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Let’s chat The Handmaid’s Tale episode 4.06 – “Vows”. An episode that is a welcome return to form for a show that has been stuck in a rut for a while…
As we noted in the early days of The Handmaid’s Diaries, part of what made that first season of The Handmaid’s Tale so gripping was the exploration of survival and the relationship the handmaids shared as a result of their survival as well as trauma. While I still think the show probably could have ended after season 1 (man what a series ending that would have been), I appreciate that THT is a giant lure for Hulu and they need to milk that cash-cow for all it’s worth. This episode though, signals a return to that first season and the relatively personal stakes which were so well established during that time.
Instead of the stakes being, “will June escape or will she be caught?”, this episode reigns the narrative voice back in to focus on what matters most – how will June survive? But “Vows” takes it one step further by asking, “can June survive without the hope of freeing her daughter?” Better yet, “can June and Luke survive knowing that June came back without Hannah?” What’s more – “can June and Luke survive at all now?”
There’s a telling scene between Luke and June in the flashbacks when she asks him about the kind of wedding he had for his previous marriage. It was pretty typical, and it certainly included all the parts about ” in sickness and in health” and the “til death do us part” stuff. Though when prodded about why he would remain with June if she were to disappoint him by not having a baby, Luke’s somewhat curious answer is, “I know you won’t disappoint me.” He followed it up by saying his marriage to his ex-wife was different because they had changed. Of course, Luke’s answer was not as antagonistic as it sounds, but it certainly felt…very intentional for the writers to choose that peculiar phrasing.
One of the finer choices the writers and director makes is Luke’s muted reaction to June and vice versa. They both seem to feel each other out until June breaks down while apologizing for not being strong enough to bring Hannah back with her. This moment has probably been thought of by both characters for years now, broken down, wished upon, and now it’s finally come to fruition. It’s probably also safe to say that we as viewers have thought of this triumphant moment when Luke and June fall back into each other’s arms since the moment they were separated back in the series premiere. Yet, at least for me, the reunion I anticipated was NOTHING like the one we watched in “Vows” and that is really frakking great – I am so happy that my expectations were subverted in the same way June’s were.
Would it have been nice to have them running into each other’s arms from a long distance apart, with the music swelling in the background, and platitudes of love being shouted from the rooftops a la Outlander Season 3? Sure. But this reunion is not that. This reunion is shrouded in dread, bittersweet love, and hint of failure. With that in mind, this reunion is defined by it’s changed dynamic between the two characters – a relationship that has unwittingly endured rape, torture, immeasurable sadness, extraordinary acts of heroism, love found, love lost, babies being born, and everything in between. This is why it’s so important that we look to the flashback for how Luke and June’s marriage begins – an affirmation that their marriage is different, and that June won’t disappoint Luke.
Luke found it so easy to throw away his former marriage (possibly because his ex couldn’t have a baby but that is up for debate) but also because his marriage changed. Given the circumstances of his current marriage to June, it’s pretty fair to say their marriage has changed as well. June is no longer the editor who fell hard for this quirky guy that cheated on his ex. Luke is no longer the hopeful dad who sees light in June. Rather, they are both jaded for their own reasons – Luke believes June chose Gilead over he and Nichole, and June understands that Luke will never comprehend the trauma she has endured, and the fight she engaged in to bring home Hannah. No longer are they two lovers who’s story was written in the stars, but instead they are now grizzled veterans of hard fought war on terrorism, trauma, values, and unbearable Gileadean(?) patriarchal facism. They, too, may have made vows to each other and despite their insistence that his previous marriage failed because it changed, they now must face the change they have undergone and that is a major question mark.
Reunion played a major role in this episode, especially as it relates to June and Luke, but also how it relates to June and Moira as well. In fact, I’d argue the first moments shared between Moira and June (when June finally realizes that it’s actually Moira on the truck) should have been what the interaction between Luke and June felt like. For the first time in a long time during this dour and hard slog through The Handmaid’s Tale (and I honestly mean that in the best and most complimentary way possible) I finally shed a tear when Moira says to June, “I found you! I fuckin’ found you!” Perhaps because it was motivated by pure shock, joy, and bewilderment – or maybe because the chemistry between Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley is flames – but it felt one hundred percent real. It feels exactly like what I would have said if I found my wife after years of being separated by borders and a series of psychopaths who refuse to let women read.
