This piece contains spoilers for Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Life is cheap in Gilead, but not the life of a woman who can conceive. The first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” showed us this much. Throughout the emotional highs and lows of the show’s second season, we saw loyalties questioned, characters killed for little reason and a terrorist attack. Life, even those of childbearing handmaids, could be reduced to living like caged animals, chained to their beds until they bore their fruit to be harvested away from their arms.
Motherhood in Gilead is considered a saintly enterprise when done by some women (namely, the wives of powerful men) and not others (handmaids and the servant class called marthas on the show). Despite awful conditions and an unstable environment, June, often referred to as Offred on the show, (Elisabeth Moss) finds much to live for in the series.
She often thinks back often to her daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake), and of her soon-to-be born daughter, Holly. This world may take away her daughters, but it can’t take away her sense of motherhood and her need to save her children.
Since June was not able to escape Gilead before she was due, she has to give birth and hand over her baby to the dysfunctional family that essentially owns her, the Waterfords.
The episode “The Last Ceremony” shocked viewers by dramatizing the process of separating a mother and child, tears and wailing intact.
June’s oldest daughter, Hannah, had been placed with another prominent family. It’s a trauma the show revisits over and over. Protection and prioritization of motherhood for some is a privilege, one not always afforded to marginalized communities that faced forced sterilization or lost their children trying to get them to a safer corner of the globe.
While the powerful men of Gilead ravish in the new social status of fatherhood, their wives practically make a cult out of motherhood. Stripped of their jobs and given only household duties, the wives fetishize the experience of childbirth to the point of throwing a religious ceremony.
The birthing pageantry is rolled out for baby Angela in the first season, but when it comes time for June and Serena’s show, it’s a false start. While hiding in an abandoned house, June finally gives birth by herself. It’s more than an act of defiance – she’s robbed Serena of her symbolic rite of passage and reclaimed a slice of motherhood and precious time with her child.
It’s these emotional tug-of-war moments that make Serena and June’s toxic dynamic feel so odd. They routinely turn from comrades into combatants, with June as the good mother figure that has our sympathies and Serena as the bad mom whose desperation and need for power is as abusive as her husband’s. Through her experience and Naomi Putnam’s (Ever Carradine), the show paints all the wives – most of whom are adoptive parents – as inherently bad moms. They lack the instinct or the knowledge of childcare. In the case with baby Angela when she was deathly ill, all it took to save her life was reunite her with her biological mom, Janine (Madeline Brewer).
For all of Serena’s character development, she remained cruel to June with an alarming frequency. Her mercy stopped short of letting June even nurse her newborn, a decision she later softened on. She’s never June’s friend in this, yet it’s not uncommon for June to come to her and trust her.
Motherhood as it stands in Gilead isn’t concerned with biological ties but of status. The worshipping of fertility and the fruits of women’s labor incidentally diminishes the emotional cost of ceremonial rape and government-sanctioned kidnapping.
The argument of who is deserving to be a mother is constantly fought throughout the season, with women like Serena assuming they deserve this and women like June wondering what they did to deserve this abuse. The Waterfords’s hostile marriage is deemed a worthier place for a child than June’s single motherhood, which mirrors the conservative push toward marriage somehow making all the problems go away.
Much happens in the season finale to change the tides. Serena is punished by her husband for reading the Bible aloud and loses a finger for her sins. She had become disenchanted with Gilead and her diminished place in her world. June, seeing her fears for her daughter’s safety become realized, gets a Hail Mary Pass by an Underground Railroad of marthas to get out of Gilead. On June’s way out, Serena spots her and tries to take back the newborn – who she calls Nicole instead of June’s chosen name of Holly.
June quickly makes an argument for her escape, and Serena relents, allowing June to take the baby across the border to safety. Perhaps it’s a sign that Serena finally understands what a mother’s sacrifice looks like. She might also be righteously angry to find out what happened next.
The finale’s ending has been met with sharp criticism. Just as June reunites with Emily (Alexis Bledel) and finds a clear way out of Gilead, she bails. It’s such a sharp departure from what we’ve watched over the course of two seasons. She’s abandoning one daughter to likely go back and rescue her first born. The moment feels like a concocted way to keep us in this dystopian bubble – without which, we wouldn’t have much conflict since the Canadians seem to have a refugee assistance program.
Like many decisions about motherhood, this one has viewers split.