Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: ‘The Last Ceremony’ was the most brutal and upsetting episode of the show yet, and that’s saying something. Then it left us with a pretty big cliffhanger: June was alone, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of winter, following Nick’s arrest.
There will be spoilers here of course, but there’s nothing too terrible to spoil. This was a tense episode (as per usual) and an emotional one, but in a moving way rather than in an ‘OMG why am I even watching this’ way. I cried (as per usual) but not heartbroken tears, or furious tears.
My title this week is a bit of a joke at my own expense. Full confession: as a kid, I was morbidly terrified of wolves. My parents banned my brother and sister from saying the ‘w’ word. So when I saw that first shot of the wolf eyeing up June like she was a yummy dinner, my first thought was something like this: “OH OF COURSE THERE’S A BLOODY WOLF. THANKS FOR THE NIGHTMARES.”
Little story aside: my sister and I were in Dublin a few years ago, and we saw some wolves at the zoo. My sister asked if I was alright, and I said yes, it’s the wolves that wear clothes and walk around on two legs that I am really scared of. THAT VERY EVENING, we were on the Dublin Ghost Bus Tour (get it? Who you gonna call?) and LO AND BEHOLD a priest decided to dress up as a wolfman to scare us in the crypts. NEVER NAME YOUR FEARS!
So yes. Of course there’s a bloody wolf. But that shot of June and Wolfie in the snow was pure Red Riding Hood beautiful. We knew that she couldn’t very well try to hike to Canada in that outfit, in that condition, at that time of year (getting close to Steamed Hams territory with this sentence), and the wolf just cements that. There are wolves at the door. This is not a safe place.
Then I thought it was getting dangerously close to that infamous mountain lion subplot in 24. GIVE THE WOMAN A BREAK. WE GET IT. THERE’S PERIL. JEEZ, WHY NOT THROW IN SOME POLAR BEARS AS WELL, MAKE IT REALLLLLY EPIC?
Last week’s big question was: What the chuff is June going to do now? Well, she has some options: Fight or flight? It doesn’t take her long to decide to flee. It takes a while to search through the house for everything she needs, and everywhere she turns, there are reminders of Hannah. It’s like a ghost house, haunted by her daughter. As she ransacks the place, desperate to act, you can feel yourself cheering her on. There is movement, at long last.
It takes 17 minutes for the Waterfords to arrive, which is a little longer than I had anticipated in last week’s recap. And here we move from a children’s story made flesh, to a children’s game made sinister. Hide and Seek has an extra level of peril when the seekers are shrieking your name in fury. Fight or flight? June chooses to run and hide at first, but then, an opportunity presents itself…
Serena and Fred have their most savage argument yet, swearing at each other, and whipping June’s coat at each other. They are finally able to speak openly, assuming that they are alone, and the truth comes pouring out. Fred is vicious and pathetic, pouting because he thought June would be grateful. And Serena? The show needs to figure out how they want us to feel about her, because it seems like they were going for sympathy here, but I was too busy being angry. During their fight about who June hates the most, this exchange was infuriating:
Serena: “You raped her yesterday.”
Fred: “That was your idea!”
Hi, Waterfords? It’s me, Blame! Yeah, I belong to both of you. Stop trying to dodge me, you shitbags.
“I gave up everything for you, and for the cause. And I only ever wanted one thing in return. I wanted a baby. (…) You left me with nothing. I have nothing. I will never hold my baby.”
Fred has her by the throat at this point, in another vicious display. But June has them both in her sights. Up in her hiding place, she’s found a shotgun. And she has it pointed right at them. Fight or flight? It’s fight time.
She takes a deep breath, smiles to herself, whispers “yippee ki-yay, motherfuckers” and shoots them both in the head. Victorious, she rides off into the sunset, and lives happily ever after.
OK, OK, I made that last part up. But come on, that would have been good, right? Sigh. Instead, June is crying too. Is she feeling sorry for Serena? Or does she not want to become a killer? Either way, she stands down. The Waterfords leave. She’s alone again.
