After a very strong premiere, The Handmaid’s Tale once again shows its limitations in the episode “Baggage.” June (Elisabeth Moss) continues trying to build a life, and seems to be succeeding. But she can’t stay in her tenuous hiding place forever, so she is forced to once again put her trust in strangers and attempt to actively flee to Canada, and it’s finally revealed she was hiding out at the Boston Globe. It’s especially touching, as it makes her makeshift home not only a sanctuary, but one of the last bastions of freedom which was destroyed, but nevertheless still provides a safe harbor.
Just because we know things will go south doesn’t mean it’s not suspenseful when it does. When the safehouse fails her, June manages to convince her contact to take her to his home, and we see what normalcy has become. That’s when the white feminism really becomes evident. Turns out, those in the lower classes are called Econopeople, and they live in concrete apartments. Laughably, June reflects that this is where she’d have ended up if she’d “played her cards right.” Or if she knew she was supposed to be playing them. Oh, dear. Of course you’re not going to know you were supposed to be stacking your deck when you were born with nearly everything you needed in the first place.
Furthermore, I highly doubt that those dubbed Econopeople are in their position because they had connections. I imagine it’s rather the opposite. I also doubt their dwellings would be so damn roomy and middle class. Really, take away the drab clothes and the guys with guns standing outside, and this would be another nice apartment complex, complete with carefully maintained landscaping. That’s part of the point, but it’s also another sign that these writers are woefully out of touch with anyone outside their own experiences.
There is an interesting interaction between June and the man’s wife where she judges June for becoming a Handmaid and giving up her child. But it fails to truly capture how the oppressed can be divided in their oppression. The Econowife mentions that she herself is threatened with the status of Handmaid to keep her in line, but if she has a child and is a proven fertile woman, why isn’t she one already? Shouldn’t the fact that they’re secretly Muslims mean more in the context of the show? How did Gilead not know this?
The time spent with Moira (Samira Wiley) in Canada comes off better. She’s still living with June’s husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and another silent Gilead refugee. To the show’s credit, it does present an interesting portrait of three people struggling with trauma, and how each of them copes. Moira seems to be recovering the best, and is working to help other refugees adapt to a freer state, even if some of the issues it brings to the forefront only scratch the surface. Moira is also able to get intimate with others, but can still only give pleasure, not receive it. When she helps a man who mentions that as a Guardian he had to hang people on the wall, one of whom was an ex-boyfriend, it’s a thought-provoking moment of how even our oppressors can be just as trapped and oppressed themselves, with little say in their own lives. Nothing is mentioned of the very different types of guilt this can provoke. Moira at least has the comfort of being a victim. How do you forgive yourself when your survival was predicated on doing harm?
However, Moira is able find a somewhat uplifting ending. Poor June is not, even as she makes increasingly intelligent decisions. This is where The Handmaid’s Tale truly fails her. June has in the past been reluctant to escape Gilead without her daughter, and the justification to continue on to Canada simply make no sense. Does she even need to justify it? How can she save her child when she herself is so powerless? Her lack of a happy ending feels like a punishment.
All this meditation about her daughter makes June recall her relationship with her own mother (an excellent Cherry Jones), a firebrand feminist, who comes off much better. She’s allowed to be flawed while still being correct about where the country is heading. If the show comes off as less critical of the feminist movement, it’s less out of loyalty and more out of relevancy. With phrases like sex positive and slut shaming being common in the women’s movement today, it makes little sense to show feminists burning pornography, as they did during their brief, uneasy alliance with the far right around the time the book was written in 1985. So while in the book a flashback to June’s childhood at a feminist rally had them burning obscene materials, in the episode it’s the names of their rapists going up in flames.
June and her mother wrestling with the personal and the political are the highlight of the episode, so when it’s revealed in another flashback that she’s been sent to the Colonies, it’s all the more tragic because June knows the woman who raised her will fight to the end and suffer all the more for it. The revelations to her are revelations to all the women who mistakenly believed they already had everything older generations fought for. The question is, will we also learn it too late?