Gwen Ihnat: The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale was an ambitious undertaking, jumping off of its original source material into uncharted territory, though author Margaret Atwood helped out as producer. The result was a season that seemed to take a few steps forward but twice as many steps back. June started out on the run in an exciting premise, then got nabbed and wound up right back where she started in the Waterford house. She and Serena collaborated on work as colleagues, then slid back into petulant sniping. One of the handmaids pulled off a suicide bombing, which had surprisingly little effect. Nick’s child bride, Eden, entered the household, only to be executed in the penultimate episode of the season.
Still, The Handmaid’s Tale remained both terrifying and riveting viewing. I found Serena the most compelling character throughout, and a highlight of this finale was her realizing with horror how wrong she’d been about this society she helped to create—attempting to rebel and losing a finger in the process. I liked Serena’s comeuppance better than whatever Bradley Whitford’s intellectual commander was trying to pull off: Good guy? Bad guy? Mr. Rochester? I guess “good guy” in the end, since he tried to help two handmaids escape, which leads me to my least favorite part of the whole finale, a slap in the face after 13 hours of viewing: June returning to Gilead. What in the actual fuck. This turn of events enrages me nearly as much as this now-canceled line of Handmaid’s themed wines (women can’t even drink in Gilead, for god’s sake).
Through June’s Anakin-like hood flip, and the second, painful season-ending song choice in a row (“American Girl,” we hardly knew ye), we are supposed to surmise that June is returning to Gilead to destroy it. Her baby is safe with Emily, her husband and best friend are in Canada, so she has to poison the system from the inside.
Which makes no sense at all. The June we know would never leave her baby. She would find her loved ones in Canada and figure out how to get her other daughter, Hannah, back. Really, the ending serves as a straight-up deus ex machina to get us to a season three. There’s just no other logical reason for her to be there. Next season I predict we’ll see June working with the Marthas and Nick to topple Gilead, hopefully at less of a snail’s pace than this season. It would be nice to get a few wins for once, give or take a suicide bombing.
What did you guys think? Did that ending rile you up as well?
Caity PenzeyMoog: The ending did indeed rile me up. Here’s why: The finale sacrificed a character on the altar of continuing a TV show past its natural end point. Atwood’s plotting and prose turned voice-over was missed in season two, but like Gwen said, The Handmaid’s Tale remained riveting for the future America it imagines, and I especially enjoyed how the series writers’ used today’s politics to inform the flashbacks seen this season. How a familiar U.S. turned into Gilead packed quite the punch. But in terms of June’s story—you know, the eponymous handmaid—season two fell flat, and nowhere is that more frustrating than the final scene.
I just don’t buy it. June would have escaped. She already had made that decision on board the small airplane in episode three. There, we saw as she grappled with the reality that leaving Gilead meant leaving Hannah behind. But she—like I, probably like a lot of viewers—likely believed that she’d have a better chance of saving Hannah from a place where she herself is safe. A “put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others” kind of thing. She has no resources, no safe place in Gilead from which to plot a plan to extract Hannah. It’s just ridiculous.
I understand The Handmaid’s Tale becomes a very different type of show if June escapes Gilead. But wouldn’t it be nice to see the writers try? I can’t help but think of Room: Brie Larson’s character, and her son, do escape their imprisonment, and when the movie follows their life on the outside it is just as dramatic and heart-wrenching as when it showed their confinement. So why can’t season three be part Room, part elaborate heist movie, as June, Luke, and Moira figure out how to save Hannah? A 180 turn would be preferable to what the season-two finale just pulled. I’d rather the show turn into something different and remain true to the character than to see June’s motivations warped purely so Hulu can keep the gravy train going.
Laura, what did you think of the ending? And what do you want to see in season three?
Laura Adamczyk: I very much agree with you, Caity. That ending exemplifies a lot of what was wrong with the season as a whole: characters acting incongruously to stir up plot points that keep the story going—and in Gilead—instead of those actions arising, inevitably, from the characters themselves and their conflicts. In this episode, that incongruity comes not just when June refuses her chance to escape at the end. It also appears earlier when she approaches Serena with Eden’s Bible, which the girl, despite Gilead’s ban on women reading or writing, had written in. June uses it to ask Serena how she will keep baby Nicole/Holly safe, which Serena then uses as an impetus to confront, with a smattering of other wives behind her, a consortium of Gilead commanders. This leads to Serena getting part of a finger snipped off. There’s a lot here that’s not to be believed. Instead of supporting Serena, it’s much more likely that at least one of the other wives would have informed on her before they could even appear before the commanders. Such is the way under a fascist regime. Also, when Serena returns to the house, sans a digit, June treats her with undue kindness, seeming to have forgotten that time just a few episodes prior when Serena orchestrated her rape. Serena could have lost of few more fingers, as far as I’m concerned.
In season one, we witnessed how one might survive in Gilead. June and the other Handmaids’ subtle day-to-day rebellions led to their unified act of great defiance in refusing to stone to death one of their own. That big action was built up to across the season (and had very real repercussions in the first few episodes of season two). The action across the second season, on the other hand, produced quite a bit of viewer whiplash, especially with regards to June nearly escaping multiple times before being pulled back to (or willingly remaining in) Gilead. Conflicts were too frequently introduced and resolved within the span of a single episode. In season three, I’d like to see character arcs played out more organically, and more slowly, over time, as in the first season (and book). Whatever happens with June, wherever she might end up, I’d like to see a slow burn result in some big, believable action.