‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Takes On The Everyday Horror Of Disappointing Your Mother

Warning: Spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” below!

In Gilead, you can’t have nice things.*

*Unless you’re an elite, conservative dude who feels entitled to wealth, power and women’s bodies.

In Season 2, Episode 3, the inevitable happened: June (Elisabeth Moss) tried to escape Gilead and failed miserably. It was another brutal episode, centered around the complex dynamic between mothers and daughters ― specifically, the relationship between June and her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), and June and her mother Holly (Cherry Jones). We see June jumping from safe house to safe house via the Mayday resistance, eventually ending up on a plane we know will never make it to Canada. 

Viewers also get to see Moira (Samira Wiley) and Luke (O-T Fagbenle) trying to adjust to “normal” life as refugees in the Little America area of Toronto. They might be free, but they’re still struggling with the trauma they’ve taken with them, and the baggage they’ve left behind.

Emma Gray: Wow, this episode was R-O-U-G-H. And since Laura Bassett is off covering the Handmaids-appropriate abortion referendum in Ireland, this week reporter extraordinaire Alanna Vagianos will be joining me to break down this episode/engage in the collective therapy necessary after watching “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Welcome, Alanna! (Also… sorry.)

To kick this off, let’s talk about the most intensely overarching theme of the episode: mothers and daughters.

Alanna Vagianos: Yay! So excited to be here. Not too excited about having to watch this episode for a second time.

This was definitely a rough episode. The mother/daughter theme was really apparent; June thinking about Hannah while also reflecting back on her own relationship with her mother was quite the underlying theme. I think the main thing I kept picking up on was June’s complacency versus her mother’s urgency.

Emma: Margaret Atwood’s novel talks about June’s second-wave feminist mother, but the first season didn’t delve into that part of her backstory. Now, thanks to some flashbacks, we finally get a glimpse of June’s upbringing. (WELCOME, CHERRY JONES!)

Whereas the flashbacks in the first two episodes felt grounded in both policy and emotion, and were terrifying for that reason, the flashbacks in Episode 3 felt primarily grounded in pure emotion ― the kind of emotional manipulation that is designed to make you cry and then call your mom. They were absolutely heart-wrenching. We learn that June’s mother was a grassroots activist, feminist and abortion clinic escort, and that she raised June to care about the causes she cared about.

But, of course, when you grow up being told to care about something, often that thing begins to feel like an obligation. And for June, feminism and activism seemed to become something she resented ― especially because her mother was clearly disappointed that she ended up taking a more traditional path: book publishing, husband, baby. (“Do you really like that job at that publishing place? When you were little you wanted to be on the Supreme Court”)

As June later says, “No mother is ever completely a child’s idea of what a mother should be, but I suppose it works the other way around as well.”

Alanna: When June’s mother told her she didn’t think she should marry Luke, I just about lost it. “It’s time to get out in the street and fight, not just play house,” her mom told her. The first time I watched the episode it made me so angry to think that her mother was minimizing her love for Luke and also this life she had worked really hard for. But on the second watch, it was really clear just how important June’s mother’s urgency was at the time.

Emma: Yes, exactly! The other part of the dynamic that was powerful was how clearly June’s mother seemed to see the path the country was going down. Even in our world, those early warners are often seen as fringe and crazy. The people who predict the worst are always going to be easy to brush aside, that is, until their worst fears come true. We see June cutting out clips from old Boston Globe papers at the beginning of the episode and literally tracking how Gilead came to be: increased militarization, curtailing of civil rights, changes in power structure. And as June tells Moira, her mother “knew.” “She always knew.”

It made me think of how we’ve normalized things that would have seemed insane just a few short years ago. Last weekend President Trump held a rally in Michigan where he asked if there were Hispanics in the room, allowed the crowd to boo, and then threatened to shut the country if Congress didn’t fund his Mexico-U.S. border wall. (In Gilead, that wall wouldn’t just be used to keep “undesirables” out ― but to keep those who hadn’t already fled in.) And yet in America in 2018, people seemed more up in arms about an eyeliner joke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner than about our president’s terrifying rhetoric. That is the message “Handmaid’s” sends us ― these things happen slowly, bit by bit. And then one day you wake up in a theocracy. 

