This post discusses plot points of The Handmaid’s Tale episode “Baggage.”
The two-part premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale season two was a doozy, packed with guest stars (Clea DuVall, John Carroll Lynch, and Marisa Tomei), revelations (June/Offred’s pregnancy), and of course, abject misery for anyone who isn’t a straight man.
Hulu’s eased up on the throttle, streaming just one episode a week going forward. Today’s installment, “Baggage,” introduces us to June’s mother, Holly (Cherry Jones), an obstetrician and outspoken feminist with a bit of a Cassandra complex; she knew to “fight like hell” when the attacks on women’s rights were more oblique. June, meanwhile, is still piecing together just how shit went down, and marveling at what we can become accustomed to: totalitarianism, government-sanctioned rape, and being worked to death, among other things.
Danette Chavez: Cherry Jones is an inspired choice for June’s mom: She has both an earth mother vibe and a flinty quality that warns you not to mess with her or her kids. As we see in this episode’s flashbacks, Holly tried to prepare her daughter for what was coming, taking June to Take Back The Night rallies as a child, then urging her not to stick her head in the sand as an adult. Holly’s pragmatism runs counter to June’s almost willful ignorance. I was struck by June’s passivity in these sequences—it’s in stark contrast to the woman fighting for her life in the present, and tracking the rise of a dictatorship from inside the killing field that is The Boston Globe. We did see her and Moira attend some protests in the first season, but now it looks like those actions were too little, too late.
It’s a strong episode overall, which writer Dorothy Fortenberry and director Kari Skogland mark with dread, from flashbacks to women’s rights activists to June’s nighttime dash. We’re also reminded of the dangers of reading anything, even a map, in public. The shot of June running through the field is breathtaking, made even more so by the tension-filled (and ill-fated) plane flight. But underneath all of the dynamic sequences, the episode is about how parents and children fail to live up to each other’s expectations.
I wish I cared more about Luke, but Moira’s presence made the time spent in Canada worth it. What do my fellow editors think about our latest trip up north, and June’s daring escape(s)? And how does Holly match up to her literary inspiration?
Gwen Ihnat: I am finding this season of The Handmaid’s Tale fairly wrenching so far: As happy as I am to see June away from the Commander’s house, her one-step-forward, two-steps-back capture at the end of this episode just about gutted me, especially after two months of waiting it out at The Boston Globe. There’s also the new fractiousness of these episodes, as we’re now divided between June, Luke and Moira in Canada, and Emily and the devastation of the Colonies, as we saw last episode. So it seems a bit more difficult to shift gears.
“Baggage” (tellingly, June never has anything but a jacket to carry with her on her many travels) appears to be an entire episode written to explain how June could leave the country while Hannah was still there. It seems unnecessary. I’m a mother and I get it: Hannah is being cared for (it would be different if she were at a children’s work camp or something), and June has very little power in Gilead, compared to what she might be able to accomplish toward getting her daughter back from Canada.
So while the parallels between June and her mother, June and her daughter, and June playing with Adam are striking, they don’t entirely land for me. Cherry Jones is amazing as she always is, and I did get some goosebumps when she rails at her daughter for working in an academic publishing job while the country heads toward disaster. Sometimes Handmaid’s Tale seems more like a cautionary tale than anything else: June’s mother’s warning could just as easily apply to the state of our union today. But the sentiment I’ll take with me from “Baggage” is June’s comment about how no mother can possibly live up to what their child expects: Just ask my middle-schoolers who had to get ready for school by themselves this morning as their mother was in a NyQuil haze, shouting out random nouns from the bedroom like “Teeth!” and “Shoes!” I told my son that I was the worst mother in the world when I was sick and he said, “Yeah, but only when you’re sick.” He’ll forgive me, and I suspect, Hannah would forgive June for making a tough decision in an impossible situation. More importantly, June has to forgive herself for fighting for her own (and her baby’s) survival. But honestly, the biggest question I’m left with at the end of this episode: What happened to cute little Adam and his parents? As happens so many times when watching Handmaid’s Tale, I’m worried.
Laura Adamczyk: I think June’s mom of television definitely lives up to the mom we witnessed in the book (you’re right on, Danette, when you say Jones is both flinty and has an earth mother vibe; she is pitch-perfect here). The show also does a good job of using this mother and daughter to touch on the differences between second- and third-wave feminism, respectively. Holly was indeed prescient in wanting to push back, and early, against the state stripping away the rights of women. Yet I couldn’t help but notice the false dichotomy she presents to June when she says it’s time to resist rather than “play house,” as though a person can’t both protest a fascist government and have a partner and child.
And, yes, what about those apartment people, Gwen? This blandly colored segment of Gilead wasn’t in the book and introduces perhaps the best-case scenario for non-governmental people living in the States. Relatively speaking, of course. These citizens’ actions are still highly regulated—all those military men standing around with machine guns, the Quran hidden beneath the family’s bed—but they have slightly more freedom of movement than a Handmaid or a woman banished to the Colonies, and presumably more bodily autonomy. Yet, because June doesn’t know this population’s norms, she takes a huge risk by dressing in the apartment woman’s clothes and going outside. It’s not unlike an uninfected person walking among the pod people of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers; the smallest misstep could be a huge giveaway. While June was able to blend in well enough, eventually the risk didn’t pay off, and I can’t help but wonder if, and hope that, the next one she takes will.