The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 episode 11 review: Holly

June digs for strength and resolve in a cleverly crafted, visceral and symbolic episode. Spoilers ahead in our review…

This review contains spoilers.

2.11 Holly

Television has shown us thousands of births: in sitcom, where women scream ‘hilarious’ obscenities at the men who’ve knocked them up. In medical drama, where taut bellies are scalpelled open like sofa cushions being unzipped. In period drama, where heiresses expire elegantly in pools of blood. In reality TV, where the business end is blurred out with a digital modesty screen to spare blushes and protect the weak-of-stomach. And in nature documentaries, where animals bear down and do the work. 

June’s labour was just that. Alone, with a fire for warmth, and no playlists, pethidine or birth-partners, she was an animal giving birth. A she-wolf.

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The wolf June faced several times this episode was a mutable symbol. Yet another force against which June had to summon her strength to survive, it meant what wolves have always meant in fiction—menace and danger—but it was also primal and bestial, two things June needed to be to do the work of labour.

She did that work. With no help or choice, June did what women have been doing for millennia and dug down to find the necessary strength. In a birth scene that paid tribute to mothers by swapping the TV cliches above for frankness and viscerality, sweat-drenched endurance and gutteral howling, June did the job. Daughter Holly was her payment, a reward made temporary by Gilead.

The birth was the climax to a slow, deliberate episode that built tension using sparseness. With hardly any voiceover and almost no music but the sound of June’s panicked breathing, we watched her make preparations for yet another escape.

June’s luck—if you want to call it that—ebbed and flowed throughout the episode. There were victories (finding the car keys, hearing that Springsteen song on Radio Free America) and setbacks (finding Hannah’s drawing, the Waterfords’ car tyres screaming up the driveway). The impossibility of June’s situation in Gilead as a whole was summed up neatly by her enraged attempt to break down the garage door, wheels spinning. All that power, all that will and resistance, and still the damn thing wouldn’t shift.  

June’s isolation was reinforced by numerous overhead shots of her tiny form moving through the vast, white snow. We might call her Red Riding Hood, but really, the wolf wasn’t the real threat – that was the Waterfords. Serena and Fred’s search of the house framed them once again in this drama as horror movie monsters. As June crept and hid, Serena pursued her like a killer seeking out her last victim, lighting upon her discarded cloak, and cocking her head to follow the sound of her quarry. 

The Waterfords’ fight was the most naturalistic we’ve seen them in the present day. Just by being at the Mackenzie house, they were transgressing against Gilead, which freed them up to express themselves like the couple they must once have been. Outside their home, they were no longer a Commander and his Wife so didn’t have to fit in with their pre-defined power structure. Serena could call Fred a fucking idiot and he could call her a bitch. Their scene was both tense, thanks to the shotgun and the risk of June being discovered, and a cathartic release of pent-up aggression at the same time.

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As always, the flashbacks also acted as valves for releasing the tension of the present. June reflected on parenthood, giving birth, and her relationship with her mother. Again, comparisons were drawn between the before and after: having to leave a tearful Hannah at nursery vs having had to leave a tearful Hannah possibly for good last week. Giving birth surrounded by loved ones vs giving birth alone. A baby bump inside a little black dress vs. one draped in red cloth… The flashbacks were light moments against the dark, the good things included in the “limping and mutilated story” June is telling her baby.

To keep that baby safe, June chose to give her up. She fired those shots and led Gilead straight to the pair of them, knowing that raw nature might have brought the newborn into the world, but civilisation was her best bet at staying there. For the sake of her daughter, June banished the wolf and chose imprisonment over freedom.

Will she survive the separation to come? Last week’s episode taught us that there’s no limit to the depths of degradation people can be put through. This week’s taught us that there’s also no limit to their strength and resolve. 

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, The Last Ceremony, here