Warning: Contains spoilers.
Episode 10 of season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale ended with the biggest cliffhanger since the van ride in the season 1 finale, as June was left alone in the woods following her heartbreaking reunion with her daughter Hannah and Nick’s disappearance at the hands of two unknown Guardians. Episode 11, “Holly,” answers questions and offers two gratifying, unexpected guest appearances. There’s also no Canada and no Emily — meaning, we are due for lots of Emily in the two final episodes. With that, here are some highlights from “Holly.”
Hannah and the Wolf. We begin at the exact moment where we left off: with June out of breath, alone outside the deserted house. She runs into the woods, pauses to catch her breath, runs back, finds a large garage with a car locked inside it. And then she sees the wolf looking at her and goes back to the house to look for keys.
The house is full of Easter eggs: maps of the U.S. at the stage of takeover and reminders that Hannah has been here. There’s a framed drawing on the desk of Hannah with the Commander and his wife in front of a big white house with barred windows, obviously done by Hannah. It could be any white building, but it also looks like a memory of a family trip to the remains of the U.S. Capitol building. There’s a photo of the Commander’s wife with Hannah and a big, freshly caught fish. This and the heavy use of taxidermy in the décor is a clue that the house’s summer occupant must be an avid outdoor sportsman, the sort of person likely to have a gun in the home. June already knows how to load and fire a gun from the time when she and Luke were trying to run to Canada.
Really Obvious Getaway Car. After finally finding the keys in the drawer, June enters the garage. The car, surprisingly, is a muscular vintage sports car, likely to be noticed immediately even if she could get it out of the garage. It’s a sign of June’s desperation that she even considers using it to get away. This car is the sort of contraband that only a commander could get away with holding on to, given that Gilead is keen on reducing carbon emissions. How far could she get in that car on a snowy New England road in midwinter? It’s a vehicle for summer cruises, not winter distance traveling over snowy roads.
Furthermore, we never get a clean view of the dashboard. Is the tank full? It’s unclear if it has a full gas tank or snow tires. June does not check the tires, or the license plate — if that car still has lettered plates on it, she’ll most likely be stopped immediately, because all of the license plates in Gilead are numbers-only. The car sticks out, and she would need to be inconspicuous.
Radio Free America. June turns the key in the ignition, hears static and turns the dial slightly to hear the first surprise cameo: the announcer’s voice for “Radio Free America, broadcasting from somewhere in the great white north.” The voice sounds awfully… familiar. It sounds a lot like Oprah Winfrey. In fact, that is the voice of Oprah Winfrey. So is Oprah a real person in the Gilead universe, now providing comfort via pirate radio, or was this just a fun cameo? The idea of a crossover in which real celebrities appear as themselves, fighting the good fight in exile, sails dangerously close to cheesy territory. But it hasn’t happened yet, and it was glorious to hear Oprah on the radio, smoothly leading into quintessential American troubadour Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”: “Now a tune to remind everyone who’s listening, American patriot or Gilead traitor, that we are still here. Stars and Stripes forever, baby.” It was one of the few feel-good moments that The Handmaid’s Tale has allowed, and I’ll take it.
The broadcast is a useful info dump for the viewer, and is most likely June’s first unfiltered encounter with real, current news since the beginning of the Gilead coup. There’s so much to unpack regarding the state of the world — India and China are sending aid to the exiled American government in China, and Britain has promised further sanctions on Gilead, plus space for more American refugees coming through Canada. It’s nice to know that our oldest friend is taking care of us.
Commander and Mrs. Mackenzie. The Commander and Mrs. Waterford enter the mansion as Offred is prepping for her getaway. Fred calls out “Commander Mackenzie! Mrs. Mackenzie!” It seems like a throwaway line, but overhearing it could be June’s key to finding Hannah someday, if she has the presence of mind to remember that Hannah Bankole may be on the record as Agnes Mackenzie.
Who are the Mackenzies? Hannah’s adoptive father must be very high up in Gilead to have this enormous, fancy summer house. Even the Waterfords don’t have a summer home like this, or at least they’ve never mentioned it. Offred has been with them for well over a year, and we’ve never heard any mention of a vacation home. How is Fred powerful enough to wrangle a meeting with the adopted daughter of a commander who clearly has more swag than him?
Waterfords in the Hallway. Coming in screaming for Offred is not a good way of finding her. The squabbling Waterfords play a game of one-downsmanship in the foyer to demonstrate who the bigger hypocrite is. Both Waterfords pass the buck on blame for raping Offred. Fred blames Serena for not making pals with Offred: “If you’d shown that girl one ounce of kindness she would never have left.” Well, how many women would be kind to the woman their husband is screwing, especially when they’re under the same roof? Fred’s observation is hypocritical because he actively worked to re-create the hateful barrier between the two women following his return from the hospital. He doesn’t really have any stake in Serena’s kindness toward June because any alliance between them threatens his authority. Serena points out that Fred raped Offred the day before, and Fred points out that the rape was her idea. Fred’s conclusions regarding likely behavior are off-base every time. Serena is right — Nick and Offred were there. They probably would find her if they searched harder.
