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It begins with an alarm sounding, a light flashing, a familiar face glimpsed only in those flashes. June, terrified. Dogs bark. A new light, white and sickly, reveals some sort of industrial, medical nightmare— somewhere new. June peers through dirty plastic flaps, the sort you might see hanging behind the meat counter at the grocery store, and watches as women stumble, frightened or confused, from another room. A young woman with Down syndrome. A walker, wrenched from a pair of desperate hands. A woman pushing a wheelchair stumbles, her ankles buckling oddly above the heels she still wears. June turns away, helpless.

She’s herded into a cage with other trembling women. She stares through the cage and we see another familiar face—Brianna, seen for the first time without her bonnet. There’s panic written plainly across her features. June and the others are sent running into a truck, grab dangling chains to steady themselves. Janine runs in, fiery temper and both eyes intact. She stands with June, a stranger, and off they go, to places unknown.

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It’s no accident that The Handmaid’s Tale uses the earliest moments of “Mayday”—a mostly cohesive, mostly effective finale for an uneven season—to call back to the show’s earliest moments, giving us a glimpse of what happened after June slipped in the woods and her child was torn from her arms. The green coat is gone, but the sky blue hoodie and gray jacket are the same; this is, without a doubt, what happened next. It asks us to remember a desperate sprint through the woods, the life of a child at stake, failure not an option—no other options at all, in fact. Then it introduces the other women who made similar flights, all of them strangers to each other. By the end of the hour, it gives us another such sprint, brings together those women, and shows us what’s different—and in doing so, it illustrates what’s great about this show, and simultaneously underlines its shortcomings.

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First, what’s different about that final flight? There’s still no other option, but it’s because June refuses all other options. This has to be done. There’s still the life of a child at stake, but it’s “way more than 52” children. It’s dangerous, but June runs toward the danger before running from it. She is no longer helpless, because she has found a way to seize some power, some agency, some sanity. This is deliberate. June tells us at the beginning of this episode that “to the ruthless goes the spoils,” but what’s displayed here isn’t ruthlessness. It’s grim determination. And when she falls, she’s hauled up not by the gloved hands of some of those ruthless men, but by those women who used to be strangers, each with their own font of determination. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

That run through the woods isn’t the only scene in “Mayday” that calls back to earlier chapters of The Handmaid’s Tale, most very effectively. June stares in at a clothing store that was maybe once an ice cream parlor, a companion by her side, but this time it’s not Emily, it’s a Guardian. She sits at a table by herself and has a frank conversation with her Commander, but this time it’s Lawrence, not Waterford, and she’s got a gun and control. The handmaids hold stones in their hands, but this time, they throw those stones. It’s nothing new for The Handmaid’s Tale to repeat itself, but it’s a great relief to see the show do so for good reason. Things stay the same, but they change, too.

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Over and over again this season, The Handmaid’s Tale has told us what a badass June is—something it’s done off and on since nearly the beginning, truth be told. At last, such a description feels totally earned and wholly in keeping with the character and the world she inhabits. There’s a plan, it must be executed, and all are aware of the risks involved. They take precautions and make preparations—grease the gate, smudge the windows, tear bandages (later used to mark the way in the woods), pack lunches. Things go wrong, and they recalibrate. Some of those choices are bad ones, and they move on all the same.

Finally, it feels as dangerous as it is, because the characters react as though they need to prevent danger and stop it when it occurs. And when it becomes unavoidable, June steps up to literally take the bullet—not to inspire, not to defy, just to distract. To buy time. What’s the need? To get the Guardian away from the plane. What will do that? A target. Simple. Devastating. Perfect.

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“I don’t remember before,” Kiki/Rebecca says. “Yay!” cheers Janine. And then there’s Commander Lawrence, mourning his wife and ready to throw in the towel, intoning that, “The universe doesn’t have a balance sheet, I’m afraid.”

June responds instantly, almost a reflex. “Yes it does. Yes it fucking does.” You can almost hear it again when she starts to race through those woods. Yes it fucking does.

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It’s great stuff, among the best of the season. It also inadvertently underlines the things that aren’t so great, things that feel like the writers reverting to telling us what to think of June instead of June picking a path and running. (Did June really do all of it, Rita? Or did she lead a group of women who banded together to do it, some of them presumably dying in the process? Did Commander Lawrence really “forget” what a strong woman looks like, June? Or did Hulu just want that soundbite for sizzle reels?) And most frustratingly, that great stuff also offers a glimpse of the season that might have been.

Imagine a trail map that’s maybe been folded too often, or was torn or damaged. The starting point is clear. The end point is clear. A few points in the middle are more or less clear. But it’s not a straight line, so you have to kind of wander around and hope you spot a landmark. “Mayday” is that end point. It’s possible to look back at this season and sort of see what path was intended—June so determined to make her choice to stay in Gilead worthwhile that she loses sight of her own humanity and that of others, eventually landing in a place somewhere between the shortsighted belief that no one will ever get hurt in this fight, and that any collateral damage is worth the end result. It’s the middle that got cloudy.

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June began the season with no plan, just a jaunt to Hannah’s house with no exit strategy, a choice that put them both in grave danger. She ends with a plan that she’s able to change on the fly. She can’t save her kid (yet?) but she saves dozens of others. And she proves what she’s been asserting all season long—that she’s willing to die in the attempt. She almost certainly won’t, as her last-minute rescue underlines, but for at least one episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, the possibility felt real. If only the rest of the season had done a better job of getting her there.


Stray observations

  • Many thanks to the invaluable Liz Shannon Miller for filling in for me last week.
  • Canada corner: Moira, Luke, and Emily are all on hand when the plane shows up, which is a giant piece of narrative convenience but it feels good, so screw it. Amanda Brugel’s moments with Alexis Bledel and O-T Fagbenle were great (minus the “June did all of it” stuff.)
  • Elsewhere, Joseph Fiennes does good work, awkwardly still playing Commander Waterford when now he’s just a war criminal, and Serena Joy finally gets to hear that yes, she’s a rapist, and being mostly powerless herself doesn’t make her not a rapist. I doubt very much that’s a wrap on the Waterfords, but it would be a satisfying ending if it were.
  • It would also be a decent ending for Commander Lawrence, though Bradley Whitford’s absence would be a real loss for the series.
  • Actually, the whole episode could almost work as a series finale.
  • That Mazzy Star needle-drop at the end was good! A good needle-drop!
  • Kinda thrilled that, at long last, we got to see Bahia Watson’s incredible hair.
  • I suspect part of the reason I found the more cyclical aspects of this finale so satisfying comes down to the fact that the show isn’t alone in closing loops. Barring some giant change of heart, this will be my last recap of The Handmaid’s Tale, a show I have admired, struggled with, been grateful for, and wanted to escape, often all at the same time. It hasn’t been a pleasure, exactly—how can anyone watch and/or engage with this show and think of it as pleasurable?—but it’s been rewarding and challenging, all the way through. Thanks so much for reading, especially those who’ve been reading (and commenting) since the very beginning. I don’t know whose hands you’ll be in next year, but rest assured they will be great ones. I look forward to watching that person figure out how to say “Elisabeth Moss is good” in a new way every week.

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