Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: We paid a visit to the Colonies, bore witness to Emily’s backstory, and watched June and Nick have a lot of sex. In case you missed it, my recap for episode 2 is here.
Spoilers, spoilers everywhere from now on! You’ve been warned…
This episode is aptly titled ‘Baggage’; throughout, we see how the characters are struggling with the burden of their experiences. They feel the weight of their trauma. But baggage is more than this; it’s a store of reserves. It’s a toolkit. Experiences can be a burden and a blessing; knowing which ones to carry and which ones to let go is the trick. It’s OK to not be OK. But, to paraphrase the show’s motto, don’t let the baggage weigh you down.
June has been hanging out at the Boston Globe for 2 months now. She is settling in. She tends to the shrine she built last episode, and it grows under her care. She also starts to yarn wall the rise of Gilead, using cuttings from around the office to try and make sense of it all.
“You were there all this time, but no-one noticed you. Alright. Not no-one.”
I wonder if this might be the show’s updated version of the Offred tapes from the Historical Notes. She leaves this investigation up when she departs for the next stop on the Underground Femaleroad, so it’s conceivably a narrative she has constructed to be left for those who will follow her. Or perhaps it’s the ‘factual’ narrative that Professor Pieixoto was so desperate for, one that would have provided an additional depersonalized account of the rise of the regime, had it survived.
She keeps fit by jogging, which we haven’t seen from her since the flashback sequence in last season’s third episode. She ran with Moira then — and the show cuts to Moira jogging up in Canada, past another tribute wall, as a way of solidifying that bond between the characters. It seems that June runs to remember her old self, whereas Moira runs to forget. Moira is one of the people who noticed Gilead’s looming presence in those early days.
Hands up: who was delighted to see Luke and Moira?
They really are family now, living together, looking out for each other, as well as their other roommate, Erin, the handmaid that Luke helped to rescue in episode 7. Luke jokingly calls Moira ‘Mom’ and caring for them appears to be a form of therapy for Moira. I only have to remember that scene from episode 10 where Luke comes to collect Moira, and I can feel those tears threatening to fall. They are all scarred and vulnerable, but they have each other. They each have their own baggage; together, can they share the load?
Moira isn’t just caring for her new family; she looks after incoming refugees as well. Just as she was welcomed by the nicest Canadian ever, she pays it forward. She assures a traumatised soldier — who was in the army one day and then ‘became’ a Guardian the next, living in fear that his homosexuality would be discovered in what must be a swipe at the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy — that “it gets easier”. But Moira is struggling. She has her own PTSD. There are trauma counselors available for refugees, but it is unclear whether she has taken her own advice or whether she is trying to cope on her own.
The clips in the trailer, of Moira enjoying some sexy time in the bathroom, felt like they should be a happy moment. In some ways it is: She is free to be gay, free to express that, and free to enjoy some casual sex if she wants to. But let’s not forget that Moira is a rape survivor. She avoided the ritualistic state-sanctioned rape of the Ceremony, as she escaped from the Red Center before her first posting, when the reality of the Ceremony was made clear. The Ceremony was a line she wasn’t prepared to cross; she would have tolerated surrogacy in exchange for her life, but she wouldn’t sacrifice her sexual agency more than the regime already demanded. Having been caught again, she ‘chose’ Jezebels over the Colonies, which meant that she was raped multiple times a night, rather than once a month. And instead of having to behave like a pious empty vessel, or an “ambulatory chalice”, she had to pretend to like it. She had to murder a client to escape Jezebels.
So it is not surprising that she has some reservations about sex now. She doesn’t want to be touched, and that is understandable. But when she gave her name as Ruby — the name she had at Jezebels — this was heartbreaking. Does she see herself as a Jezebel? Has she internalized Gileadean sexual judgement? Is her sexual self a persona she puts on, like a costume, a mask that she hides behind? Or is she reclaiming it — taking what she was given and turning it into something new? Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments, because it was such a quiet, throwaway moment, but it hurt in a way that perhaps seems strange in an episode full of horrors.
The refugees are out, and they are a little broken, but they are getting by. Erin even makes a cute ‘Blessed be the Froot Loops’ joke that’s a playful, rueful reflection on how they are all struggling with their trauma, and lucky to have escaped to a place of safety. Later in the episode, one of the new characters introduces a scale by which we can measure heroism: “Brave, or stupid, or both.” There is no doubt where our friends in Canada sit on this Brave/Stupid/Both scale: they are brave and beautiful and there for each other in ways that make me want to hug them all. Keep up the good work, my preciouses.
Not only do we pay a visit to cute Luke and my precious Moira, but we also meet my other favourite character from the book: June’s mom. Just like in the book, June’s mom is a freaking powerhouse. She is tough and unrelenting. She never stops fighting. She ain’t no hollaback girl. Our first glimpse of her is June’s memory of a feminist rally; in the book, there was a pornography bonfire, but the #MeToo era leaves another mark on season 2, as women at this rally were writing down the names of their rapists then burning the paper as a ceremonial reclamation of power. It’s a stark contrast to the show’s present day, where instead of burning the names of their abusers, handmaids must wear their names in place of their own.
