The Handmaid’s Tale has proven itself to be the blessed fruit that the Lord keeps opening.
Season 2 is all wrapped up and the finale of the groundbreaking show was a fitting culmination of thirteen episodes of committed character development – a consistent aim of the second season. The finale, named ‘The Word’, encapsulated the growth of Gilead’s suffering citizens whilst giving each character a last challenge, their responses a testament to what they have seen and learned.
Of course, it also sparked as much fan debate as ever, now typical of the Handmaid’s Twitter hashtag mere moments after the credits roll. Naturally, the turn of events which arose in the last five minutes left the audience with some pretty fundamental questions, undoubtedly becoming the focus until we next check in with the wonderful world of Gilead.
The first and most obvious: Why did June decide against her one and only real chance of escaping Gilead? Her choice to turn away from Emily, calling her to a new life, has been met with understandable disappointment after her previous failed attempts at running and her constant promises to save both herself and her new baby. There are a few simple answers to this, Hannah being the frontrunner. Elisabeth Moss’ June has struggled constantly with the loss of her first daughter to Gilead and all of the horrors the country has in store for a young girl.
Nick could be another motivation for her to return to the fray. The scene of the young, loving family amid the torture of the Waterford’s might have been enough to cause June to stay. After all, as she told Eden, “in this place, you grab love wherever you can find it.”
However, with June’s determined stare into the camera in the last moments, there’s a soaring sense of hope that she’s not just going back to collect people and sneak out again. Rather, she’s looking to exact some revenge. This could now be a real possibility for her, having seen the chaos created by the Marthas and having had her own fleeting ecstasy of striking an increasingly crazed Commander Waterford, played brilliantly by Joseph Fiennes.
The second and perhaps more interesting investigation to come in season 3 will be how June’s opportunity to leave came about in the first place.
What was most striking about this escape plan was that it was mostly carried out by women, for the sake of women. This made for one of the most emotional scenes across the whole show, June being passed from Martha to Martha for protection, rather than Commander to Commander for violation.
The coordination between the Marthas appears to have been well-planned and rehearsed rather than a panic-driven means of fleeing persecution. Apart from the usual misery and subordination found in Gilead, there was also no drastic change in June’s situation meaning she needed to run from certain death or torture. The plan was unexpected and felt a little rushed, all packed into the final minutes of the episode. However, it could have been a very deliberate move, this situation was a surprise to June and hers is the story we are following. Either way, it made for some heart-racing, heart-breaking, sweaty-palmed television.
Nick seems to have had a central role in the fires started across the district, leading easily to the belief that other enforcers of the regime were involved. Whilst Nick, played by Max Minghella, didn’t give his position away immediately to Commander Waterford, there was the suggestion that the Commander should obey Nick’s orders or face a bullet.
The sheer number of dissidents involved, who were never seen before now, could very well point towards a building movement for revolution. Earlier in the season, we saw the Handmaids and Commanders alike die in the bombing of the new Red Centre. During June’s ill-fated discovery of the car, a hopeful voice on the radio described mounting international pressure and sanctions. Even in the last episode, the wives taking a stand before their husbands was its own small act of rebellion. Gilead is not a monolith unable to be toppled.
Season 1 certainly had a shock factor element which contributed to its overall dark nature. Some of the themes and scenarios at the centre stage of the show have very rarely been portrayed in such a graphic and frankly, truthful way before, especially on the small screen.
The sophomore effort, however, has in many ways been darker still. As only The Handmaid’s Tale can, the story expertly combined the extreme with triumphant, uplifting joys and even the mundane to create just as sinister a tone, even more recognisably stemming from real-world roots. Horrific rape is set beside common breastfeeding struggles, a disappointing bran muffin alongside the execution of a child. Not to mention the most real depiction of birth I have ever seen in film.
The Handmaid’s Tale is at its most effective when the unimaginable is wrapped in what the audience lives every day. Crucially, this does not make the content any more palatable. The story is still as bloody, stark and un-binge-watchable as ever and retains the core value that these events are perfectly possible.
Attempting to predict what to expect from here on is difficult, the story is stepping away from its original roots in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, but all eyes are on 2019 for the next installment.
Showrunner Bruce Miller has confirmed the season return of characters’ whose lives were left hanging in the balance after the finale. Namely Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia, who will be “transformed” by her quite literal back-stabbing. Bradley Whitford will make another appearance as the mysterious Commander Lawrence, a complicated yet enthralling character who again suffered from a sense of being rushed, only being introduced in the final act of the season. However, his devotion to the harsh rules of Gilead mixed with his love of controversial music and art all makes for an exciting storyline to come. Of course, his sympathy for Emily has granted her too a chance at escape, the next chapter may see Alexis Bledel’s character unite with her old family whilst also towing an unexpected newborn.
A highlight of Season 2 was the vital glimpse into Serena’s former career, independence, passion and voice, followed by her decision to give it up for the hope of, at least in her eyes, a better world. In ‘The Word’, Serena finally learns that women, even the highest-ranking wives, have no future in Gilead, despite her best efforts to at last speak (or read) out. This lesson is taught in a suitably violent and traumatic way, welcoming Waterford’s wife into the terrorising arms of the fundamentalist state, which other inhabitants know only too well.
There is conflict that goes with feeling sorry for Serena Joy Waterford, portrayed by Yvonne Strahovski. Not only is she one of the most cruel characters, she helped to construct the rulebook she now suffers by. Going forward to season 3, there’s still great doubt over whether she’s seen the magnitude of her mistakes, but her selfish stubbornness does appear to dissipate quickly with the consideration of her new child. Even Serena saying goodbye to Nichole demonstrated an acceptance that as her mother and a woman, she needed to protect the baby girl at all costs, though it may be too late to go back now. But as Miller has said, she could always change her mind and use her unrivalled determination to take Nichole back.
There’s a lot at stake both in and out of Gilead, but whether these cracks prove enough to bring down a regime remains to be seen, it would be naive to think that there won’t be a tornado of repercussions for this small act of mutiny. As is always the way with The Handmaid’s Tale hellscape, the punishment rarely fits the crime.
Nonetheless, a fire has undeniably been started and it sure seems like it’s only going to grow.