This review contains spoilers.
June’s bid for freedom was bound to fail, not just by the logic of Gilead, but by the logic of a much more powerful regime: television. We’re only on episode three of ten. If our lead made it to safety across the Canadian border with seven hours to spare, where would this season be?
The failed escape though, was no waste of time. By introducing the Econopeople rank, it filled in some blank space on our mental map of Gilead, and by leaving June alone with her thoughts, it filled in some blank space on her character.
We’ve become used to seeing June as admirably rebellious. This was her third escape attempt so far. She led the passive protest against Janine’s stoning. She told a broken Moira to get her shit together and fight. She smuggled that package out of Jezebels. She took the risk of continuing a sexual relationship with Nick, reclaiming her annexed and abused body as she did so.
We’ve seen Gilead’s horrors through June’s eyes, and heard the cynical, often sassy running commentary on its disgusting hypocrisies inside her head. June’s our girl, our activist hero.
Baggage complicated that picture in two ways. First, by introducing us in flashback to June’s mother, and second, by undermining the notion of June’s heroism. Holly Maddox (Cherry Jones) is a committed feminist, abortion-performing doctor and single mother disappointed by her daughter’s relatively bourgeois life choices—a job in academic publishing, smart clothes, marriage… To Holly, June was wasting her potential in the ongoing battle by settling for domestic conservatism. Didn’t she see what was happening? Didn’t she realise what needed to be done?
No and no, because back then, June wasn’t a hero, she was just like a lot of us are – discomfited by and aware of inequality and injustice, but largely happy to distract herself with the freedoms by which she’d always been surrounded, thanks to battles already fought by other people.
When June begged the Mayday agent to take her with him, she showed no compunction in asking him to risk his life for her sake. When—either brave or stupid—he did, she found that it wasn’t only his life she’d begged him to risk but also that of his wife and child. (Surely no coincidence, in race, gender and age, his family was a mirror of her own. As June remarks, had she not been branded an ‘adulteress’ for her affair with a married man and had they not tried to run, that family could have been her, Luke and Hannah.)
In the agent’s home, whenever June fiddled with a trinket or moved the curtains to look out of the window and risked discovery, she was endangering them all. When the family failed to return from church, having discovered their secret faith, June knew what could have happened to them. Did she grieve? Try to save them? Of course not. Foremost in her mind was her next step to safety, not theirs.
Self-sacrifice is heroic; self-preservation ain’t. We’d all like to think that when it came to the crunch, we’d choose the former and not the latter. As the driver’s wife told June, she’d die before she let anyone take her child away. “I used to think that too,” said June. High-mindedness is the luxury of the comfortable. When the crunch comes, The Handmaid’s Tale suggests that we’re all capable of making choices that would shame us. This show isn’t just uncompromising in its depiction of dangerous zealots, it’s also uncompromising in its reflection of ordinary failings.
Faced with almost no choice, June opted to leave her daughter in Gilead and save herself. She finished the episode hoping that, just as she’d forgiven her mother’s shortcomings, Hannah would one day do the same for hers.
June’s ignoble actions may have made her harder to admire, but easy to understand. After all, Holly’s prescience in seeing Gilead coming didn’t stop it from coming. She may have “fought like hell” but, as Aunt Lydia’s slide showed, Holly still ended up in the Colonies. Hindsight allowed June to trace the strengthening hold the Sons of Jacob were taking on America through her newspaper cuttings, but it didn’t change where she ended up – not a life of freedom in Canada, but back where she started.
As season two keeps reminding us, there’s freedom and then there’s freedom. Unlike June, Moira made it out of Gilead, but she’s still suffering from its trauma. She might be over the border, but she’s still Gilead’s victim.
There’s hope, though, for Gilead’s victims. Erin’s silly wordplay showed that. Even in all the pain, there’s friendship and laughter and in that, there’s the chance of a future.
Blessed be the fruit loops.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Unwomen, here.