Note: This review contains massive spoilers.
In the third episode of its second season, “The Handmaid’s Tale” jumps forward two months in time. “Baggage” opens with shots of June (Elisabeth Moss) jogging around the unused printing presses of the former Boston Globe headquarters, which now serve as her hideout from the Gilead. The scene then cuts to Moira (Samira Wiley), who is June’s best friend, a former handmaid, and a current refugee living in Canada’s “Little America.” Miles away, Moira is also jogging, the exercise acting as some sort of invisible bond between the two friends as they try to piece together some sense of normalcy under strenuous conditions. This seems to be the narrative arc for Moira in “Baggage,” as she struggles to cope with the traumatic experiences Gilead inflicted upon her behind. But June isn’t there yet—she still has to get out of the country first.
Initially, an escape to Canada seems like the plan for June in “Baggage.” She hops into the back of someone’s truck, and later a plane. She stows away in a family’s home and disguises herself as one of the “econopeople,” presumably a working caste in which people are allowed to have their own families. She runs through the woods and a golden field, relentless in her escape to freedom. Throughout all these scenes are flashbacks to pre-Gilead days in typical “Handmaid’s Tale” style. This time, they all center around her relationship with her mother, Holly (Cherry Jones), who was a feminist, a fighter, and somehow always subtly disappointed in June, who did not take after her mother’s activist lifestyle.
June’s mother is another character the book does not necessarily touch on or flesh out, but her purpose in the Hulu adaptation is entirely warranted as it expands June’s character beyond the role of a narrator. After all, what better way to learn about someone than through their parents? Sure, there aren’t any embarrassing baby photos or home videos to be shared, but June’s story with her mother illustrates exactly why June is constantly teetering on the line of protest and passivity. The latter impulse is completely understandable considering the difficult circumstances, but the budding resistance we saw in June in the first season truly finds its driving force in “Baggage.” While waiting for someone to rescue her, June thinks about her training process as a handmaid. At one point in June’s memory, Aunt Lydia projects a picture of a woman working in the Colonies as a way to threaten the handmaids, who all know that the toxic wasteland is a death sentence. To June’s shock, the woman in the picture is her mother. “I told her it wasn’t safe, what she was doing… She knew,” June whispers to Moira. “Moira, she always knew.” Moira tries to comfort June, telling her that a life in the Colonies is a short one at the very least. “Not for her,” June says. “You know she’ll fight like hell.”
The show then cuts to the present, where June rolls marbles in the palms of her hands. Her face hardens into resolve. “I waited before. I thought things might be okay,” June thinks. “I swore I’d never do that again.” The music shudders, wails, and June springs into action, concocting a plan that will hopefully get her far away from Gilead. “Baggage” finds its heart in this scene, which is overtly dramatic, with the music pulsing and the camera shaking, but appropriately so. June musters more bravery than imaginable, making her character all the more impressive. She spins around in the woods, trying to grapple with the idea of leaving her daughter, Hannah, behind. Eventually, June finally makes it to the final leg of her trip, and sits in a plane with so much grief, guilt, and hope on her face—a beautiful example of Moss’s layered acting.
But “Baggage” is here for more than just mere plot progression—which is good, considering June’s journey meets a tragic end. She’s pulled out of the plane by the Gilead police, as she screams and claws at the sides of the door. “The Handmaid’s Tale” isn’t done with Gilead just yet, but the surprisingly artful dramatics and clever character exploration hint at equally interesting world expansions to come.
—Staff writer Grace Z. Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @gracezhali
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