Clean Shot. June finds a gun and cartridges in her hiding place. She has a clear view of the Waterfords’ revealing fight and a clean shot at them. June sees the actual state of the Waterford marriage and what their pressure points are in a way that she wouldn’t be able to if they knew she were watching. She now has tools to play them off against each other with. Serena Joy reveals that Nick is the father of Offred’s baby, and that she has regrets about her path: “I gave up everything for you. And for the cause. And I only ever wanted one thing in return. I wanted a baby.” Fred counters, “You wanted a lot more than that — fucking demanded it!” Serena repeats, “You’ve left me with nothing,” as he throttles her up against the wall. She starts to cry, which ends Fred’s violence: He likes it when women are weak. Despite Serena’s abuse, June can’t shoot when her enemy is in such a vulnerable state. June had a clean shot at her villains. But she couldn’t do the deed. She flinched.
Anything that Serena has left in the world depends on her husband’s status and his willingness to take direction and respect her expertise — a willingness that we have seen dwindling markedly in these past two seasons. It would be lovely to see Serena come to the light, find Mark Tuello’s number in that box of cigarettes that she held on to before burning the Hawaiian matchbook two episodes back, run off to Honolulu, and denounce Gilead. Heck, I’d even root for handsome Mr. Tuello to become the second Mr. Serena Joy. But it’s not going to happen. Her lament is “I gave up everything for you and the cause,” with no guilt mentioned for what other women lost due to her actions.
Return of Holly. Holly’s back! It was a delight to see the unexpected return of Cherry Jones, who was listed on The Handmaid’s Tale’s IMDb page for one episode only. It’s another scene about mother/daughter conflict. Holly is trying to sell June on giving birth to Hannah in some crunchy hippy-dippy birthing center. June wants a hospital and lots of drugs. Holly recounts June’s birth: “I was unmedicated. I wanted to see what it feels like.” Also, June doesn’t believe that Holly will actually be at the hospital. Holly tells her, “You’re stronger than you think.” June didn’t want to be strong until she had to — which means now.
Garage Door. June attempts to bypass that closed garage door by driving through it. She fails. Her lack of planning, or cunning lack of planning, is realistic — most people in desperate situations wouldn’t think to do any of the reasonable things the viewers in our comfy homes want to mutter at the screen as we play the Monday morning quarterback for situations we have never experienced. The garage is not two but four doors wide — could June not try to open one of the other doors manually from the outside, or look for a fuse box to turn the power back on in the garage so that she can open a door? Or shoot out the locks? Maybe she could try one of the other doors and then maneuver out of the garage? But honestly, how much of that would you think of if you were panicking and freezing in the woods, about to give birth?
June is not James Bond or Harry Houdini, nor should that be expected of her. The show deserves praise for not making June a paragon of cleverness under extreme pressure. She does a number of things over the course of her escape attempts that the viewer can immediately identify as impudent — standing too close to windows, running when she should hide, hiding when she should run — but that any average human would be likely to do. It isn’t her job to be clever. It’s society’s job to not install theocracies.
Gunshots in the Air. There’s a ton of blood everywhere as her contractions temporarily subside, so June reaches out for help by finally firing that gun into the air four times, thinking, “Here I am. Come and get me.”
Push, Push, Push. Breathe, Breathe, Breathe. June winds up giving birth alone, despite her attempts to alert help. In her memory, she calls back to Hannah’s birth, to Aunt Lydia’s instructions at the old Red Center, to Charlotte/Angela’s birth in season 1, to anything that chimes into the rhythm of “Push, push, push. Breathe, breathe, breathe” or connects with the female experience in giving birth. She takes the direction from her mother that she wouldn’t take unless she absolutely had to.
A New Holly. Holly Maddox showed up late for her granddaughter Hannah’s birth, as June predicted. She was off saving the world; in the lead-up to Gilead, there must have been lots of women in Georgia needing abortions. In spite of that memory, June names the healthy infant Holly, for her grandmom.
Are June’s monologues in “Holly” directed at one of the Hollys? To Hannah? To a listener in some post-Gilead world? The closing monologue reminds us of how the Handmaid’s story came to be told in the original novel and its epilogue — in the form of tapes discovered in Bangor, Maine, discussed at a lecture 200 years later: “I keep on going with this limping and mutilated story, because I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too, if I ever get the chance. If I meet you, or if you escape, in the future, or in heaven. By telling you anything at all, I am believing in you. I believe you into being.” The novel’s epilogue recounts that Gilead lasted for decades; let’s hope, for June and her daughter’s sakes, that the TV Gilead falls sooner than that. In the face of overwhelming oppression, even the hopes June fabricates are better than no hope at all.