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[This story contains spoilers for season two, episode 11 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “Holly.”]
“I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story.”
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) utters these words near the beginning of the latest episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “Holly,” a standout installment in the Emmy-winning drama. As the titular handmaid warns, “Holly” contains a great measure of pain — but as Offred promises, it also includes “some of the good things” as well.
With the exceptions of two instances of Offred’s narration, a tense scene between Fred and Serena Waterford (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski), a sprinkling of flashbacks, and the Oprah cameo heard ’round the world, “Holly” features very little dialogue. Instead, it’s a survival tale, as Offred deals with the immediate aftermath of her reunion with Hannah (Jordana Blake) in “The Last Ceremony,” now completely abandoned in a snow-covered lake house. Once she finds a functional car, she makes plans to leave Gilead forever. Those plans are halted immediately once Offred’s water breaks, forcing her to give birth to her daughter without any medication, without any company.
As she gives birth to her daughter, Offred conjures memories of her loved ones from her life before Gilead, including her own mother, Holly (Cherry Jones), after whom Offred names her daughter. The episode ends with Offred and her newborn daughter cradled in each other’s arms, as a car arrives at the lake house, signaling the return of Gilead in Offred’s world.
For more about the game-changing episode and how it came together, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with writer and producer Kira Snyder, who shined a light on the various beats of the episode from the Waterford feud, a wolf’s recurring presence, the relative lack of dialogue, and more.
Flashbacks aside, the entirety of “Holly” takes place in a single location, focused on Elisabeth as Offred, almost completely action-driven with minimal dialogue. It culminates in the birth of Holly, a pivotal moment for the season and series. How did the episode come together from a story perspective?
As one might expect, once we knew that Offred was going to get pregnant, which was always going to be the ending of season one, thoughts naturally turn to, “Alright, at some point she’s going to have to give birth.” [Creator Bruce Miller] came to us early on in the room with the idea of the birth episode. He wanted all along for it to be a bit of a crucible experience for June. Having her be on her own physically was something that was a very early part of the discussion.
In some shows, this kind of episode could be the finale for a season, and we were looking at the other parts of the story that we’re telling, other things yet to explore that’ll be coming in episodes to come, and it made sense to actually pull it in a little bit. It really feels to me personally like coming off of the incredibly shattering things that June/Offred goes through in episode 10, you have this kind of trial, this ordeal that she goes through by herself, and ultimately it’s so incredibly triumphant and it really just shows the power of resilience, the power of hope. And then you have this beautiful little child at the end of it. It’s a moment of victory in what’s a fairly dark part of the season.
What kinds of conversations did you and the team have with Elisabeth about not just carrying the episode, but specifically the scene where Offred gives birth to Holly all by herself?
I know Bruce and Elisabeth had conversations about this. Over the last two seasons, I know they were talking very closely as this unfolded. There are story considerations, production considerations, and location production considerations about how much time she actually can be in that space undertaking that incredibly emotional performance for many hours at a time. But Lizzie is an incredible trooper. She has welcomed all the challenges we have thrown at her. I think she approached this episode with a great deal of relish. She was very excited and very complimentary about the script when it came out, which is always gratifying to hear as a writer. I think in having the flashbacks, which are intentionally lighter in tone and from a happier time, those provide for the viewer a little bit of a break. But of course in production, those were shot at a very different time than everything in the lake house. That was a grueling time, for sure. It was very cold, although luckily for this episode she was mostly inside, but there was a lot of time outside, and it was bitterly cold. So, all respect to her and to the rest of the cast and crew for challenging production considerations, but it turned out just gorgeously on screen I think.
Aside from production considerations, you mentioned the flashback component of the episode and that really comes to a head during the birth scene. Why was it important to touch back to these earlier memories that Offred is experiencing as she’s giving birth to Holly by herself?
The intent there was to show her and have her understand and realize and remember that she’s not alone. That there’s something universal and primal about giving birth, so she’s connected to everyone who’s ever given birth. That’s why we show her flashbacks to Hannah’s birth, that’s why we cut scenes of Janine giving birth to her daughter, even scenes from the Red Center where they’re learning the official Gilead way of giving birth. All of that are the tools and the emotional community that she draws on to help her through this moment. So she’s alone in the literal sense, but she’s not alone in the larger universal, metaphorical sense.
Why did you feel it was important to bring those scenes from the Red Center into this? How does it intersect with the theme of the season, this idea that Gilead’s within you?
It’s exactly that. We talk a lot in the room about identity and specifically of June’s identity, because this season in particular we’ve been playing the tension between, is she June or is she Offred? Who is she really? And the thing about the Red Center is as awful as that experience is and as traumatizing as Aunt Lydia’s instruction was to those women, it is something that she needs to know how to get through this, because they teach women how to give birth unmedicated, without doctors, without drugs, without anything besides their community of other handmaids and wives, as you saw in the birth scene. In a strange way, this unwelcome bit of instruction is useful to her.
