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This review of the second-season finale of The Handmaid's Tale discusses in detail what happens in the second-season finale of The Handmaid's Tale.
The sound of the second season of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale coming to an end was the sound of a balloon, expertly inflated to the point where it seemed about to break, being let go so that it releases its tension in a long, anticlimactic raspberry.
She didn't go. For two seasons, June's goals have been to get her daughter and get the blessed fruit out of Gilead. But in the past — in the first season, when she tried to flee by train, and in the second season, when she escaped to the Boston Globe offices, and later in the second season, when she tried to escape in a plane, and even later, when she tried to escape in a car — she has understood that the first order of business was to get out of Gilead, where she couldn't help Hannah. She has watched other Gilead women be raped, beaten, mutilated, and murdered. She has now seen Serena, who has as much power in this society as any woman can, attempt to work, with great civility, within the system and lose a finger for it. She has a baby to protect whom the Waterfords, Fred and Serena, have stolen from her — the baby she calls Holly and Serena calls Nicole.
Still, when a group of Marthas — women whose status isn't much higher than hers — risk their lives to smuggle June out; when she reunites with Emily, her one real remaining friend; when the back of that truck opens and an opportunity emerges for June to flee with her baby and find her husband in a place where she will not be brutalized, where she might actually be able to do something to help her daughter get out of Gilead, she just ... doesn't go. She hands over the baby to Emily, puts her hood up, and walks off into the city like a bad-ass in an action movie.
She was never going to go, all this time? Because Hannah was still in Gilead, June was never going to go? And she just realized it now? She has lived for the chance to escape and reunite with her family for what seems to be a couple of years in show time, and only when crouched in a ditch with an infant did she decide she wouldn't actually go without Hannah? She had never considered this complication during any of her previous escape attempts?
This doesn't play as a satisfying story beat, and it therefore plays as yet another way for this show to demonstrate that The Adventures of Sisyphus would not be a good television show. If the inescapability of Gilead is the one central truth of the show, then trying to build the central tension of the show from the possibility of rebellion and escape has been a fool's errand and a treacherous fake-out, and it's beginning to look like exactly that.
At the end of last season, it looked like the Handmaids were rebelling, but a few episodes later, the situation had largely reverted to its previous state. At one point this season, June seemed to have escaped to a house where she found a car, but almost immediately, she ended up back in the Waterfords' house. She has been caught, thwarted, captured over and over, with the tantalizing possibility that she will manage to escape dangled as the payoff that may or may not ever come, and then it actually happens, she actually makes it, and she looks at the open back of a truck and says, "Nah"?
Oh, yes, she wants to save Hannah. The flashback, lit with gold, reminds you how much. But there's no indication that Gilead is crumbling, only that individuals are escaping. Why on earth will staying here help? An electric guitar and yet another shot of Elisabeth Moss' eyes looking nearly crazed are insufficient to suggest that we are on a path forward rather than backward. It's entirely possible that there is a plan for what the next season will be where it won't just rely on a reversion to June as a Handmaid — the same reset, complete with shedding but then again donning the bonnet and dress — that has already happened more than once. But for now? Yes, it looks like a reversion, based around June making a decision that the show hasn't justified. It makes sense that she would die to save Hannah, of course, but it doesn't make any sense that she would think Handmaid June would have a chance to do that, compared to a hypothetical Escaped June who might be able to tell her story, and the story of the Marthas and Handmaids and Unwomen.
Without any explanation of why June is doing this, it's too easy for it to appear that the reason she's doing it is ... to keep the show going. It may have been a mistake to extend the series past the first season, past the end of Margaret Atwood's novel. But it would emphatically be a mistake to let it devolve into a dystopian version of a will-they-or-won't-they romance, where you get so so so close and then ... no. And then so so so close and then ... no. Because in the end, those stories are only satisfying if you get your big kiss at the end, which would here be an undoing of Gilead by, maybe, the United Nations? Rescue, at a level that would make all of this work out in a satisfying way at the end, is what qualifies, in dystopian terms, as selling out.
But over and above the unsatisfying ending, this season also attempted to bend sympathies well beyond any conceivable breaking point. Of all the ding-dong things this show or any show will ever ask you to believe, it is among the ding-dong-iest that June gives baby Holly to her friend Emily, perhaps never to see the child again, and says, "Call her Nicole." Call her Nicole? This is out of sympathy for Serena? Serena, who stole this baby from her? Who held her down while she was raped? Who physically abused her? Who decided to participate actively in the dehumanization of and violence toward others and then had a weepy moment of "conscience" once it was her being struck, her finger being cut off? For this, June wants this child to be forever called by the name given her by her mother's abusers? The same June who carved NOLITE TE BASTARDES CARBORUNDORUM into the wall of the house on her way out so that Fred could see it? This same June has so softened toward Serena that she wants the baby to carry the name she got from Serena and Fred?
