Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale has been a tough hang.
From the threat of a mass hanging at Fenway Park in the premiere, to the violent rape of our heroine in the 10th episode, to, most recently, the public drowning of 15-year-old Eden and her forbidden lover, the show’s dystopian landscape was often too brutal to bear.
We were granted a glimmer of hope of when Elisabeth Moss’ June (can we please stop calling her Offred now?) heard Oprah Winfrey’s comforting voice coming through her car radio from “somewhere in the Great White North.” Of course, moments later that hope was dashed when June ultimately failed to bust through the garage door and escape.
Fortunately, for those of us who have stuck with the show through all of the horror, this week’s season finale offered viewers a genuinely hopeful ending that proved decent people do still exist in Gilead—including one surprisingly heroic commander, played by Bradley Whitford.
At the same time, the season two ender gave some much needed solace to progressives who have had more reason that ever to believe over the past couple of weeks that The Handmaid’s Tale could become America’s reality under President Trump. Coming on the heels of the Supreme Court nomination that could decimate reproductive rights for decades, we needed it.
The episode, titled “The Word,” opens in the aftermath of Eden’s death. Her clean laundry still hangs on the clothesline, June and Rita each blaming themselves in some way for her execution. In Eden’s belongings, June finds a hidden Bible that has clearly been annotated and pored over endlessly. When she presents it to Serena as proof of Eden’s piety, her only response to say that the girl “was hiding a multitude of sins.” In this world, reading and writing, even of and about the Holy Bible, is strictly forbidden for women.
Serena, a one-time author, reacts predictably harshly towards June, but an idea has been planted in her head. What kind of world will their daughter—Holly/Nicole—grow up in where she can’t even read the “word of God” for herself?
This, coupled with the fact that they learn Eden’s father was the one who turned her in for straying outside of her arranged marriage to Nick, drives Serena to finally understand something that June has known from the moment she gave birth to a baby girl: Even the wives and daughters of commanders are not safe in this extreme patriarchy.
It is with these ideas in mind that Serena resolves to lead her fellow wives in putting forward a change to Gilead’s still nascent Constitution. And she does so by first making her “radical” proposal and then defiantly breaking the law and reading aloud from the Bible in front of her husband and the other male leaders.
Serena tells her husband, Commander Waterford, “I did this to set an example for our daughter,” to which he replies, coldly, “And so you have.”
As two henchmen physically detain Serena, viewers may immediately flash back to a scene in the previous week’s episode in which Bradley Whitford’s Commander Lawrence ominously quizzes his new handmaid, Alexis Bledel’s Emily, about the punishment for women reading. When she tells him it’s losing a finger, he seems almost disappointed, pointing out that in the “good old days” women would lose a whole hand.
The next time we see Serena, through June’s eyes, she is missing her left pinkie. “I tried,” she says, despondently. Finally, these two just might be on the same team.
We can draw a direct line from this moment to what might have been the most surprising moment in a season finale full of them. A raging fire, apparently set by a Martha at a house across the street, gives June and her baby one more chance at escape. This whole time, it turns out, the Marthas have been working together, orchestrating an elaborate Underground Railroad to help the handmaids get out of Gilead. And, with a helpful assist from Nick, June does not hesitate this time to take her chance.
But the moment of truth comes when Serena catches her and the baby sneaking out through the back gate. Her first instinct is to grab the baby back, but when June desperately makes her case—“She cannot grow up in this place”—Serena does the unthinkable and actually lets her go. It is an ultimately redemptive moment for a character who has gone from an Ann Coulter-type firebrand to a tragic victim of the evil world she helped create over the course of two seasons. Yvonne Strahovski’s performance as she finally lets go of the child is utterly heartbreaking.
Serena’s turn is hardly the only shocking moment of the finale.
Determined not to engage in one more “ceremony,” Emily grabs a kitchen knife and readies herself for Commander Lawrence. “No, get up, I’m not going to do that with you,” he sneers at her. And yet, when Aunt Lydia (the great Ann Dowd) stops by for a check-in the following morning, he lies and tells her it went “splendidly.” It’s our biggest hint yet that this commander might not be as cruel as he seems.
