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The Handmaid's Tale makes some dark choices, but leaves judgment up to the finale

Elisabeth Moss
Photo: Sophie Giraud (Hulu)
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Behold, the canonization of Saint June, patron saint of girls who get away with it (at least for now). In “Sacrifice,” the second-to-last episode of this odd, uneven season, The Handmaid’s Tale gives June a gun, the admiration of her peers and a clear path for not just her eventual escape, but the rescuing of 52 children. So what if there’s a bit of a body count along the way?

The episode opens with a bit of a cruel tease: The fact that June literally spells out the sequence of events that normally precede a Handmaid’s vanishing, only for the tension to be zapped away by the rushed appearance of Eleanor, is only the prelude to what happens later. “Sacrifice” is well-executed for the most part, but frustrating to evaluate, given how its ultimate impact will depend entirely on what happens next.

As Allison Shoemaker said while reviewing last week’s episode, the third season has really showcased June’s almost miraculous ability to escape real consequences for her actions, and “Sacrifice” doubles down on that. Not only does she (as Commander Lawrence literally says) get away with the murder of Commander Winslow, but her body count essentially doubles, as she lets the unstable Eleanor die by suicide.

Watching Elisabeth Moss make that choice is given the deliberate weight such a decision requires, and it’s a credit to both her and director Deniz Gamze Ergüven that no words are required to make it clear that June considers this a mercy. (Rule number one for directing an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale—a close-up on Moss’s face does 90 percent of the heavy lifting for you.)

But even though June’s reasons, given Eleanor’s instability and subsequent threat to June’s plans for rescuing the children, make sense, it’s still a dark choice that may or may not have any real ramifications for June. Were not one, but two scenes featuring Marthas telling June that she’s “fucking fantastic” and “such a boss now” necessary? No. Both of those scenes happen after the death of Winslow but before the death of Eleanor, and if the reason June had the conviction to make that decision was because of that encouragement, then those scenes make a dark sort of sense. But that’s not how they felt in the moment—instead, it felt like the show taking a breath to celebrate the power of its heroine.

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That said, I could be wrong, and “Sacrifice” could only be a brief interlude when it comes to June’s safety. In general, this is a difficult review to write, because like most penultimate episodes of a season, it proves mostly devoted to set-up for the finale; necessary at this stage, but meaning that there’s a large chance most of the most important questions raised by “Sacrifice” will get answered next week.

Bradley Whitford
Photo: Sophie Giraud (Hulu)
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Speculation, as a result, feels almost futile, though the biggest issues, of course, are these: Will June’s plan to smuggle out the children work, and will she still be a prisoner of Gilead at the end of the season? We’re on the precipice of finding out, and wherever she finds herself will have massive implications for the future of the show (especially since it already has a fourth season renewal).

One element of season three that felt like it’d be a bigger factor at the beginning is the idea of survival and recovery after this sort of trauma. But this thread has yet to surface much in recent weeks, largely because the characters for whom that story is paramount (Emily and Moira) haven’t been present. Emily’s journey, hopefully, gets some more development in the finale, if only because Alexis Bledel deserves the screen time.

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Meanwhile, at least this week we get Samira Wiley (after what feels like an endless absence) confronting Serena Joy in a gloriously cathartic scene. Sometimes, the way this show embraces blunt truth over subtlety gives it indescribable power, rarely more evident followed by the quiet, yet fierce way Moira lays it all out: “You are still the same woman who held my friend down so that your husband could rape her.”

Not that Moira’s words really seem to make a dent in Serena’s conviction that she’s done the right thing. One aspect that makes Serena’s decision to bring Fred over the border and thus deliver him to Canadian authorities is the fact that the exact nature of her deal with the Americans is unclear. Has she been led to believe that she will eventually be able to get full custody of Nichole? Or did she throw away her entire life and that of her husband’s for the chance to get a few hours of baby time, here and there, under the watchful eye of a social worker? One thing is clear: Serena feels like a character who has yet to really acknowledge her sins, making the deal to betray Fred and be reunited (however briefly) with her daughter without facing the consequences. Hopefully, the finale addresses that.

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Yvonne Strahovski
Photo: Jasper Savage (Hulu)

It all comes back to what happens in the finale, really. Theoretically, if June finally makes some sort of escape, then season four could include her facing the choices she made while a prisoner of Gilead. As Waterford says to Luke, Gilead has changed her, and even if she does manage to escape, she’ll be bringing along years of the baggage heaped upon her by this brutal society.

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Escape for June does seem doubtful, because what is The Handmaid’s Tale, if none of its major characters are in Gilead anymore? But it’s a tantalizing prospect, because of what it might offer up dramatically for this show—the new frontiers, both physically and emotionally, it might open up.

“We can leave all this behind,” Lawrence tells Eleanor, midway through “Sacrifice.” “Can we really do that?” she replies. The answer, of course, is no. Not even Saint June could pull that miracle off. But to watch her try would be fascinating.

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Stray Observations:

  • He might be a key architect of Gilead and thus a character whose potential for redemption will always be questionable. But it’s always a little heartbreaking to hear Lawrence call Eleanor “my love.” In many ways, this character will always be vaguely enigmatic, but one thing that was never in doubt was his deep affection for his wife.
  • Despite the image invoked by Rita of the Waterfords in orange jumpsuits, both Serena and Fred get to stay in civilian wear this week (with Serena even going so far as to let down her hair). That said, who knows what’s coming?
  • Some quality baby acting was executed in this episode by the child(ren?) playing Nichole—first, her comfortable babbling while in the arms of Moira (to which Wiley reacted beautifully), followed by her anxious fretting in Serena’s arms. It’s never easy to make those moments happen with an infant on screen, and worth admiring when it works.
  • What’s worse — no screen time for Ann Dowd, or the cruel tease of exactly 15 seconds of screen time for Ann Dowd? Arguably, the latter, even though (as always) the Emmy-winning actress makes sure to do as much as possible with it.
  • Thanks to Allison for letting me fill in for her this week! She’ll be back for the finale.
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About the author

Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a L.A.-based writer who recently spent five years at Indiewire. Her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, THR, the Verge, and Thought Catalog.