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The relationship shared between Moira and June is special because it goes beyond the love of a married couple or a family member. These are best friends who have faced death, pain, and absolute domination from all sides of their lives in Gilead. They are chosen family. People you simply choose to keep as close to you as possible – one’s who can hear and take part in a conversation about marriage, why they’re worried about the future husband, and be real about why that husband may not be the best fit because he’s super shady. This relationship is VITAL to THT, and it’s obvious the show has struggled with how to handle Moira since she left June behind. But now is Moira’s chance to save her friend, and convince her that she can lead her to safety. That Bruce Miller….
Amidst all the mythos that has been around June, both in Gilead and as character in this show in general, this episode’s greatest asset is that it brings June back to our level. As we noted before, June has given birth alone in the cold, she has survived A LOT of rape, miscarriages, Aunt Lydia’s mental and physical torture chambers, death, wolves, Fred’s pathetic attempts at dominance and much, much more. Hell, she is the architect of the world renowned “Angels Flight”. She is a Luke Skywalker-esque walking myth among her peers, and the show has kind of bought into that myth as well.
“Vows” shows us that June is still very much human – worried that she can’t bring back Hannah to Luke, primping her hair before they see each other, arguing with Moira about her failure and resignation that she’ll never see Hannah again. We’re reminded of friendship, the very controversial beginnings behind Luke and June’s relationship, June’s natural instinct to giddily abandon her well laid plans to inform Luke she was pregnant and so on. June is a person. A person who smiles, who cries, who loves, who pains, and has made both good and bad choices. We CAN relate to her. We can relate to her desire to sneak onto a boat, and we can empathize with Moira when she agrees to let June go as long as she comes along too. So when June takes that step to freedom on Canadian soil, it’s not just her taking that step – it’s her entire persona, and they myth she has built. She is choosing to be June again. And the show is choosing a different path to bring back what makes it tick – not the myth of June Osborne the Handmaid, but June the person. It’s a giant leap in the right direction.
APROPOS OF NOTHING
- Safe to say that Moira and the new gf are D-O-N-E.
- I suspect a lot of people may fault this episode because June and Moira have the same conversation about staying in Canada twice. I don’t fault it at all – the first convo June was majorly concussed and didn’t even recognize Moira at all. The second was June’s attempt to leave again despite being fully aware of her surroundings – and it cemented why the Moira/June relationship might be the most important one in THT.
- There is no way in hell Janine is dead. If she were, it would have been on camera. Now it’s just a question of how she plays back into the story. Does she get captured by Gilead and sent back to Aunt Lydia? It’s not a coincidence that Janine comes to June’s side before the bombing while being intercut with Lydia mentioning how Handmaid’s always walk together. Will Gilead use Janine and Hannah to bring June back?
- June may think she will never see Hannah again, but she honestly has a much better chance at Hannah’s rescue now because she can utilize an entire team of people in Canada to find her instead of just running around in the shadows in Gilead.
- Speaking of running around, June is a major asset to Canada and new America. Think about what Katniss meant to the rebellion in The Hunger Games. She is the face of how Gilead can fall, and all that is wrong with patriarchy. That is an incredible story which retains a lot of international value.
- Wait, all it took was to “print an ID” for June to make sure she isn’t caught on the ship? Why the hell was there even a debate between the crew members of the boat? These people were willing to watch June hang on the wall, and all they had to do was find the nearest HP Deskjet? What are talking about here?
- Given June’s celebrity status, don’t you think the soldiers would have her visage imprinted on their brains? She’s basically the Sirius Black of Gilead, and there are no posters or reminders of her anywhere? (You’re welcome for that reference btw)
- It was great to see them use the June-stares-angrily-into-the-camera shot again at the end of the episode. But, given the context, it’s a completely fresh shot. Instead of anger, it’s filled with bittersweet hope, and longing.
- I love not seeing June actually stop foot on the ground – just June moving down in frame as we focus on her release. Perfection. Visual storytelling at it’s best.
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The Handmaid’s Tale: Episode 4.06 – Vows | Review And Analysis