Moira Deserved Better in The Handmaid’s Tale’s Penultimate Episode
Did The Handmaid’s Tale just victim-blame a survivor like Moira?
As The Handmaid’s Tale concludes its first season, I had qualms with how the writers and director treated Moira in the last episode.
In the penultimate episode, a Mayday-supporting Handmaid deploys June on a mission to receive a package from a Mayday contact at the Jezebel club, seen in the previous episode. June seduces her enslaver, the Commander, to whisk her off into another forbidden night to get close the contact.
But the Commander senses that his Handmaid is after something besides a tumble-in-the-sheets with him, not that he doesn’t exploit his Handmaid again sexually anyway, and he forbids her from leaving the room. Does he know of June’s little mission? Turns out, he ends up producing Moira, a prostitute of Jezebel and a close friend of June, knowing that June had taken great interest in Moira—now christened “Ruby” under Gilead’s regime.
Since June now has her friend in proximity, one who knows the Jezebel’s employees better, she reverts to Moira for aid to retrieve the package from the contact.
Broken down, Moira insists that June stay put and that escape is impossible. “Go home and do what they say.”
Regardless of the survivalist pragmatism behind Moira’s insistence, June doesn’t react well to Moira implying that June should stay in the abusive Waterford household than to risk escape. June reiterates the promises—the pinkie-promises—a then-stronger Moira made at the Center, citing as proof that Moira can still defy. The blame game from both women feels natural with the heat of the situation, a brutally honest portrait of two traumatized women who are processing their environment with little external outlet of anger.
But June also spats out a clincher line: “You keep your fucking shit together. You fight.”
And it didn’t feel like a natural lash-out exacerbated by an otherwise precarious danger. It’s framed so viewer sees this as an acceptable interpretation: Moira is a coward for not fighting back. For not being the perfect ideal of a survivor. June’s call-out—or really, the scriptwriter’s choice of words to give June—is synonymous with stop being a victim. (Everyday Feminism gives a run-down on why assigning the victim-survivor complex is damaging.)
Through Elizabeth Moss’s wounded performance as Moira walks out, Moss might understand that June has hurt Moira with little time and language to process it. There was directorial intent with that outburst to demonstrate their tangled traumas. June’s rapist-enslaver was in the other room and June was on an urgent mission, and she knew her success might help take down Gilead brick-by-brick. It’s unfair to expect level-headed rationality out of both characters.
But with the execution of the scene and its ensuing predictable payoff by the end of the episode, that “stand up, fight for yourself, don’t be weak” cliché speech obliterates how Moira is coping.
Both June and Moira are victims of Gilead (though planted on different planes within the state’s scale) and coped in their own ways. Up until this ninth episode, the viewer has invested in June’s journey to, as the arc words says, survive, and June has gathered whatever bits of agency to entangle herself in the Mayday rebellion and risk a rendezvous to Jezebel. We’re allowed to see June’s act as courageous and she actively chose to grow out of her conformist shell to survive.
But it is unfair to hold Moira to the same standard. No matter how much we and the protagonist are invested in the moments where Moira acts on fighting impulses and pursues daring escapes, that doesn’t mean Moira would retain the constitution of a strong one. Strong ones break down. They might stop fighting back against their abusers. Fighting spirits can die. And that’s ok.
So Moira should be allowed to opt-out of Mayday, opt-out of the pressure of conventional on-screen bravery demanded of victims. Yes, it would deter June’s mission, and that’s none of her fault, but Moira should not be strung along a mission that could breach her life. The context needed to respect her agency to refuse involvement in activities that benefit the protagonist—or even the rebellion against the regime.
This is especially jarring because The Handmaid’s Tale has unfolded complicated edges and showing—and validating—the various emotions and methods to survive in a dystopia like Gilead, which mirror real-life misogyny and disregard of women’s bodies. For example, the replacement Ofglen, despite obstructing the heroine’s involvement with rebellion and friendship, is provided a sympathetic self-preservationist motivation to why she chose to conform to Gilead.
We like to root for the traditional survivors who suck up their hurt and fire back, like Emily’s last joyride in “Faithful”. But the truth is, not everyone has this power. Survivors—be it real-life people or fictional characters—shouldn’t be expected to earn some pedestal of survivalist ideal. When survivors break down, a dose of “tough love” of does not provide them compassion.
“Bridge” is not without a visible counterpoint to June’s frankly toxic exaltation of Moira as a survivor. As a clear foil to Moira, the mentally unstable Janine is effectively a fallen woman, closer to the spectrum of a traditional victim, one who refuses to carry the burdens of the adversities and surrender to despair. When June attempts to pacify Janine over the bridge, it’s not identical to her rousing lecture to Moira, but it has the same theme: Do not give up.
In this case, June has the mental space to formulate gentle words of empathy for Janine, acknowledging the misery of Gilead, even if she must resort to false promises of future optimism. Moira is also curiously invoked in the speech, when June fantasizes about the return to the good old days of drinking and dancing. Arguably, by invoking Moira, June might also be acknowledging that her verbal accusations had done wrong by Moira. It does enough to lull Janine into surrendering her child to June’s arms, but Janine chooses to fall over the edge. And June is reminded that she, too, was tempted to break down over the edge.
Despite the effective counterbalance of how June processes Janine’s circumstance, Moira’s breakthrough relied on the Hollywood “stand up for yourself speech.” In the thematic procedures of a television show, it not out of character that Moira would regain fortitude to fight back and opt in the dangerous Mayday business. The issue lied in the logical pacing, where it had to be June’s inspiration sermon that served as the magic medicine for Moira’s defeatist state and was the sole empowerment for her eventual escapade and successful delivery of the Mayday package.
Even as I smiled when Moira drove off into the night, the traditional “Yeah, you go, girl!” milestone, Moira deserved better. Perhaps a more suitable message on Moira’s successfully-acquired package note would be:
“Praise be, Bitch. You still had no right to judge me. XOXO.”
Caroline Cao is a Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of Texas. When not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she enjoys acting in cheesy improv performances for BETA Theater, experimenting with ramen noodles, and hollering vocal flash fics on Instagram. She lends her snarky/scholarly mouth to Birth Movies Death and The Script Lab.
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