It’s also the importance of remembering that she did have friends [in Gilead]. Moira was there, but the June that can get through this moment in this episode is not the same June that gave birth to Hannah. That was the point of showing those two scenes in juxtaposition, where you have June giving birth to Hannah and she’s surrounded by doctors and doulas, and she’s got her friends and everyone was waiting on her and she’s got everything she needs as opposed to now, where she is all she has, and she is all she needs. And that memory of the Red Center is part and parcel to all the things that she has learned since then to make her ready for this moment.
We hear the signature Offred narration twice in the episode, near the beginning and end, as she talks about why she’s telling her story: she believes in “you.” In your mind, who is she talking to? What do her words mean?
Both of those pieces of narration are from the novel by Margaret Atwood, so that’s Margaret’s lovely prose there. My belief is that she’s talking to a lot of people. She’s talking to the baby, she’s talking to some unknown future listener of the story that she’s recording, because these are recordings that a future June is making of her experiences in Gilead, and I think she’s also talking to us the viewer. These stories are hard to hear, the last episode in particular, for lots of reasons. It’s a particularly powerful and challenging episode. These stories are important and they need to be told. And part of the importance of telling a story like that is knowing that someone will hear them. So to me, it addresses a few different yous.
The most dialogue-heavy scene in the episode, certainly in the present tense, comes when the Waterfords arrive at the house. They have an explosive argument, as Offred watches on, shotgun in hand, ultimately choosing not to pull the trigger.
I’m so happy with how the episode turned out, but that sequence is a really juicy piece right in the middle, because right when Serena and the Commander show up, June’s just had this nice memory of Luke, and it turns into a bit of a horror movie where these two people are stalking through this house and there are these great shots of Serena stalking around, and finding the cloak. I think the tension’s just amazingly built up there. I give credit to the cast, crew and director for crafting that.
This scene specifically, it’s kind of the first honest fight we’ve actually heard between Fred and Serena, because they’re not in their own house. There’s no risk, they think, of being overheard. They don’t have to mask anything. They don’t have to put on any kind of artifice. It is completely raw, and they are both at their lowest point in the whole season. So you see basically the rottenness of their marriage laid bare entirely. They say things to each other we have never heard them say, and June is overhearing all of this, and she has a gun and she has it on them.
Ultimately, it’s a moment of humanity that stays her hand where she sees how completely shattered Serena is, and she misses her chance, and we don’t really know: would she actually have taken the shot? Would she have taken them both out? There’s two barrels in that shotgun. She’s never shot a gun before. Who knows how that would’ve even worked. But in that moment of seeing Serena … the connection between these two women this whole season, through the whole show but specifically this season with the pregnancy and the baby, is really at the core of the show and that moment, I think, is really telling, where she’s not able to pull the trigger on Serena when seeing her at her most vulnerable.
Throughout the episode, Offred sees a wolf outside. What does the wolf represent for you?
It’s representative of a couple things. First is more of a subtle point about wildlife coming back, since among Gilead’s very few good qualities is that they do care about the environment, so things like wolves are actually coming back into the fringes of the world. The fact that wolves are around in rural Massachusetts is encouraging, because Gilead is taking their stewardship of the world pretty seriously. But really, it’s a signifier for June of wildness and resilience. She starts off being scared of the wolf and afraid of what it’s gonna do to her. The wolf later is a moment of inspiration where she has a terrifying slip and fall outside the garage where her water breaks and the water breaking was, when you’re having your second child, [a signal that] the baby is imminent. She’s not going anywhere, even if she could get the [garage] door open; she’s not going anywhere. Basically, she’s having her lowest point. And the wolf there is a reminder she’s also a wild thing. She has it in her to do this, so it gives her a little bit of the push that she needs to get back up on her feet and get into that house and have that child. At the end, she sees the wolf for the last time, when she fires the gun and scares the wolf away. She’s returning herself to Gilead, to civilization, the same time the wolf has returned to wilderness. She’s basically giving up on that promise of that wild and free sense of feeling.
How does the birth of Holly change the game of the show moving forward?
I can’t tell you very much, obviously, because there are a few episodes to come, except to say that it absolutely does change the landscape. This is what Serena has been waiting her whole life for. It’s what she’s changed the world for. So it’ll be really interesting to see. You’ll have to see how Serena’s reaction comes into play. The implication is at the end with the headlight coming into the lake house, that June is going back into Gilead; that’s why she fires the gun, because she knows that she can’t risk the life of her child out there on her own. So she’s willingly giving herself back to Gilead for the sake of the child. So now that the child that Serena has wanted so desperately [has arrived], how will that change her life? Will that make her as happy as she thinks it will? We’ll have to see, and now that the child is born, what does that do for June? Does she maybe feel differently about this baby than she does about Hannah? It’s one thing to have the idea of a child in this world; it’s a whole other ballgame to have the actual child.
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