Alanna: It was really incredible to watch June’s journey from resenting her mother to missing and loving her and, subsequently, appreciating her mother’s sense of awareness ― an awareness that June simply didn’t have as Gilead rose to power. Now, she’s learning from her past ignorance by reflecting on her mother. As June continues in her attempt to escape Gilead, thanks to a jailbreak from Nick and Mayday, she’s extra cautious about overstaying her welcome at the safe houses along the way: “I’d waited before. I thought things would be OK. I swore I’d never do that again.”

And it was particularly heartbreaking to watch the more recent flashback to the Red Center, where June sees a photo of her mother in the Colonies.  

Emma: Oy, yes. Rip my heart out with that. And also that final flashback moment where June and her mother are rocking out in the car ― top down, wind in their hair, total freedom to go where and do what they please ― to “Hollaback Girl.” Most viewers can probably relate to the feeling of finding common ground and mutual respect with a parent. It’s incredibly special.

But let’s talk about Moira! We also finally got to check in with her and Luke in Toronto. And while June is trying to create routine on her way to (almost) escaping Gilead, Moira is on a parallel journey. She’s technically free ― but her mind is not. She’s still working through the trauma of living in Gilead, despite the fact that she’s not there anymore. It was an important reminder that the story doesn’t end for people once they escape an oppressive society ― it’s not an “and they lived happily ever after” moment. 

Moira (left, Samira Wiley) at a lesbian bar in Canada.

Alanna: I almost forgot what Moira had been through ― being raped repeatedly every night by high-powered Gilead officials. At first, we think she’s doing pretty well: We see her running in the park, making Luke and her other roommate breakfast. All in all, it’s a normal, functioning day. But then you get small glimpses of her pain and how she’s still very much dealing with the trauma she went through day in and day out.

During one scene we see her at a lesbian bar in Canada drinking alone when she meets a woman. The two start hooking up in a bathroom and Moira starts fingering the woman. The woman eventually orgasms and when she goes to reciprocate the favor, Moira declines. As she washes her hands, Moira tells the stranger that her name is Ruby ― the name she used in Season 1 at Jezebel’s. The entire scene reveals just how much Moira is still dealing with, and the fact that her Gilead demons have obviously followed her to Canada.

Emma: Agreed, 100 percent. The overarching feeling I had was dread, because we know that June won’t make it out of Gilead yet ― not this early in the season, much less the series. We’re on Episode 3 of Season 2! What show would we be watching if June had gotten on that plane and flown off to Toronto? So at every stage, I was just waiting for things to go horribly, brutally wrong.

And along the way we get to see the life June might have had, had she and Luke’s marriage been considered valid by Gilead. She ends up being taken in for a night by Econopeople (a family in the lower echelons of Gilead society) ― a black man, his white wife and their child, who appears to be about Hannah’s age. June’s utter desperation at being left in yet another warehouse for an unknown amount of time leads her to act recklessly, begging the man who is supposed to transport her to the next safe house not to leave her alone. This decision makes sense in the moment ― who wouldn’t feel that desperation! ― but it also proves to be a grave error.

Only when June finds a Quran and prayer mat hidden under the couple’s bed while they’re at church does she seem to realize what grave danger she’s put this family ― this family that completely mirrors her own ― in.

Alanna: I also thought the scene where she found the Quran showed some sign of protest ― a glimmer of hope. And the parallel between the Econo family’s son and Hannah really brought the mother/daughter theme full circle. We watch June struggle with the decision to leave Hannah in Gilead as she attempts to escape to Canada. As June makes her way to the airstrip to escape, she realizes Hannah will forgive her for leaving her just as June forgave her own mother.

“Despite everything, we didn’t do badly by one another. We did as well as most. I wish my mother were here so I could tell her I finally know this. So I could tell her I forgive her. And then ask Hannah to forgive me,” June says right as the plane is taking off.

But then, of course, bullets fly everywhere and this once-exciting episode turns into a horror show. Gilead has found her. Surprise, surprise: June does not escape in the third episode.

Emma: Because… of course. This is “The Handmaid’s Tale”! Nothing can come easy and everything is bleak AF. Alanna, thank you for joining me on this hellscape of a journey.

Until next time, under his eye. And more importantly: Blessed be the Fruit Loops.

To read more of HuffPost’s “Handmaid’s Tale” coverage, head here.