Still, when Lydia calls Emily—now “Ofjoseph”—“perverse and degenerate,” she snaps, just as she did in season one when she used a stolen car to run over a security guard, and uses that knife to literally stab one of the show’s biggest villains in the back. After throwing Lydia down a flight of stairs, Emily smiles. Before she can finish her off, the Martha walks in and calls on the commander to summon an ambulance. Though she’s clearly close to death, it sure seems as though Aunt Lydia will live on to see season three.
As Commander Lawrence takes Emily into the basement, his troubled wife tells her, ominously, “It was nice knowing you.” He puts her in the back of what appears to be a Model X Tesla and drives her away from the house. “You like music?” he asks, triggering one of the show’s most disturbing music cues yet: Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass.”
It isn’t until the last moments of the finale that we see where he is taking her. As June and her baby wait in the rain to be rescued, a car pulls up. It’s Commander Lawrence. When Emily gets out and asks what’s happening, he replies, “I’m getting myself in deep shit.”
“You’re getting out,” June tells her as another truck approaches to ferry them away to, presumably, Canada. “You’re getting out of Gilead.” We should have known in that moment, when she didn’t say “we,” that June wasn’t going with her.
“Call her Nicole,” she says, in a touching nod to Serena, handing the baby to Emily and shutting the door. “Tell her I love her.” June just cannot bring herself to leave Gilead without her older daughter Hannah. How she will manage to do that in season three after raising her hood, turning around, and walking into the darkness alone is anyone’s guess.
As for Commander Lawrence’s swift transformation from villain to hero, Whitford previewed it an interview with Variety ahead of his debut on the show. “It’s an amazing character,” he said a week ago. “You get these characters once in a while where there are several things going on simultaneously—several contradictory and dangerous things.”
In another hint of what was to come, he likened Commander Lawrence to Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who publicly expressed regret for the many lives lost on his watch. Perhaps this is his way of atoning for coming up with the unconscionable idea for the Colonies, where Emily and so many other “unwomen” were sent. Whether or not Whitford returns next season, he managed to deliver one hell of a character arc in just two episodes.
Ever since The Handmaid’s Tale premiered on Hulu in 2017 and women dressed as handmaids started showing up to protest on Capitol Hill, critics of the Trump administration have been eager to draw parallels between the world of the show and the reality we are all living through under this president.
“I think had Hillary been elected, you would have had a reaction to it more like, look at an alternative reality that might have happened. Whereas now you’re getting: this might actually happen,” The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood told me in an interview last spring. “Not in quite the same way, not with the same outfits, and probably they will not be able to shut down women reading. But the rollback of rights might well happen.”
That was long before Trump got his second Supreme Court pick, which most analysts concur will lead to the end of national abortion rights and same-sex marriage. “We are not ‘a few steps from The Handmaids Tale,’” CNN’s Brian Stelter tweeted a few weeks ago in response to an activist making that claim. “I don't think this kind of fear-mongering helps anybody.” When Justice Kennedy announced his retirement the very next day, Mashable’s Chris Taylor wrote, “It’s fair to say the tweet has not aged well.”
As many of those who disputed Stelter’s statement argued on Twitter, the lesson of Atwood’s book and the Hulu series based on it is that we should not ignore incremental steps towards fascism.
Filmmaker Michael Moore made that same point on a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher that also featured Whitford as a guest. “We are living The Handmaid’s Tale,'” Moore said, pointing to the show’s flashbacks, which feel disturbingly similar to our present moment. “Where was the point where it was too late? Where was the point that if we all just had risen up, if we’d just done something?” he asked. “But because it happens in little increments—that’s how fascism works.”
Today in America, more than a thousand immigrant children remain separated from their parents, the rights of women and minorities are under constant attack, and each week seems to bring some new unexpected horror.
If The Handmaid’s Tale is instructive about our past, it can also be instructive about our future. And this week’s season finale was an important reminder that no matter how bad things get, there are still decent human beings out there working together to get us out of this mess.