This discussion contains plot points of the final episode—and the entire season—of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Margaret Atwood’s source material tells the relatively confined story of Offred. The reader understands Gilead and its repression through her direct experience, with other characters only glimpsed through Offred’s periphery. Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale adaptation broke out of this relatively restricted mode of storytelling, opening the world up to Moira, Serena Joy, Nick, and Luke. And given the success of the show, it’s not surprising that Hulu takes some major digressions to stretch the plot into multiple seasons. While season one ends by mirroring the end of the novel, major changes were made to the source, including June’s pregnancy and Moira’s successful entry into Canada. With Luke also alive and in Canada, Hannah seen though a car window, and Nick’s relationship with June, there’s a lot of setup for season two that goes far beyond Atwood’s source material.
It’s usually hard to argue in favor of a studio stretching out a book’s source material because its popularity can be translated into profit. But I admit to being totally okay with what Hulu’s doing to The Handmaid’s Tale. The decision to go beyond one season inevitably meant padding the source material, with some digressions away from the book (every scene with Moira, for example) panning out beautifully and others (the double dose of episodes focused more on the men than the women) less so. And even though Offred’s ambivalence about getting involved in the underground rebellion in Gilead is one of the most frustrating but incisive aspects of her character in the original, June’s involvement in Mayday, and its implications for next season, has me excited. This is a plot point that hovered on the edges of Atwood’s novel, and we only got a tantalizing glimpse into what could be going on. Season one ends on a cliffhanger, but with Moira and Luke in Canada, and June and Hannah still in the U.S., my guess (and my hope) is that season two will show how the Handmaids fight back against their oppressors. Refusing to stone Janine to death might be only the beginning of a fruitful campaign to freedom.
Gwen, there’s a lot more to talk about with the season finale, and thoughts on the season as a whole. Do you share my excitement to go beyond the source material’s story? Are you content with the adaptation so far?
I’m pretty happy with this version of Handmaid’s Tale. While I’m a huge fan of Margaret Atwood (can Hulu please do The Blind Assassin next?), I never got into this book that much, so any inconsistencies are not really bothering me. I, too, like Moira’s departure (with the most victorious license-plate reveal ever), and even appreciated the Luke and Nick takes, although I agree they went on too long for a Handmaids-based narrative. But basically, what is drawing me in every week is the astonishing performance by Elisabeth Moss. All of her slo-mo glances speak volumes, like when she drops the stone in front of Aunt Lydia with the impact of a thousand microphones. But she may never have impressed more than in that car scene, when she sees her daughter, Hannah, through the window. As a mother, that was tough for me to watch, but I have to admit that Moss absolutely nailed the hysteria that would come with seeing your child after so long and not being able to contact them. June’s anguish and then unleashed anger on Serena Joy were so magnificently raw, thanks to Moss’ portrayal.
I didn’t even realize my biggest beef with this show until after the wise Laura Adamczyk pointed this out, and now it’s all I can think about: those painful musical choices. In a TV season when many shows are having standout soundtrack seasons (Big Little Lies), The Handmaid’s Tale’s music supervisor needs to go back to the drawing board. First, please retire Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It’s a great anthem that has been done to death, most notably for a Six Feet Under promo that I will always associate with it. Any other song, outside of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” would have worked better. But even that didn’t hit me as hard as the cringeworthy “American Girl” by Tom Petty that ended the season. Again, a song already tied to too many properties (for me, Fast Times At Ridgemont High). It struck me (finally) in this finale how much the series is playing up Canada as the promised land, as Atwood herself is Canadian. June being reduced to an “American Girl” at the end struck a decidedly sour note.
But like you, Caity, I am exhilarated that the vague end of the book will not be answered by an academic lecture, but an entire new season. I feel like Hulu has been aiming for its own prestige series. It was getting closer with The Path, which I also really liked, but with Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu has clinched it. Bad songs aside, I expect it to get some miniseries nods come awards season. Maybe I’ll even read the book again before season two begins.
Gwen, I wasn’t as bothered with the music choices throughout the series as you or Laura seemed to have been, but I agree those two in the finale felt especially clunky. But I’ll leave that discussion to you all.
I was surprised how the finale—even with all the added material—brings us right up to the place where the book ends, leaving what’s to come a complete unknown. As I wrote when we discussed the Luke-centric episode, I’m not entirely confident in the creative team’s ability to pull off a complete divergence from the source material without a major misstep, but the show has been strong enough that I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Like you, Caity, I’m especially excited that it seems like we’ll get more of Moira in coming episodes. However, I’ll join in the chorus of some other TV writers who have expressed frustration regarding the way her story has been handled up to this point. Even though our last moments with her have some of the same flaws—leaving her journey and her PTSD largely unexplored—they are setting up her experience in Canada as a major plotline to follow and foreshadowing excellence from Samira Wiley. (I will take this all back if somehow her character becomes secondary to Luke.)
Aside from that, I am curious what this all means for the future of Serena Joy. The other side of the remarkable car scene that you mentioned, Gwen, is Serena’s chilling villainy. Yvonne Strahovski has done a remarkable job deepening her character, making her well-rounded without rendering her at all sympathetic. And, with the grisly fate of Janine’s commander, the writers have also introduced a fascinating thread that parallels the zealotry of the women who are complicit in Gilead’s system with Fred’s pathetic, laissez-faire attitudes. Regardless of where Offred ends up, I want to see more of the community’s evildoers.
There’s a striking amount of hope in this hour—from Offred’s resistance during the salvaging to her voice-over in the van—though so much of The Handmaid’s Tale has been so bleak. It will be interesting to see if the second season is infused with any of that optimism.
Many of the music choices, particularly the songs closing out each episode, have indeed been hard to take, Gwen. It’s like the creators watched a bunch of Mad Men end credits and said, “That’s cool. We should do that,” without considering that, despite overlaps in casting and sexism, the two shows are completely different, especially in tone. The Handmaid’s Tale can’t traffic in the same kind of irony that Mad Men did with its music, not when characters get zapped with cattle prods or lose limbs for being defiant. And more often than not, these pop songs reinforce, and in really obvious ways, what viewers already understand. We don’t need the aforementioned “Feeling Good” to grasp the significance of the Handmaids’ rebellion. And using Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” when Offred first visits the sex club is more on the nose than a Bob Marley poster in a stoner’s dorm room. However, like recapper Allison Shoemaker, I thought Jay Reatard’s “Waiting For Something” at the end of episode three worked really well. The song captures the rage Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen feels upon discovering that she’s been horrifically mutilated, without resorting to blunt irony or emotional cutesiness.
But there’s more to discuss than music—like the scope of the series. Because I loved the book so much, it’s been difficult for me to reconcile some of the show’s departures from the source material. Much of the book’s power lies in its intimacy; it is such a close, claustrophobic world Atwood created, illuminating what living under a sexist, totalitarian regime does to this one woman’s psyche. I agree that the show might need to expand beyond Offred’s small room in Gilead to continue to be compelling—one can imagine season two opening up to follow the greater Mayday resistance and life in Canada—but I wonder if something will be lost the wider the lens gets.