The aid ship was another new backdrop in a season that’s offered plenty of location variety, the show having long broken out of Gilead’s symmetrical repetition. Like the prison facility in episode three ‘The Crossing’, almost the entire episode was contained on board, which condensed the emotion and tension further, especially once night had fallen and scenes were filmed in almost total darkness. After the authentic-feeling refugee chaos at the port, the ship signified safety… for about 30 seconds (roughly as long as The Handmaid’s Tale ever lets viewers breathe out and relax). Then the Guardian inspection was announced, and the next ticking clock began.
That was the second obstacle, after Oona (Zawe Ashton) told Moira that she wasn’t allowed to take June with them. What a winding blow that was. We’ve waited for June and Moira’s reunion for so long that when it finally happened at the end of ‘Chicago’, it felt like an ending in itself. The idea that international law and bureaucracy might stop it in its tracks felt grossly unfair. The actual gross unfairness though, as this episode was keen to make clear, was June being rescued.
‘Vows’ staged The Handmaid’s Tale’s version of The Trolley Problem, that old ethics thought experiment debating whether one life is worth more than several. In one corner: Moira and the audience, who’ve both invested so much in June Osborne, we couldn’t stand to let her go. In the other corner: Oona and her colleague, who know that saving Gilead’s public enemy number one would put the organisation in contravention of the law, and threaten both diplomatic relations and future aid missions. Traumatised June was unexpectedly on the latter’s side. At first, June offering to turn herself in because her life “isn’t worth more than anyone else’s” felt too perfectly heroic and unselfish, making a paragon of our lead character. And then we were shown what was underneath her act of self-sacrifice: not holiness, but guilt.
June didn’t feel worthy of rescue because of the guilt she feels over her failure to rescue Hannah and the still-missing-presumed-dead Janine. When faced with the prospect of reaching Canada and reuniting with Luke, June spiralled. How could she face him? How could he ever forgive her? Not just for Hannah, but also for falling in love with another man and leaving Luke with his baby to raise in Nichole? The last time Luke heard from June was through the cassette tape in which she explained about her loving relationship with Nick.
Guilt was the emotional driving force of this episode, and perhaps of this entire season. June feels that she’s failed as a mother, telling Moira that everything that she’s responsible for everything that’s happened to Hannah. Moira’s survivor guilt over getting out while June was left in Gilead drove her to sacrifice her relationship with Oona to get June home. The “your fault, your fault” buck of guilt passed between June and Aunt Lydia in ‘The Crossing’ echoed across this episode, as Gilead’s victims turned their blame inwards, as survivors so often do.
This intense episode ended on the long-awaited emotional climax of June stepping foot on Canadian soil, an occasion marked by director Richard Shepard breaking out June Osborne’s signature shot: dead centre of frame, facing the camera. Usually in such shots, June’s eyes are fixed on the viewer as a promise of resistance to some abject horror. This time, they looked out onto a complicated homecoming. Finally out of Gilead, is this the end of June’s fight?