[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, Episode 11, “Holly.”]
One of the most compelling aspects of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2 are the peeks we’ve gotten at life outside Gilead, from scenes featuring Luke and Moira making a life for themselves in Canada to Serena Joy being offered a one-way ticket to Honolulu, Hawaii, from an American intelligence officer. But a notable cameo in “Holly,” the latest episode of the Emmy-winning drama, might have taken this concept to a whole new level.
“Holly” focuses on the event we’ve been waiting for all season long: The birth of June’s child, which happens to occur under perhaps the worst possible circumstances. Abandoned in a country house with no electricity or connection to the outside world, June initially attempts to find a means of escape before her labor pains fully consume her, and discovers a sweet muscle car with gas and a working battery.
Her luck runs out there, though, as she’s unable to open the garage door and drive off to safety. But she is able, for a few minutes, to turn on the radio and hear a broadcast from “Radio Free America, broadcasting from somewhere in the Great White North.”
The broadcast continues:
“And now, this news. The American government in Anchorage today received promises of economic aid from India and China, and in the United Kingdom additional sanctions against Gilead were announced, as well as plans to raise the cap on refugees relocating from Canada. And now a tune to remind everyone who’s listening, American patriot or Gilead traitor, we are still here. Stars and stripes forever, baby.”
The voice on that broadcast? Damn right it’s Oprah Winfrey. While the speaker is never named, the show never suggests it’s not her playing herself, which makes sense — in dystopian times, of course Oprah would be a source of light and hope for a people badly beaten. As far as we’re concerned, Oprah escaped the cruelties of Gilead’s rise to power, and is now safely broadcasting to desperate ears.
The fact that this moment is followed up by yet another brilliant and eclectic music choice (which is saying something, given this show’s track record for mixing bold pop favorites in with the horror) speaks a lot to the confidence of the series. Part of what makes Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” such an inspired choice is the fact that it’s not a song with a strong political message. It’s simply a song about the human desire for more, no matter what society might say.
“Hungry Heart” also plays over the closing credits — can’t blame them for that, as after all, they did spend the money for it — and it’s notably a live performance, with the warmth of a cheering audience in the background, an echo of simpler times.
IndieWire has reached out to Hulu for more information on how Winfrey came to be involved with the series, but what we know for sure is that it’s a moment rich with resonance. In a world filled with bleakness, it’s good to know that Oprah’s okay. (No word on Stedman, though.)
UPDATE: Hulu provided the below quote from showrunner Bruce Miller, regarding Winfrey’s casting:
“We’d heard Oprah was a fan of the show, and had a story idea, and thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if… So we asked and she said yes, and it was a lovely, easy process. The radio segment she recorded was inspired by the free radio of the Allies from WW2. It was an absolute honor to have Oprah featured on the show, and especially thrilling as she was the one who presented us with the Emmy last year.”
New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” stream Wednesdays on Hulu.