The Handmaid’s Tale 2×11 “Holly” is a cohesive story that can function as a stand-alone film. The tale of our hero June’s journey is an Emmy-worthy AND Oscar-worthy hour of television.
I continue to be awestruck, astonished, and appalled by the content on The Handmaid’s Tale each week. “Holly” raises the bar even higher with the most powerful birth story ever to be filmed. Elisabeth Moss is a force. It simply can not be overstated how flawless her performance is.
Woman vs. Nature
Man versus nature tales like Into the Wild, Cast Away, The Martian and Alive take a deep look at the resiliency of the human spirit and why humans deserve to exist on this planet.
These epic stories almost always feature a man’s perspective. The hero on Cast Away never has to deal with getting his period, and frankly, that matters. As is typical in our world, what is “human” gets translated into what is “man”.
“Holly” showcases what these other stories have been missing: woman. Humanity is born from women. And as June screams out at us, birth is a bloody, painful, deadly mess that requires a tenacity and endurance no man could ever accurately portray.
Let’s talk for a moment about why birth is such an important thing to include in a story about humanity. Humans are far from the only animals to give birth. But, humans are rather unique in regards to birth for a couple of reasons. The human brain is very large in comparison to the rest of our bodies and to other species. The size of a human head is what makes the birth process so dangerous for women. Our higher order thinking comes at a high cost to the bodies who have to birth those heads! Birth is more deadly for human mothers than other species.
In addition, unlike other mammals that are born farther along their development life, humans are born helpless. They can’t even sit up on their own, which compared to horses who can nearly immediately gallup is rather incredible.
The particular risk and responsibility of birth for humans is special.
June faces the wolf on “Holly,” and I think she represents the natural order, the wild, that is questioning June’s belief that she deserves to exist. Should she simply succumb to the black beast of nature, or should she continue to fight? The wolf beckons her to face her humanity.
June has at this point stared into the face of every kind of monster imaginable. She has examined their sharp teeth and vicious claws. But, still, she persists. Now, she has to face her own will to live.
Face it she does and despite the brutal labor, June is victorious. She lives and brings life to a new cycle of humanity. Importantly, she brings another little girl into the world. I can’t help but think that the wolf approves.
So, the fact that June’s survival story in the wilderness includes birth is exemplary storytelling. “Holly” gives us the best man versus nature account available because it truly captures the resilience of humanity.
In addition to her ability to give birth, June’s choice not to shoot Serena and the Commander gives us a picture of humanity.
These two people are not just rapists and enslavers. They are also architects of the entire system of Gilead. They deserve to die. As June points the gun at them, I scream, “KILL THEM”!
But, June is our hero. The strength of her humanity is such that she can’t bring herself to murder. It is not clear who hears the gunshot and helps June, but it is certain that if June had decided to shoot Serena and the Commander, she would not have survived. She would have been discovered and then executed after having Holly.
There are other plot possibilities, of course, had June taken the shot. But I believe that June’s mercy gives her the opportunity to have her baby in a state of freedom and to live on to try and get her daughters out of Gilead. Her resilient humanity saves her.
June’s evergreen humanity is in stark contrast to Serena’s lost humanity. She cries out to Fred that he has taken everything from her. She has nothing left.
While she is directly referring to the fact that Fred’s choice to let Nick and June out together has led to the loss of her baby, I think that what she truly has in mind is that she raped June.
Serena lost everything when she crossed that line and raped June. Everything else that Serena has done she had been able to align with her twisted version of morality.
But not this.
On the heels of her own abuse, her decision to hold June down against her physical and vocal protests erased the last vestige of hope and humanity for the wife. Serena is so smart– she knows what she’s done. In fact, I think that Serena knows her hypocrisy and failed integrity better than anyone else.
The episode is a pivotal one for Serena as we see her realize what she has become. She blames Fred, but she is deflecting.
June chooses life on “Holly.” I believe that Serena chooses death. I don’t think Serena can survive this season, and if she does, she will be a ghost version of herself.
Sounds Like Everything
While the visual imagery on The Handmaid’s Tale continues to be exceptional and breathtaking (that use of circle imagery with the lens of the Eye’s camera is perfection), the use of sound on “Holly” really stands out.
June’s haunting narration sets a narrative structure for the episode. She warns:
I am sorry there is so much pain in this story.
It is unclear who she is telling the story to. While it certainly feels intimate and that June is talking directly to us, there is obviously some time and place where she is telling it that is after. This sound construct allows the episode to act as both an integrated part of the season and a stand-alone fable.
The even pace and apologetic tone of the narration highlight the grotesque nature of what happens on the episode. It’s a truly beautiful choice that has also made me want to go back and listen to all of the narration in a fresh way. Has the narration been a story to Holly this whole time?
The episode is a very quiet one. Many of the scenes are silent other than ambient noise. This enhances the impact of the few musical moments, the radio broadcast and the narration that we do hear.
The silence used on the episode is like the white blanket of snow we see; it is a backdrop that allows the small colorful sounds to stand out sharply.
The song, Hungry Heart, that bursts into the episode, is painfully joyful. It makes June yearn for death. It makes her yearn for just giving up and giving in the inevitability of her future.
It is happy and soulful, but conceptually it also plays like a requiem.
The radio broadcast that goes with the song brings June back to hope. The rebellious and informative radio show (oh, hey Oprah) assures June that even though she is very, super-duper, totally, alone, she is also not. Moira is alive. Refugees are being helped and welcomed. Other people are out there fighting.
June’s time in the muscle car is some of the most affecting acting I’ve ever seen in my life. It is so hard to watch this show and not be constantly hyperbolic. So, suffice it to say, the sounds and Moss’s acting really work together well, even if they can’t quite figure out how to open that garage door.
The final narration on the episode is bold and rather lyrical. It is also hopeful; a love letter to a sweet daughter. It sounds perfect.
By telling you anything at all, I’m believing in you. I’m believing into being. Because I’m telling you this story, I will you into existence. I tell, therefore, you are.
I don’t know how The Handmaid’s Tale could possibly top this episode. But, I want to watch them try.
What did you think about The Handmaid’s Tale 2×11 “Holly”? Let us know in the comments!
The Handmaid’s Tale streams Wednesdays on Hulu.