June’s mom, like Moira, saw what was coming. She faced it head on, literally facing protesters at an abortion clinic, and reprimanding June for ‘playing house’ while the world burns. She is hard on June, and definitely prefers Moira’s life choices in terms of her work and general attitude to the cause. She sees June as complacent, mainstream and predictable.
“I sacrificed for you, and it pisses me off that you’re just settling.”
When I teach this novel, I ask my students to consider how characters balance their desire to survive with the need to resist. There’s a spectrum of resistance in the novel and the show, from full conformity, to outward conformity but inward resistance, to active resistance and subversion, and finally to open rebellion. The characters we like the most tend to rebel openly. But they don’t survive for long. (Brave, stupid or both?) Book Offred plays the long game, clinging on to her sense of self via thinking rather than acting. The show’s adaptation of her character is much more active, but she is still able to give the appearance of conformity when she needs to.
June’s mom is a rebel. Her principles are ride or die. And we know how that turned out for her, as Moira and June see her as a labouring Unwoman in a cautionary slideshow at the Red Center. It’s awful. But June knows that, as always, “she’ll fight like hell.” It may also be a consolation that the regime never broke her spirit.
June’s memories of her mother play a couple of different roles. They are emotional baggage, certainly; there is guilt there, and sadness. But there is also strength. Her mother’s spirit, and determination to always “fight like hell” keep her going in times of darkness and uncertainty. And her relationship with her mother, bound with that guilt and sadness, becomes a proxy for her own relationship with her daughter. By forgiving her mother, she hopes to be forgiven by Hannah one day. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
The show’s Underground Femaleroad continues to give us an unofficial tour of the Boston that used to be, this time in a warehouse full of old road signs, landmarks and town names. Leaving the Globe is like leaving a sanctuary for her, and what follows is riddled with uncertainty. The road signs all piled up are a fitting metaphor for this directionless confusion, and the frustration inherent in being so close and yet so far. Each member of Mayday only knows a small part of the plan, so that if they are caught, they cannot jeopardise the entire network. But that leaves June adrift when one of the links is broken. She desperately pleads for help, which is eventually, reluctantly, given by Omar, the latest driver. It’s the compassionate choice. In the absence of another safe house, he takes her home. Brave, stupid, or both?
And this is where I admit that one of my predictions doesn’t look like it’s going to come true, but I blame the show’s less distinctive colour coding. Turns out, the Econopeople wear grey too. It actually makes more sense that the striped uniform of the books, to be fair. The Econopeople do not live stripey lives, and you wouldn’t want them to look like deckchairs.
June could have been an Econowife, had she not been “an adulteress,” but this doesn’t mean that she would have been safe. Omar’s wife, furious and terrified at Omar’s risk (she votes for stupid), mentions that if they are “fruitful”, the threat of becoming a handmaid looms over them. Her judgmental attitude towards June shows how much Gilead’s ideological reprogramming has turned the different ‘castes’ of women against each other. June recognises this for what it is, and doesn’t react.
“I don’t know how you could give your baby up to somebody else. I would die first.” “Yeah, I used to think that too.”
Their son, Adam, is ridiculously cute, and with all the innocence of youth, treats June as an exciting new guest to play with. It’s another tiny, beautiful moment, where he just sees her as a human being, not a risk, or a ‘package’ to be delivered, or a baby incubator, or a fallen woman, or a sex object. Playing with him reminds her of Hannah, and gives her hope for her pregnancy. Like any beautiful moments on the show, you can’t watch it without sensing that something awful is going to happen.
Left to hide in the apartment, this dread steadily builds. She has to hide when a neighbour comes to the door. She finds two forbidden objects under the bed: a gun, and a Quran. The family are late home. She sits, impatiently weighing up her options; none of them are good. She knows there is a plane coming, if she can only get to it. Stay or go? Brave, or stupid, or both? This is where she checks her baggage. Those memories of her mother… What would she do? The answer’s clear: Get yourself out of there. June won’t just wait around hoping things will be OK. She has done that before, and it didn’t work out so well.
Disguised as an Econowife, June blends in, taking a tense walk to the station, risking a little chat on the platform, and avoiding the attention of the Guardians. Going cross country, she has a terrible moment when she remembers that very first scene we saw back in episode 1, when her daughter was torn from her arms. Facing the reality of her bid to escape is almost crushing. But it’s all she can do.
“She left me once. Now I have to leave her.”
She makes it to the airfield, in time for a bittersweet observation:
“You raise your daughter to be a feminist. She spends all her time waiting to be rescued by men.”
She’s not the only potential escapee tonight; she is joined by a driver, and they both quickly hide on the plane. As the engines start, and the plane starts to move, the juxtaposed memories of her daughter as an infant, and of her mother — gleefully singing along to Gwen Stefani, her bare feet up on the dash — bring pain but also hope of new beginnings and reconciliation.
And then it all goes to hell.
She was so close. As she is dragged from the plane by her feet, a lot of horrible things hit you at once. Mayday has been compromised. What happened to Omar and his family? What on earth is going to happen to June now? How is this only episode 3? How much more of this can we take?