[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, Episode 11, “Holly.”]
This may be hard for fans of “The Americans” to hear, but if Academy voters were watching this week’s episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” then Elisabeth Moss just won her second Emmy.
“Holly,” the 11th episode of Season 2, picks up from last week’s cliffhanger ending, which left the pregnant June (Moss) abandoned in a remote snowbound house with no way to contact the outside world. What would be a welcome taste of freedom, given that she’s a functional prisoner under the regime of Gilead, changes when her labor pains begin and she’s ultimately forced to deliver her baby entirely on her own.
It’s not June’s first choice. She hides from Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) when they come to the house and search for her, giving her a way to escape on her own terms. While she does find a working car (one that even has a working radio), she’s unable to get it out of the garage. June resigns herself to handling the birth on her own, though first she goes outside to fire off the shotgun she nearly used to take out Serena and Waterford earlier, knowing the sound will alert those searching for her to her location.
While Strahovski delivers a breathtaking performance in her limited time on screen — her rage and despair over never getting the one thing for which she sacrificed everything is wrenching to behold — this is Moss’s episode, and it’s an unforgettable feat.
Most of the episode is her alone, on screen, doing her best to survive the situation she’s trapped in despite the circumstances, though the supporting cast (including the welcome return of Cherry Jones as June’s eccentric mother Holly) does get roped in via flashbacks to June’s first pregnancy and early motherhood.
It might have been interesting to see a version of “Holly” without the flashbacks — an episode almost entirely devoted to June’s labor, physical and emotional. In fact, it’s the kind of exercise other shows have experimented with in the past, though the danger there would be lapsing into the choice feeling like a gimmick.
Plus, there’s another benefit to avoiding silence entirely, as writer Kira Snyder draws directly from Margaret Atwood’s original text for a particularly lovely bit of voice-over: “By telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.”
That said, while not dialogue-free, “Holly” doesn’t rely on words for its power. What stands out about Moss’s work here is just how physical a performance it is, the sort of all-body deep dive into an experience that makes you feel vicariously sore just watching it. Even in the final moments of birth, as she writhes naked in silhouette in front of the roaring fire, a faceless wraith, you are there with her for every painful, gut-churning heartbeat.
And then comes the relief of witnessing a new soul enter a world starved for fresh life and hope; an almost primal sequence that ends with mother and child in that most intimate of embraces. It’s not just an episode about the miracle of birth, but the sacrifices it requires. June chooses to fire the shotgun, knowing that summoning the outside world will cost her her freedom and break her vow to save Holly from Gilead, but that doing so will ensure that her child receives proper care.
There are so many sad truths that sink in as you watch the closing credits roll, set to a reprise of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” (sung not by Bruce, but by the live audience in the concert recording): the fact that June’s lost yet another chance to escape, that while in these brief post-partum moments she’s able to name her baby daughter after her own mother, that name will soon be stripped away from her. But here’s a glimmer of hope: Here in the tail end of Season 2, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has truly found its stride.
In the grand scheme of things, after all, it doesn’t really matter if Elisabeth Moss wins another Emmy in September. What matters is that we’re lucky to have shows of this caliber being made right now — shows which take the rage buried within us and scream it out.