Elisabeth Moss
Photo: George Kraychyk (Hulu)

In “Holly,” Elisabeth Moss sweats, grits her teeth, groans, howls, whispers, and weeps. She is a marvel. In a mostly wordless, though not soundless, performance, she pulls the viewer into this haunted house with her. It’s her best work of the season so far, and that is really saying something. Moss makes this sojourn away from the Waterfords—her second this season—as filled with anxiety, determination, frustration, and fear for the audience as it is for June.

As June, she marches through the snow, hacks at ice with a shovel, loads a double-barrel shotgun, rams a fancy-ass sports car into a garage door repeatedly without getting anywhere, contemplates killing her rapists and finds herself unable to pull the trigger, delivers her own baby in a nest of blood and blankets before a roaring fire, and stares down an actual wolf three separate times.

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It’s The Handmaid’s Tale in microcosm: a gripping, unshakably honest emotional portrait that has absolutely no chill whatsoever.

There’s a phrase that gets tossed around by acting teachers from time to time: “feel ten, show seven.” I don’t know whether or not that’s a phrase Elisabeth Moss has ever encountered, but she’s a master of that exact balance. It’s not as though she’s always holding something back. Sometimes you need to feel ten and show ten, and she can absolutely do that (and in a few harrowing moments, she does so here). But restraint is absolutely one of the most-used tools in Moss’s particular toolbox, and she uses it extremely well. The same can’t be said of the series as a whole.

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I’m not suggesting that The Handmaid’s Tale should be a more tasteful depiction of the ritual rape and subjugation of women. Fuck that. But this series sometimes can’t seem to bring itself to take its foot off the gas.

Perhaps that’s particularly evident this week, not just because Moss is so good, but because some of this week’s episode feels like a bit of a retread. Once again, June is stranded in an unfamiliar place, on the cusp of escape but unsure how she should proceed. As with her stays at the abandoned Boston Globe and the apartment of the delivery driver, she’s forced to confront her surroundings with the eye of a survivor even as she’s pulled into her own memories. And just as she’s poised to escape, or at least make a start at an escape, something catastrophic happens.

Give or take a wolf sighting, it does all those things very well. But the episode really sets itself apart when it feels most different from the first third of the season. First, the arrival of the Waterfords, who have a blowout that’s been in the works for a long time. Serena Joy’s use of the word ‘rape’ is more shocking than her admission, as much to herself as her husband, that she helped to create this nightmare world because she wanted a baby, because much of her arc this season has been centered on her inability to continue to lie to herself about the realities of Gilead.

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Beyond that, as good as Yvonne Strahovski and (yes) Joseph Fiennes are in that scene, it’s the silent third party that places it among the season’s best. As the Waterfords implode beneath her, June looms above, with a vantage point that’s reminiscent of a crow’s nest for a hunter, or an empty rooftop for a sniper in some political thriller. She stands with her finger on the trigger, willing herself to act, visibly terrified but working hard to get her shit together. That argument, particularly when it gets physical, is tense, a moment straight out of a dystopian Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But add in the looming figure of the woman they’ve both repeatedly abused, the “girl” on who they both, in some way, fixate and whom they’ve both battered, and it becomes unbearably tense.

June missing her window isn’t a happy ending, but shooting likely wouldn’t have been a “happy” ending either. If she’d pulled that trigger, and managed to incapacitate them both, would she have climbed in their car and driven away? And then where would she have been when her water broke? There are few, if any, happy endings in nightmares, and “Holly” doesn’t get one.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have moments of beauty. Frightening and painful though it is, the interweaving of Hannah and Holly’s births may be the show’s best use of flashbacks so far. Coupled with Moss’s excellent performances, as well as those of O-T Fagbenle, Samira Wiley, and (briefly) Cherry Jones, it’s a sequence of remarkable beauty. Moss has painted with many colors on this series, but this one is new: not the howl of a wolf, but the titanic bellow of a woman with no choice but to be fearsome.

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It’s so affecting that it makes the episode’s missteps all the more frustrating. Not one but three wolf scenes. Shot after shot captured through a door or window, choices designed to suggest that someone’s lurking, ready to strike. The endless sequences with the car and the garage. It’s a lot.

But when a performance is this good, when an emotional arc is this satisfying, it’s easy to forgive the wolf. Even if it comes back three times.

Stray observations

  • The narration this week is straight from the book, but the way it was used seemed to suggest that June was speaking to Holly. Either way, I loved it.
  • I hope this means Cherry Jones will be back again. This time, even though her appearance was more brief, it had a much bigger impact.

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