It’s time to give that escape a try. She’s got a nice winter coat, a bag of supplies, a sexy car, and she’s ready to go. It’s then that the true villain of episode 11 becomes clear: the garage door. That damn door is solid. Poor June tries everything she can to break that bloody door down, to no avail. And time’s a-ticking. Wolfie is licking his chops. And most importantly, the baby is coming. June’s not going anywhere.
The birth scene had been carefully foreshadowed through the episode, with flashbacks to June’s pregnancy with Hannah, her labour and even a farewell at the school gates scene to make every parent watching feel just a little bit guilty. In one of the flashbacks, June’s mother (Holly) wants her to give birth at a special centre, but June would rather be in the hospital. This exchange between them takes on greater meaning later on:
June: “I want doctors and nurses and lots of drugs.”
Holly: “You are stronger than you think.”
Holly is right: June is stronger than she thinks. She’s a freaking warrior badass. That’s a 9-pound baby she’s got in there. Ouch isn’t the word.
She remembers the early stages of labour with Hannah. Bless Luke and Moira, with their ‘helpful’ playlists and anxious hovering. They were right there with her, before. Now she is all alone.
She’s in trouble. She can’t leave that house. She can’t stay there for long. Her baby is in danger. ‘Fight or flight’ just won’t cut it any more; she has to choose between herself and her child. And because she is a good mother, she chooses her baby.
In the end, she doesn’t fire the gun at the wolf, or at the Waterfords. She uses it to call for help. She knows the consequences, and she accepts them. She’s breaking her promise (“I will not let you grow up in this place”) in order to keep it, in order to make sure that the child grows up.
“Here I am. Come and get me.”
The birth montage was beautiful, a testament to the strength of women and the trials of birth. June doesn’t get doctors and nurses and lots of drugs. But she has her memories: Luke and Moira, her fellow handmaids, even Aunt Lydia — they all stop by to cheer her on. Push, push, push. Breathe, breathe, breathe.
There is genuine happiness when she cradles her newborn girl and names her Holly in honour of her mother. As they lie by the fire, a car approaches, the headlights shining through the windows. The quiet time is over. There is danger ahead. But there is also salvation.
It might feel like giving up. But it was a selfless giving up, and that made it different at least. I guess it all comes down to who’s arriving in that car. I’m going to go ahead and guess that it’s not a Rebel Alliance, or that would have made for a victorious ending to the episode. No, I suspect it cuts away there so that we have a nice moment before the horror starts again next week…
Wacky Theory Alert: What if there wasn’t really a wolf?
OK, I know. There really was a wolf. But forgive me a little Life of Pi moment here, just for a moment. What if the wolf is a metaphor?
Here’s some Ned Stark wisdom as a starting point: “When the snows fall, and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.” Both June and Wolfie are alone. They are away from their packs. When she is working out what to do, she sees the wolf and stares it down. Is she weighing up her options? To be predator or prey? Is the wolf just a manifestation of the fight response? When she aimed the shotgun at the Waterfords, there was a temptation to become the predator, but she couldn’t go through with it. It was an option, just haunting the edge of her peripheral vision, lurking at the tree-line. When the attempts to break down the garage door proved futile, there was Wolfie again, as if to remind her that there’s always the fight option. You’re tempted, right? Go on… Kill them all… The first two times she sees the wolf, she chooses to retreat. The last time, when she fires the shotgun, this is perhaps her way of mimicking the wolf’s howl for back-up. When she looks back, the wolf has disappeared. She has banished her inner lone wolf, and chosen her pack instead.
Yes, it’s far more likely that the wolf scarpered because there was a big scary noise. Fair enough. But are you tempted by my Life of Pi reading? And did you like this week’s change of pace?
I’m going to leave you with a bit of Springsteen, from the motivational radio in the sexy car. Did anyone recognise the voice on the radio by the way? I suspect a cameo and I can’t find anything to corroborate it… I did appreciate that the UK got some credit for imposing sanctions on Gilead, though! Is it a good sign that this channel came on when she started the car? Are Hannah’s new parents secretly pro-American? Is there some hope there?
Who knows… Until next time, blessed be the Bruce.