Think Alexis Bledel’s character is going to get a happy ever after? Think again, says Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray.
Fair warning: This article contains spoilers for episode one of the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale (and drops some heavy-handed hints about what’s to come later, too).
“This is the valley of death and there’s a fuck-ton of evil here,” narrates Elisabeth Moss’ titular handmaid as the car carrying June’s baby, Nicole, and her fellow handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel) disappears into the night.
“I’m sorry, baby girl,” she continues. “Mom’s got work.”
With a little help from Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), ‘Night’ sees June attempt to reunite with her older daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) and bundle her out of Gilead. Naturally, she fails – that would have been far too easy, folks – and she is returned to the ‘safety’ of the Waterford house, where she is confronted by a furious Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Serena, you see, only gave her blessing for Nicole to leave Gilead if she did so in the arms of her birth mother. She did not intend for June to hand the baby over to Emily – aka the very same handmaid who stabbed Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and threw her down the stairs in last season’s finale.
“[You gave my baby to] a murderer,” spits Serena, before bursting into tears and collapsing in June’s arms. It’s hard to forgive Serena for her past actions, as June does, but it’s all too easy to feel sympathy for her in this moment. After all, this is the very same woman who helped build Gilead – who forged a prison of her own making – all so she could become a mother.
Now she is a mother, but she has no idea where her baby is, or if her little girl is even alive. And, for the first half of the episode, neither do we.
When we eventually catch up with Emily, she’s being pursued through a forest by (we assume) Gileadean helicopters. And so, in a last ditch attempt to get to safety, she tucks baby Nicole into the folds of her red habit and walks into the icy waters of a raging river.
At first, all is well. Then, without warning, Emily is dragged under the current and, for several horrifying moments, we have no idea if she will resurface. Eventually, she emerges and struggles to the shore, but it seems the baby – now frighteningly still – has died during the journey. Has everything been for naught? Emily begins CPR and, after a few heart-in-throat seconds, Nicole lets out a shuddering cry. But our relief – and Emily’s – quickly turns to terror as a man in a uniform approaches with a torch.
Praise be, it’s a Canadian policeman. As he hands Emily a blanket, he offers the handmaid – who has been raped, mutilated and beaten by her Gileadean captors – the opportunity to declare asylum in Canada if she would be persecuted as a woman were she to return to her country.
“Do you wish to seek asylum in the country of Canada?” he asks.
“Yes,” she replies, allowing this border patrol official – the first man to look at her with empathy and respect in years – to usher her to safety at last.
When she walks barefoot into a Canadian hospital, Emily is still sodden, terrified and traumatised. Her red cloak may be locked away in a sealed bag, but the shadow of Gilead remains etched into her features. And so, as a kindly doctor reassures her that she’s safe, is it any wonder that all Emily wants to know is if she can keep hold of baby Nicole?
“Of course,” they tell her.
Never before have two words been so loaded: this ‘of course’ is a reminder that Emily is now a free woman. That she is autonomous, that she is allowed to make decisions about herself and her body, that her voice has power once again. As she reconciles herself to this fact, the staff gathered in the gantries above begin applauding her arrival.
It’s a beautiful moment, albeit a bittersweet one, especially when you consider the welcome that so many real world refugees are given when they claim asylum in a foreign land. After all, Emily was not asked if she was a terrorist, if she had come for economic reasons, or if she could live in line with true Canadian values. She was not asked if she was willing to assimilate. She was simply asked if she was OK.
By all means, Emily was welcomed home by a country that was not her own. Is it any wonder, then, that more than a few tears were shed during this episode?
Later, Moira (Samira Wiley) and Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) rush to the refugee centre, after learning that there’s a package waiting for them. They wait in line impatiently until it is their turn and, when Luke receives an envelope, he tears it open immediately: it is the very same picture of Hannah which June tucked inside Nicole’s swaddling.
As he does his best to come to terms with the fact that his daughter is growing up without him, Emily is suddenly right behind him and asking if his name is Luke. When he replies in the affirmative, she tells him that June saved her life – and introduces him to Nicole.
But, while Nicole has many people looking out for her now, what about Emily? She’s in the very same country as her wife, Sylvia, and their son, after all: could this be the happy ending we’ve all been hoping for?
Don’t count on it.
“I’ve seen a lot of release reunions and they’re not always storybook endings,” says Moira to Emily in the third season previews. “But nobody’s talking about happily ever after, just after.”
And, as showrunner Bruce Miller put it recently to Variety, nobody ever escapes Gilead. Not really, anyway.
“People are still leaving their children to go to school and trying to build a life, and Emily walks into [Canada] carrying Gilead with her,” he said. “One of the things we’re exploring is that Gilead is within these people and it changes them forever, and a lot of the conversations we had with the UN in season one about refugees was about how they resettle and what’s that like psychologically.”
Miller continued: “To me, it doesn’t tell the brutality of the story of a place like Gilead if you get out of there and everything’s fine. That’s not the way it works. So for Emily, I loved the story of her in this season trying to figure out a way to be some version of herself again. We do it very measured.
“We’ve got Clea [DuVall] and Alexis, two astonishing actors, so we can really tell this story of this couple who doesn’t figure it all out. It takes a long, long time and there are hitches and starts, and you’re trying to tell a pretty intimate story and both of those characters are pretty private.
“You don’t want to feel like you’re butting in, but you want to feel like their story is progressing.”
Whether Emily will reunite with Sylvia remains to be seen. After all, several years have passed, and a huge gulf has opened up between the couple: we don’t yet know whether or not they will be able to overcome that fact.
We do know, though, that Emily has forged a new alliance. That June has yet another friend waiting for her in Canada. That both Emily and Nicole will play an important role in events to come. And that June – despite having her soles beaten bloody for her actions, despite being advised to “stop” traumatising Hannah – is all too aware of the fact that Emily did what she asked: she managed to get Nicole to freedom. Surely that should be enough to stoke the fires of rebellion in her heart?
But with all four of Nicole’s ‘parents’ – June and Nick (Max Minghella), Serena Joy and Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) – still in Gilead, we have a feeling that Emily, Luke and Moira will have an almighty custody battle on their hands. That baby is a valuable asset, after all, and Gilead will want it back.
We can only hope that June’s new role as Commander Lawrence’s handmaid will provide her with the tools she needs to make sure that both her daughters are able to grow up in a free, non-Gileadean world. And that Emily, though both physically and psychologically scarred by her experiences, will – like Moira before her – eventually enter a new phase of healing and rehabilitation.
That is, you know, if Gilead doesn’t have her extradited on murder charges. Fingers crossed that this theme of optimism continues in episode two, eh?
Previous episode: The Word
Next episode: Mary and Martha
Image: Hulu / Channel 4