Events in this episode have been a long time coming and this could be Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley's Emmy submission. Powerful scenes from both.
- ▪️The complexities and beauty of Moira and June's friendship.
- ▪️Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley two very emotionally driven scenes.
- ▪️The way this episode moves the story forward.
- ▪️Zawe Ashton is underused as guest star Oona.
- ▪️Some of the flashbacks are doing a lot of heavy lifting.
June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) has almost escaped Gilead on several occasions, but various obstacles in The Handmaid's Tale prevented her from making it to Canada — whether her own choice or getting captured. It was getting to the point in which it felt like every attempt was going to end with her back in the red signature cloak. Even at the start of the season, June’s temporary freedom led to her (re)capture and torture at the hand of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) before she fled once more. There are multiple times in “Vows” that make us question whether June will step onto Canadian soil because Hannah is still wrapped in the pink of Gilead’s children, and she keeps on arguing with Moira (Samira Wiley) about the failure to save her daughter. After so many brushes with liberty, the audience can be forgiven for thinking June would somehow stumble at the final hurdle, and she is given several occasions to do so. However, this makes it two weeks in a row that June experiences a reunion that previously felt so far away.
Before delving into the final moments of "Vows", we must discuss the events that lead up to June taking a deep breath before she placed her foot in a different country. “Fix You” is no longer playing and I can finally get over my mental block regarding this song and comprehend the enormity of this moment. Instead of a clinging embrace, June treats Moira like a mirage who isn’t there and instead starts to call out Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) name as chaos reigns around her. This reaction is to be expected considering her head wound, and it isn’t until they are riding back to the medical bay that June realizes she isn’t hallucinating her best friend, but she doesn’t understand why. “I fucking found you,” Moira says through teary eyes and my reaction is equally misty. Cradling her, Moira reassures June (and herself) repeating “I got you.” As Adam Taylor’s score swirls, every emotion that was missing from this pivotal reunion last week washes over the screen and my face.
Back at base camp, the stress levels are high as they have been warned that more bombers are coming. The issue is that anyone who isn’t a Canadian citizen cannot board the NGO vessel because they are only offering aid and not asylum. If someone was to sneak onto the boat, it would jeopardize the entire operation, and this means Moira has to leave June behind. Of course, there is no way she is going to do this after it has taken so long to find her, and she defies her girlfriend Oona’s (Zawe Ashton) orders. Another problem to surmount isn’t the other desperate people wanting to flee but convincing June to come with her. Moira tries several tactics first as the voice of reason observing that Hannah will “be safer without you,” before using Nicole as an incentive to leave. This proves to be the correct argument and it isn’t long before she is rushed below deck.
Unfortunately, Moira didn’t factor in that the boat would be searched before entering Canadian waters and this was pretty naive, all things considered. Oona is furious at this deception and a debate rages about what to do with the stowaway. The secret cargo might be the hero of Angels Flight, but a humanitarian mission is about people, not one person. As the argument intensifies, June settles it: “Just turn me in.” Her nihilist streak is doing the talking (as is her desire to rescue Hannah) and for all her frustrating qualities, June knows her life isn’t worth more than the mission. At this point, it feels like we are going back to square one, which would’ve been a mistake for the momentum of this season. There are only so many times a character can make the same steps without it becoming tiresome and June has already hit her count. Oona changes her mind and decides to fake an ID for June so she can pretend to be a Canadian, and she does not put a lot of energy into this role-playing scenario. The boat check scene is tense and a reminder of how stubborn the ex-handmaid can be, but thankfully, the guy doing the inspection isn’t particularly bothered by her long pauses between answers. Self-sabotage could’ve come into play but while June is single-minded, she also doesn’t want to get the NGO into trouble.
Her final attempt to go back to Gilead is desperate and dangerous when Moira finds her trying to steal a lifeboat. If the earlier emotional scene between the women hit an emotional chord then this is downright devastating in how it veers between anger, sorrow, and regret. Moss and Wiley consistently deliver excellence and it is moments like this that emphasize why they have both won Emmys for this show — and this could be their 2021 submission too. Moira knows that something happened with Hannah that June hasn’t told her and she recounts her daughter’s fear in Episode 3. “How can I show up without her?” is June’s follow-up and the crux of her reluctance to leave Gilead is tied up in her daughter. The latter is not a new revelation but there are layers to this confession as she regards this as a failure of her mothering capabilities and of letting Luke (O-T Fagbenle) down. The latter is supported by the flashback scenes that suggest Luke has a line he cannot forgive and she has crossed it.
The Luke issue is summed up through flashback tension between Moira and June when she moved out to live with her fiancé. It is a reminder that Moira didn’t always like her BFF’s husband and her concern was rooted in his infidelity and desperate desire to have a baby. The first thing June says to Luke (after an extended silence) is “I’m sorry I don’t have her.” This is heartbreaking, but the use of flashbacks feels like the show not really knowing how to approach this dynamic or that it needs clear signposting. The real love story in "Vows" is between Moira and June (painful moments included) and after the recent Nick (Max Minghella) interactions, the Luke relationship is not as clear-cut. This will likely be a question for the forthcoming episodes (now that they are in the same place), but in “Vows,” the flashbacks are doing a lot of heavy lifting. One person whose romantic life is now in shambles is Moira after Oona cannot see past her deception. Alas, this has been a short time for Zawe Ashton guest starring and I am left wondering whether this was due to Covid restrictions or whether Emily (Alexis Bledel) is about to enter the romance picture (Clea DuVall guest starring is a Covid protocol casualty). Either way, she was underused in a major way. During this breakup scene, Oona reflects on the painful choices she has made (including abandoning the refugees in the opening) and this emphasizes how reckless Moira's actions are.
What is interesting and incredibly effective about "Vows" is that only one storyline is featured. There is no popping off to find out what Nick and Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) are doing or how the Waterford’s legal battle is going. Dedicating this much time to Moira and June leads to one of the strongest episodes of the season (in a good run) and the only aspect that is cumbersome is some of the flashbacks. It is important to get insight into the before (particularly as June and Luke haven’t seen each other in years) but it distracts from the emotional journey on the boat.
The final scene in "Vows" is powerful and the exhalation of breath is a gift to the audience who have stuck with the show: June is now in Canada and she likely won’t be wearing red any time soon. What comes next is the big challenge and we are now in unchartered territory for Gilead and the woman that has been a thorn in their side.
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