she takes a very young June to a Take Back the Night rally, where women burn papers scribbled with the names of their rapists. As her daughter grows up, though, she begins to tire of Holly’s feminist crusade and, as such, Holly begins to tire of her in turn. She dismisses June’s promotion, noisily informing her that she’s “settling” with her job as an assistant editor at an academic press. She shakes her head over her daughter’s ‘pretty’ clothes. And, when she learns of June and Luke’s engagement, her reaction isn’t exactly that of a happy and proud mother.
“You really want to take all that energy and passion and give it to a man?” she asks. Then, seeing the expression on her daughter’s face, she hastily adds: “Luke is fine, but this country is going down the f**king tubes. It’s time to get out in the street and fight, not play house.”
She was right about the country, but June assumed her mother was being over-dramatic. That the country was fine. That everything would work out for the best.
The best, however, turned out to be Gilead. But, while June was assigned to the role of Handmaid, her mother, we discover, was banished to a life in the radioactive Colonies. And a very short, violent and unhappy life, at that.
Driven by these memories of Holly, modern-day June suddenly begins to feel claustrophobic. And, when she learns the “safe-house” she was supposed to be taken to has suddenly been rendered unsafe, she decides to forge her own path to Gilead’s Underground Railroad. She refuses to let Omar (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) leave without her, standing in front of his truck until he relents and allows her to hide out at his house – despite the enormous danger this poses to himself and his family. For a short while, June is content to rifle through their wardrobes and imagine how her life could have been different if she had been branded an Econo-wife. However, when Omar’s family are late (very late) home from their ordained church visit, June decides to dress up in his wife’s clothes, head out into unknown territory and get on the train out to her destination.
There are eyes on her, everywhere. There are watchful guardians, nosy Econo-wives, disapproving train guards – and her high levels of anxiety are noted by almost everyone she comes into contact with. Yet, somehow, she gets through her train journey, peels off from the crowds, throws herself though forests and cornfields, and makes it out to the airstrip as the sun was setting, just in time to meet her original rendezvous.
Under cover of darkness, the plane appears. June introduces herself to the pilot, showing him her brutalised ear as proof of her Handmaid status. She boards the plane. She squeezes her eyes tightly shut – and thinks of her daughter, Hannah. If she leaves Gilead, June knows that she may never see her little girl again. That, as signified by Hannah’s little pink dress, June is dooming her daughter to a life of torment and sexual servitude as a Handmaid. But June has another baby growing inside her stomach – one which also deserves freedom. And so, rather than hurling herself from the plane, June clings on and sobs as the aircraft picks up speed…
But then the shooting begins.
As bullets tear through the walls of the craft, all of June’s dreams of freedom – our dreams of freedom – are destroyed before our eyes. The plane crashes, the pilot is taken out and shot, and the Guardians drag June, kicking and screaming, out through the small hatch in the side of the plane.
There is only one word that can sum up the audience’s feelings during this scene: f**k. An expletive that will no doubt have been shouted in living rooms up and down the country, as viewers suddenly realised that this show will never give June the happy-ever-after we so crave for her. Worse still, though, is the fact that the shooting seems to suggest that Omar – kind, brave, wonderful Omar – and his family were taken by the Guardians after church, just as June feared. That they were tortured and berated and bullied into revealing the location of the rendezvous point. That her failed escape has led to their undoing.
Of course, this failed escape means that June will not be going to Canada. Instead, she will be returned to Gilead – and to a life of horror. We already know that rebellious, pregnant Handmaids are chained to their beds at the Red Centre. That Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) will not physically harm June while she is carrying Commander Waterford’s baby, but that she has many other means of torturing her (remember how she made June sit and listen to her friends screaming in pain as she had them burned?). That Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) will demand the worst possible punishment for the woman she hates having under her roof. That Nick (Max Minghella) will be killed if the Waterfords so much as suspect he played a part in her escape (and why wouldn’t they? June is, after all, carrying his baby).
And yet… well, Commander Waterford is already in a precarious position. His authority has been shaken by the previous Handmaid rebellion, his abilities questioned, his livelihood threatened. Indeed, if anyone learns that his Handmaid escaped of her own free will, it seems likely to throw his entire career into jeopardy – so perhaps June still has a chance. Perhaps the Waterfords will noisily welcome her back into their home, pretend that nothing ever happened. Perhaps they will pretend that they have rescued her from kidnappers, rapists, murderers, or some similarly cruel fate. Perhaps all punishments will be kept small, painful, secret – and carried out entirely behind closed doors.
Unfortunately for the Waterfords, though, Offred is no longer. Instead, they will have June under their roof – and June, like her mother before her, ain’t no hollaback girl. We wonder what they will make of her?