This "Serena isn't all bad" angle flared up in the previous episode too, when Serena allowed June to nurse Holly, the daughter Serena and Fred forced her to conceive and carry, who they took away from June at birth. Serena seemed to consider this — and perhaps June did, too — an act of kindness, as if interrupting a kidnapping in progress to allow a moment of contact is a flash of decency rather than something very much less than the very least a decent person would do. Fred had done the same earlier in the season with June's older daughter Hannah, allowing her a brief visit with the child he was entirely complicit in keeping from her.
They are trying to complicate the narrative, certainly. But it is a bridge too far to narratively urge sympathy for someone who would crush those under her and actively participate in their imprisonment, their rape, and their suffering, simply because she eventually suffered a fraction of that suffering herself. There are a lot of ways to feel about an attitude of "I never thought this society's suffering would become mine, but now it is, so now I don't like it anymore." But "aw, she's not so bad" isn't one of them.
In a multitude of ways, Emily's story in this episode is vastly more satisfying and interesting than June's. Emily finds herself living with a new commander, Joseph, played by Bradley Whitford. He seems weird. He seems creepy. He chooses not to carry out the ritual rape "ceremony," a decision that almost seems more ominous than if he had. Emily is near a breakdown when Aunt Lydia shows up the next morning and makes the mistake of calling Emily a degenerate and reminding her of the way she was mutilated. Emily, in response, unleashing two seasons worth of rage, stabs Lydia, throws her down the stairs, and kicks the living hell out of her — not literally, but truly, in more ways than one.
Alexis Bledel gives a brilliant performance in the moments after Lydia's grave injuries are discovered, when Emily seems overjoyed, terrified and sad all at once. Emily knows that she has finally gotten some measure of blunt, desperate justice, but she also knows she will probably die for it. And when she's rushed off in the car with Joseph, he blasts Annie Lennox's "Walking On Broken Glass," a strangely upbeat selection that she can barely tolerate as she waits to learn her fate. To her surprise, he takes her off to her escape.
That story is satisfying, not because it (so far) ends with escape, but because it moves. Where June implausibly starts feeling sorry for Serena, Emily doesn't just stab her tormentor and abuser; she shoves her down the stairs, kicks her, and opens her own psychic wounds in a way that seems meaningful. Joseph emerges as an unexpected ally whose behavior is a true surprise. And his behavior, by the way, neatly undermines any sympathy for Serena. Decent people do not go along, floating on the power they have in an unjust society as long as the brutality is only for others. Decent people take risks rather than become complicit. Serena is not decent because she finally got around to drawing a line when the blood that was spilled and the humanity that was degraded was hers. Any pedestrian coward will do that.
And June? June would know this. June would look at Serena's tears and see them for what they are: too little, too late, too self-indulgent, and too self-pitying. As Serena has just learned, the brutality you build, the authoritarian state you nestle into? It will come for you too, and that's why the decent and the pragmatic sometimes wind up playing on the same team. But late-arriving pragmatists do not deserve the sympathy of those they've abused.
Ultimately, the finale muddles the entire story we've heard up to this point. That walk away from the truck with the guitar grinding and the hood fully up is a perplexing piece of imagery that seems determined to glamorize June's decision not to leave — to make it an iconic moment of toughness. But there is nothing weak about becoming a refugee from violence. Everything we know about June suggests that she knows perfectly well she can do nothing from here, from this place where she is shackled and tracked. It's one thing for June to lose and lose and lose at the game of escape, but it's another to suggest that what really shows her grit is that she volunteers for a life of being tortured with no plan to reunite with either of her children. The agony of oppressive regimes is not reducible to a moment in which an individual decides to stand alone against them and an audience cheers. If we should have learned anything from this show, it is that the will of individuals is, in fact, breakable by an army backed by weak bullies like Fred and complacent, ethically empty vessels like Serena.
Without some narrative purpose, what is all this for? The suffering, the violence, the rape scenes, the blood, the stoning, the drowning — what is it for? The first season was an unsettling examination of what an authoritarian theocracy might look like. But now we seem to just be circling that society, spying on it with something like prurience, watching it kill and violate. We had a chance to see outside of it, to see what the rest of the world is doing while all of this is going on. But it is not to be, at least for now.
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