One of the major flaws of The Handmaid’s Tale is its frequent rinse and repeat of June’s (Elizabeth Moss) plights. We’ve watched her be caught and released over and over again, yet every time June decides she needs to stay in Gilead to rescue her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake). However, with “Vows,” June breaks the cycle.
June wanders around the freshly bombed Chicago seeing Moira (Samira Wiley), momentarily denying her existence as she looks for Janine (Madeline Brewer), repeating to herself, “Moira got out.” While the show paints June as a woman who is resilient, the writing falls flat on really addressing the trauma she has gone through, as June is constantly in a state of duress and has never really been given the space to breathe long enough to reflect on it.
This episode takes a turn into emotional intensity as Moira tries to guide June toward leaving and Moira’s trauma is put on display. It’s clear Moira holds herself responsible for June’s fate, stepping in to care for June’s other daughter Nichole, and repeatedly mentions expresses sorrow about leaving June behind. Moira screams at June who cannot seem to focus on the world around her, hell-bent on finding Janine. Eventually, June realizes that in order to save Hannah she needs to save herself.
The heart of this episode focuses on June’s guilt about her inability to fulfill the expectations she puts on herself. This episode brings to light several questions about June’s character: should she feel guilty for what she has failed to do? Should she have found Hannah by this point? Is there another path for her to lead? The episode doesn’t contain much violence comparatively to other episodes, but the tension created throughout her journey to Canada, reflecting on her past and her future, and spending time with the people she loves most paints an image of June as someone other than the warrior Gilead has made her.
A flashback of an argument between June and Moira before Gilead seemed pointless at first. June appears to be moving out of her apartment with Moira and in with her soon-to-be husband Luke. Moira questions June’s decision to marry Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), citing the fact their relationship began as an affair and whether or not June can provide him with a child. While June denies Moira’s claims and the two seem to end the conversation on uncomfortable terms, Moira’s words stick just as they do in the real world.
June boards the volunteer ship that Moira arrived on only for the pair to discover that it will be searched by the Gileadeans. June is currently Gilead’s most wanted after her plan to evacuate over eighty Gileadean children, upping the stakes on the escape she finally agreed to. The conversation on whether or not to hand June over was the dud of the episode however, as it makes no sense why they would even discuss turning her over. Canada has tried to stay out of a war with Gilead, but what is the point in traveling all the way to save survivors if you don’t actually save anyone? This fake conflict is short lived as they choose to not hand June over and they successfully get her back to Canada.
The tension in the episode took away from the emotional progress made in June’s character, seeming as if the writers don’t want to allow June to be a complex woman who can be both dedicated mother and sensitive human, out of fear that the viewer only pegs her as a “sensitive woman”.
The peak of the episode’s success lies in June and Luke’s scenes from the past that help to inform the present. June expresses her earlier concerns to Luke about child-rearing and fidelity, and in a cute scene that displays why Luke and June are such a good couple, he soothes her worries rather than get angry at them. Moss and Fagbenle have amazing chemistry on screen as June announces her pregnancy and they share a kiss of celebration.
This is the root of June’s worries about going to Canada—it’s not that she’s a superhero mother as the writers often pretend she is, but because she’s a human worried that her husband won’t forgive her for being unable to bring their baby back. June’s fear is confirmed when she finally sees Luke after years apart. The first thing she says to him is an apology, because she feels she has disappointed him for not keeping safe the baby she wanted to give him, showing how Gilead has poisoned June’s self worth.
This episode peels back the layers in June in a way the show has been needing for a while, and her flaws are what make her strong as a character. She is a person, not just a new version of Alice from Resident Evil.
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 drop every Wednesday on Hulu