In an episode about the holy unions we create with others, it’s fitting that the whole aesthetic is a marriage between two disparate genres: the quiet drama about adult life and a heart-racing action film. “Vows” is by far one of the most easily digestible episodes of the series, in terms of plotting, backstory, and its central focus on one type of love story: the friendship between Moira and June.
Let’s focus first on the pre-Gilead section of the episode, which felt more like scenes from the excellent Once And Again, or the very much less excellent This Is Us. June and Moira are roommates, tight as can be. Their main source of tension? The impending wedding between June and Luke. As June gets ready to move out so she can shack up with Luke, she is chattering away about how this life-altering decision will have zero effect on their friendship which is, of course, bullshit. We all like to believe that friendships can remain intact after a massive personal change like marriage, babies, hell sometimes even a new job comes in the picture, but that is simply not the case. The force of their impact is too big for one person to control. Plus, many of these require either a public or personal promise to put this new relationship in your life first. In some cases, even a VOW. (Gasps!)
Moira is less convinced. In part, because she is less likely to indulge in this optimistic, impulsive, follow-my-heart-attitude that permeates June. Mostly because she is wary of Luke, a man who cheated on his first wife who he was having marital trouble with over her infertility. So really the tension, as with all things Gilead, is babies. And because she is straight shooter, Moira flat out tells June her concerns and plants that seed of doubt in her brain, just as she’s about to embark on her version of domestic bliss.
There are many reasons why I appreciated this little slice of life in the episodes, beyond the fact that I will never get bored of the kind of small, petty, tiny flare-ups that occur in everyday life. I’ve been starving for low-stakes gossip since the pandemic began and this mundane spat between two roomies was really pumping out the endorphins. Man, if we had seen even one passive-aggressive discussion between June and the accountant in her editing job over things like missing expenses, I might have spontaneously combusted from too much stimulation.
However, the more important aspect of this storyline is that it reminds us of 1) June and Luke’s own scandalous origins and 2) that June’s drive is underpinned by more than survivor’s guilt or a mama bear’s indefatigable fighting spirit. It is also fueled by a deep fear of having failed so catastrophically as a wife, that she has no chance for redemption. That she has broken a sacred vow.
On the flip side, it also highlights how Moira’s commitment to June is akin to that of a mother and child, or a life partner. Or really of the kind of friendship that is closer to that of chosen family. Moira’s warning about Luke isn’t about jealousy, not really. She is just better at analyzing the aftermath of a decision. June is acting more like a flashing “Warning! Warning! Warning!” sign. It’s the role that she plays out in this friendship, a foil or a break to June’s stubborn, leap-of-faith defiance. In short, she slaps her back into reality, a skill that proves crucial when we jump into a bombed Chicago, a concussed June, and a Moira hellbent on getting her out of Gilead. She knows how to handle her. She guides her to a medical truck with the suggestion that Janine might be there. She tempers a massive freak-out by telling June she’ll take care of her. She convinces her to become a stowaway on the Canadian boat by pointing out a very real truth: Hannah is safer without her. For a brief moment, June believes that the best way to fulfill her vow as a mother is by getting on that damn boat.
Also, because viewers will riot if we YET AGAIN live through another season of June deciding to stay in Gilead. Blessed be.
All the footage that takes us from the ruins of Chicago, to a humanitarian relief camp in chaos, to a boat crossing the Great Lakes with a smuggled Handmaid and Gilead officers not too far behind is taken from the action-thriller playbook. The pace is frenetic; the sounds are jarring and disruptive, the cameras pan on a trio of menacing coastal patrols following their trail. We get whatever score is titled “Ominous, JAWs-inspired Symphony”. It’s all very summer blockbuster extravaganza, a genre I tend to loathe, but kept me gripped in this very small dose. Plus, the tension spilled over onto the dynamic between each character. Bonds are tested. Moira is in deep doo-doo with the rest of the crew, who now have to decide between saving one human life or trying to save the thousands of lives they left behind in Gilead. For Oona, who has devoted her life to a mission larger than herself, it’s a break-up worthy violation. June offers to give herself up, which throws Moira into a tailspin.
It’s so much harder to honor your promises when you have the upper hand in a situation. As Oona tells Moira, “the hardest part is when you’re the one with the power.” And though I have spent many years in therapy to realize that a healthy relationship doesn’t involve power battles, that doesn’t mean the negotiation of our desires, boundaries, and responsibilities isn’t always there, nagging in the background. And vows are meant to be non-negotiable. Therein lies the tension behind Moira’s reckless attempt to save June, June’s maniacal insistence on saving Hannah single-handedly, Oona’s disappointment with Moira.
On the other hand, vows are also a reminder of choice, an act of faith not only in yourself but in another person. A promise that your flaws will be accepted, maybe even cherished. When June breaks down in front of Moira and finally divulges what’s really tormenting her, it is her best friend’s unconditional love and support that gives her the strength to let go of Hannah, at least in one way. And it also gives her strength to finally face Luke who, as Moira points out, hasn’t given up on her.
- There were also two small glimpses into other genres. The first, Oona’s brief role as the most depressing RuPaul impersonator with a steely “Don’t fuck it up.” (I’ve been watching too much Drag Race lately and that’s what immediately came to mind.) The second, June channeling her best Jack Shepard, by mumbling “we have to go back, we have to go back” as she tried to steal a lifeboat.
- Actually, the final montage of June and Luke’s brief, happy homelife also had big La La Land final sequence energy. Except the one in Handmaid’s tugged at my heartstrings while the one in La La Land made me roll my eyes. (What? Am I supposed to think that their boring suburban life would have been more meaningful than them actually achieving their dreams?????)
- The most Canadian Thing to Happen this week was definitely all the discussion about the ethics of humanitarian relief efforts while wearing thermal clothing.
- Eyebrow Watch 2021: As much as I enjoyed wading in the emotional waters of the Luke/June marriage, do you think that backstory also set us up to understand why their love might not last post-Gilead?
- What do we think happened to Janine? Did she go the way of Mr. Darcy? Or will she rise from the ashes, Italian beef sandwich in her hand?