Elisabeth Moss
Photo: George Kraychyk (Hulu)

After two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale, many hours of great acting and alternately frustrating and thrilling storytelling, some moments of horror so stark they seem to stop the heart and some so indulgent they seem like punishment for punishment’s sake, the occasional perfect needle-drop and far more imperfect ones, jumps in tone that thrill and some that infuriate, and plenty of ideas that seem good until you start to probe just a little more deeply, Hulu’s darling has arrived at this finale. And in the final moments of this finale, one possibility became clear: Maybe this series is about to become what it was always meant to be.

And if that’s the case, what is was always meant to be is gratifying, thrilling, and just a little bit stupid.

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Looking back at two full seasons in Gilead, it seems as though The Handmaid’s Tale—which is consistently one of the best-acted and most cinematic series on television—has never again quite reached the heights of the first three, both in terms of impact and accomplishment. There are powerful episodes, and certainly powerful scenes, but the initial three— “Offred,” “Birth Day,” and “Late”—displayed a consistency and thoughtfulness that’s unmatched elsewhere in the series. It seems now that perhaps the reason that the show has never matched those early outings in terms of power and quality is that it’s actually actively disinterested in being that kind of show.

All this time, I thought The Handmaid’s Tale wanted to be this:

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But maybe it actually wanted to be this:

That’s part of what makes this episode so frustrating. The Handmaid’s Tale can do both of those things, and it does at least one of them well. Unfortunately, it’s the one that’s less interesting, but if leaning harder in that direction, as the show does in the final moments of “The Word,” makes it a more consistent series, then it’s probably ultimately a good thing. June can be a woman struggling to survive a nightmare based in the world in which we already live, in a story that examines complicity, passivity, trauma, motherhood, sex, love, gender, power, oppression, violent misogyny, religion, and a whole mess of other things. She can also be a Jedi in a Handmaid’s Rebel Alliance. She probably can’t be both.

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Both of those versions of The Handmaid’s Tale are seen here, and both are interesting, in their own ways. Watching June and Serena comprehend the fact that Eden was turned in by her own father is a powerful thing; it’s another corner of the nightmare, in which we know that Eden’s sister will spend her whole life worrying that if she falls in love with anyone, her parents (to say nothing of God) might have her killed. We can watch as June finds herself unable to control her reaction, as Serena struggles to control hers, and know how dangerous even tiny displays of grief and outrage can be. We can watch Rita grow more and more upset, struggling with guilt and despair, desperately wanting her to act while being terrified of what will happen when she does. We can root for and fear for these women simultaneously, because that version of The Handmaid’s Tale knows how dangerous it is to be a woman and alive at the same time.

I prefer this version of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s difficult to watch, and rarely cathartic in any kind of positive way, but it’s that version that recognizes that a woman deriving pleasure from sex is a revolutionary act in this world. It knows that part of Moira is still Ruby, even after she escapes. It can see Aunt Lydia for the monster that she is, while recognizing that monsters rarely believe themselves to be such; it can see sense in June enlisting that monster as one of Holly’s (now Nichole’s) protectors, and then send her righteously tumbling down a flight of stairs. It can be many things at once, and often revels in that complexity. And while Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd, Alexis Bledel, Amanda Brugel, and (the seriously underused) Samira Wiley are all great in both shows, they are better in this one.

Then there’s the other version. In the other version, June finds herself faced with the possibility of escape from Gilead for a third time this season. In the first, she was stopped. In the second, she allowed herself to be found for the sake of her newborn baby. In the third, she chooses to stay, because another child needs saving. It is possible to tell that story in the other, more complicated mode—and to be fair, “Call her Nichole” is of that world—but that’s not what happens. Instead, she becomes a bad-ass, flipping up her hood like Obi-Wan Kenobi and marching off into the night. The tone there is not of a death march, of a woman so intent on freeing her daughter from this hellish world that she’s prepared to go on a suicide mission (which is certainly what Nick seems to do for his daughter). Instead, it’s a moment of triumph, a promising new start to a piece of cathartic wish fulfillment, the beginning of the fight against Gilead, in which a happy ending seems all but assured.

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If that’s what The Handmaid’s Tale wants to be—if it’s “Burning Down The House”—then fine. That’s what it is. I can imagine a show where that’s enjoyable. Let June be a Commander-punching, rebellion-stoking, Serena Joy-turning, sex-having ass-kicker. But if that’s what The Handmaid’s Tale is going to be, then it needs to let that other, more interesting mode die, because the whiplash is doing the series no favors.

“The Word” is an effective hour of television, in either of its modes. It’s especially effective as a capper to Serena’s story this season, in which the weight of what she’s helped to create and her role in it comes well and truly crashing down. As such, it’s a hell of a showcase for Strahovski, who has done exceptional work all season. It may feel like a stretch to watch Serena say goodbye to Nichole, but the show and the performer have put in the work, and that moment is mostly earned (as is “Call her Nichole,” the single most emotionally potent moment in a potent final scene). Moss gives a warm, thoughtful performance as June prepares for whatever the repercussions of that punch might be, all soaked with love and resignation and something like content. And Emily’s nonexistent ceremony and attack on Aunt Lydia hit hard in just the right way.

Those moments all work. So does Bradley Whitford bopping his head to Annie Lennox, and June slugging Fred, and Serena calling a meeting of the wives to order, and that final strut back into hell. But they belong to another series. I’m not opposed to that series. But to truly make The Handmaid’s Tale a piece of “women rise up to smash the patriarchy!” fantasy, they’ll need to leave the truly great stuff behind.

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That would be a loss, and a shame, but every moment of flimsy, broad-strokes characterization and triumph divorced from the realities of this world diminishes what’s made The Handmaid’s Tale so vital and relevant. It undermines what makes it great. I would much prefer to watch the show I find so interesting—one I think the world could really use—but if that one’s going to be regularly undermined by the other, I’d rather that the series pick a lane and stay in it.

This season of The Handmaid’s Tale ends in triumph of a kind, but lord, it’s also a hell of a letdown.

Stray observations

  • As weird (and cruel) as that “Walking On Broken Glass” scene is, I remain very interested in the show’s willingness to experiment with tone. Bruce Miller confirmed on a conference call that Whitford is returning next year, and I think that story and his character have a ton of potential.
  • Cheers to this cast, who are almost uniformly excellent. Cheers to cinematographer Colin Watkinson and this season’s directors, who made it all look incredible. And cheers to you all, for reading all season. See you next year.

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