The best thing about The Handmaid’s Tale episode “Holly” is Elisabeth Moss. It’s powerful stuff, but it’s ultimately filler. Moss is the one whose skill and fearlessness makes “Holly” rise above its limitations. Again.
In the episode, June laments that her story is such a dark one, with little to serve as a source of hope and light. She likens the fragmented nature of her tale to “a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force,” which is essentially what has become of June. Women’s bodies have long been subject to male domination and control, but now her body is a literal battlefield, at war against a nation whose very existence is grounded on bending her to its will.
June muses that she’s tried to put in good things. It says something about the unrelenting nature of sophomore season of The Handmaid’s Tale that this small attempt feels like an accomplishment. In “Holly,” June has been left alone at the house where she was able to see Hannah, the daughter who was taken from her. But they were discovered, Nick was captured, and now June tries to once again fulfill her promise of escape to the child yet unborn.
Aside from a few inner monologues, Moss’s performance is mostly wordless as she goes around the house looking for a way to fulfill that promise. Her desperation grows as a literal wolf lies in wait outside, and then the Waterfords come to the house looking for her. As the two argue and search for June, they once again provide two very different examples of how much people can truly delude themselves.
Serena is incredulous that Fred actually allowed June to see Hannah with “the father of her child.” Fred is just as incredulous that June wouldn’t be grateful, and both are unable to conceive that she would be willing or able to actually hide from them. Not that Serena is able to take responsibility any more than Fred is.
“You raped her yesterday,” she tells her husband, completely disowning the part she played over and over again not only in yesterday’s rape, but those that came before. Fred is just as quick to blame his wife, saying that it was her idea in the first place. Serena in turn is distraught that the one thing she asked for in return for her sacrifices may now be lost to her due to Fred’s delusions, and perhaps that vulnerability on her part is the reason June is unable to pull the trigger on the shotgun she has trained on them both just out of sight.
The birth of June’s child soon not only becomes imminent, but immediate. She recalls the birth of Hannah, via flashbacks, and The Handmaid’s Tale first seems in danger of self-righteously advocating a “natural” method of delivery, free of drugs and hospitals, as a kind of superior method. But as Moss fearlessly strips down and prepares to give birth alone, it quickly becomes clear that no method is endorsed. The process of bringing a chld into the world is depicted as painful, messy, and complicated regardless of the setting. June screams, cries, then finally delivers her daughter in a messy pool of blood, naming her Holly after her mother ,who once again reappears briefly but powerfully in flashbacks. But even that is more bitter than sweet, since we know that her name won’t stick once she is returned to the Waterford household.
And she will return. Moss may once again give a performance that allows us to see into June’s very soul, but otherwise the episode feels frustratingly repetitive. Once again, June is isolated and alone with a chance of escape. Once, again she tenaciously puts all she has into acting upon that chance, and finds notes of hope, such as an underground radio station which is still broadcasting music and news to Gilead. But once again, something goes wrong that derails her plans, and it feels less in the service of realism than the show itself, which can’t give its main character her freedom just yet.
But one repetiton is welcome, and that is Moss. “Holly” is by no means an example of The Handmaid’s Tale at its lowest, but it’s comforting to be reminded she can be relied upon for this level of mostly wordless elevation.