It’s a moment nine months in the making—although, in another way, it’s been in the works a lot longer than that. The most recent episode of The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just a gorgeous hour of television, it’s done something few other shows or films ever have: It gave us the miracle of life, in all its pain and beauty. It’s an episode everyone should witness.
“Holly” is an unconventional hour of television, even by The Handmaid’s Tale’s standards. Directed by Daina Reid, it’s stark, small, and laser-focused, choosing to stay in one location and its lone inhabitant, rather than jumping around from scene to scene. This provides for an intimate exploration of human survival, as June (Elisabeth Moss) reacts to being stranded at her daughter’s new home, following the events of the previous episode.
Upon realizing that she’s alone, nine months pregnant, and face-to-face with a giant black wolf, June’s first reaction is to panic. This instinctual fear is reflected in many of the episode’s flashbacks, as June is getting ready to give birth to Hannah. Despite her mother Holly’s pressure, June’s terrified to have the baby anywhere but a hospital, pumped full of drugs. She doesn’t believe she’s strong enough. But here, in the present, June realizes how powerful she has become. Gilead may have tried to break her, but it’s only made her stronger. She packs her shit and gets ready to fly.
Unfortunately, as June has previously stated, you can never truly leave Gilead. It lives within you. Or rather, in this case, it won’t let you open the garage door. Not even the words of encouragement from a nearby American radio station are enough to save the day.
June’s isolation is only interrupted once by the sudden arrival of a panicked Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), searching for June and her unborn child. Brought to their lowest point, having lost “their” baby for a second time, they have regressed into human vipers, constantly snapping at each other. It’s a scene straight out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, full of violent threats, curses, and grief. These two people hate each other, for everything they are and everything they represent. I’m curious to see how they come out the other side, if they can at all.
After the Waterfords leave and June fails again to get the car out of the garage, the moment of truth arrives: June’s water breaks. The rest of the episode focuses on June giving birth to her daughter, and it’s magnificent. I watched the episode with my older sister, who had a baby pretty recently, to get her thoughts on how they did. Her response? “They nailed it.”
All the sounds, all the sights—the mixture of pain, fear, and raw intimacy. It was an experience. June is naked and screaming, splayed in front of a roaring fire like a feral animal who’s been stripped to her core. June doesn’t have a doctor telling her to push, or a husband holding her hand. She is alone. Everything we see and feel is filtered through Moss’ dynamic performance. And while we do get a montage showing us June’s previous labor, along with Aunt Lydia’s birthing exercises and Janine’s delivery, the story is all about this moment. Bringing this one child into the world: Holly.
There are some moments in fiction that must be seen, and I believe this is one of them, even if you’ve never seen the show before, or ever will again. This latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale was a powerful standalone piece of television that shows childbirth not as this sanitized joke where a woman screams and puffs, then (pop!) a clean baby shoots out. It was bloody. It was messy. It was painful to watch, hear, and feel. But it was also beautiful, demonstrating one of humanity’s greatest gifts: The ability to create life.
- I know a lot of people might be frustrated that June signaled for rescue, even though she ended up birthing the child herself. I asked Reid about this during a recent interview, and she said June’s blood loss and possible tearing would’ve likely killed her without proper medical attention. Plus, in that moment, June wasn’t thinking about herself. She couldn’t. She was thinking about her child, putting Holly’s needs before her own.
- All the acting in this episode was top-notch, but I have to applaud Moss for completely devoting herself to this episode. And, seeing as how the actress has had no children, it’s impressive how well she portrayed the experience.
- Anyone else notice how the voice on the radio was talking about Canada’s increased sanctions against and refugee admissions from Gilead? Seems like the two countries are heading toward war—if not by the end of this season, then the next one. It would be an interesting development, as Gilead’s been bad enough in times of “peace.”