This celebrity’s appearance in The Handmaid’s Tale was brief, but oh so important…
Fair warning: This article contains spoilers for episode 11 of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale (and drops some heavy-handed hints about what’s to come later, too).
Holly is the shortest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale so far, yet easily one of the most powerful. Focusing almost entirely on Elisabeth Moss’ performance as a frightened June, we see our titular Handmaid at her lowest.
Why? Nick (Max Minghella) has seemingly been arrested and whisked away to god knows where, which means that June has been 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.
Naturally, she’s desperate to grasp her last chance at freedom – and so, when the Waterfords enter the house looking for her, she quickly arms herself with a rifle. As she watches them from above, tracking them with her gun, we learn a number of important lessons. Firstly, that it was Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) who organised the horrific rape seen in the Last Ceremony.
“You raped her yesterday!” she snaps at her husband (Joseph Fiennes), after he lambasts her for driving June away.
“That was your idea,” replies Fred sulkily.
Secondly, we learn what we have always suspected: June has developed some strange feelings towards her captors. She is armed, she is within walking distance of a working car, she has a man’s cap and coat to cover her red uniform and nobody knows where she is: all she has to do is pull the trigger, fire a few bullets into the couple who have raped her month after month after month, and she’s just a little closer to freedom.
June, though, cannot bring herself to do such a thing (we recently touched upon the idea that she has developed Stockholm Syndrome during her time in Gilead, and this episode truly hammers home that point). As such, she lets the Waterfords walk away – and this proves a mistake, in many ways. If she had shot them, perhaps nobody would have come looking for her later. If she had revealed herself to them and gone home with them, then they may have forgiven her for disappearing in the first place – and she wouldn’t have been forced to give birth to her daughter on her own in sub-zero temperatures, a wolf prowling the grounds outside.
As such, her fate remains uncertain. The fate of her baby, whom she promptly named after her mother, Holly? Even more so.
Perhaps the most exciting moment of the episode, though, came very early on, when June switched on the car radio and revealed that there’s a secret organisation running a Radio Free America from somewhere within Gilead.
And that, more importantly, a very famous face is leading the charge.
“This is Radio Free America, broadcasting from somewhere in the great white north,” states that familiar voice. “And now this news: The American government in Anchorage today received promises of economic aid from India and China. In the United Kingdom, additional sanctions on Gilead were announced, as well as plans to raise the cap on American refugees relocating from Canada. Now a tune to remind everyone who’s listening – American patriot or Gilead traitor – that we are still here.
“Stars and stripes forever, baby.”
So who did those dulcet tones belong to? None other than Oprah Winfrey.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, The Handmaid’s Tale creator and showrunner Bruce Miller said the idea came to him when he discovered Oprah was a big fan of season one.
“We’d heard Oprah was a fan of the show, and had a story idea, and thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if [she was involved in some way],” he said.” So we asked and she said yes, and it was a lovely, easy process.”
Co-executive producer Kira Snyder added: “It’s an inspiring voice for anyone to hear, but especially for June in that moment. It’s a moment of utter inspiration and hope, hearing that America is still out there and patriots are still out there. It’s incredibly powerful. I believe it’s the first time since June has been in Gilead that she’s heard any broadcast or media coming from outside Gilead.
“All she’s heard has been Gilead state media. The knowledge that the outside world at all is still there, and specifically the United States, is completely inspiring to her, to hear that voice, and to hear the music that comes up underneath it. She’s fired up.”
It’s worth noting that Oprah has long been synonymous with the dual ideas of freedom and a ‘better’ America. Indeed, Winfrey fans lit up Twitter with calls for her to run for president in 2020 against US President Donald Trump after she gave an inspiring speech at the Golden Globe awards show in support of those who have exposed sexual misconduct.
“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” she said at the time. “I’m especially proud and inspired by all of the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell. This year we became the story.”
But this story doesn’t just affect the entertainment industry, Winfrey continued – it “transcends culture, geography, race, religion, politics or workplace”.
“They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers; they are working in factories and they work in restaurants, and they’re in academia and engineering and medicine and science; they’re part of the world of tech and politics and business; they’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military,” she said.
As for what inspired the idea of including a Radio Free segment hosted by one of America’s most iconic voices, Miller added: “The radio segment she recorded was inspired by the free radio of the Allies from World War II.
“It was an absolute honour to have Oprah featured on the show, and especially thrilling as she was the one who presented us with the Emmy last year.”