By Lissy Granzow
SPOILER ALERT - If you haven’t watched the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale and do not want it to be spoiled, stop reading!
“The Word,” the last episode of the second season of Hulu’s critically acclaimed dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale, left many viewers and TV critics baffled. After numerous escape attempts, protagonist June (Elisabeth Moss) finally has her best chance yet to escape the tyranny of Gilead with her newborn daughter Holly (or is it Nicole now?) and reunite with her husband in Canada. However, in the last scene she hands off her baby to Emily (Alexis Bledel), another handmaid on the run, and decides to stay in Gilead. This ending, which sets up a third season of June remaining in Gilead, came as a big surprise and shock to many viewers seeing her decision as incomprehensible or straight out nonsensical (The New York Times provides a great summary of the different reactions from critics). While I generally liked the second season, the last episode also left me quite confused about the future of the series and whether creator Bruce Miller has a clear plan for how the series will coherently continue and eventually conclude.
My viewing experience of the thirteen episodes of the second season was very different from watching the first season. While the series remains thrilling and captivating, it was often almost too much for me to take in and I truly needed the full week in between each episode to recover. One main reason why it was harder to watch for me lies in the fact that season two goes beyond the source material. The first season closely resembled Margaret Atwood’s novel, which I read for the first time right before Hulu aired the first episode. As a result, I was already familiar with the horrific world of Gilead and June’s experiences, although it was still very chilling to see it come to life on the screen. At the end of the first season, as in the novel, June’s fate is left open after she is hauled into a van without knowing where it will take her. The second season picks up where the novel ends and from then on every viewer is as much in the dark about what’s happening as June herself.
The second season depicts June’s three escape attempts, which are juxtaposed with scenes of her return to the Waterfords. Throughout the whole season, June is continuously in danger: with her rebellious behavior against Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes); her secret love affair with Nick (Max Minghella); and as she tries to escape, of course. The only thing protecting June from life-threatening harm is the fact that she is pregnant since fertile women are even more in demand after a number of handmaids are killed in a bomb attack. Not knowing the fate of June in the second season and the horrendous things that happen to her and the other characters makes this show increasingly difficult to watch. My anxiety is further amplified by real life events in the U.S. and the Trump administration’s and conservative politicians’ policies and viewpoints aiming to control women’s bodies, which sometimes makes me wonder if a real-life version of Gilead is not that far off.
And here lies my main criticism and my confusion about the ending of the second season. After June’s unsuccessful escape attempts and Eden’s execution following her own escape attempt, I was hoping that the show runners were setting up the storyline of June reuniting with her husband in Canada and fighting the Gilead regime from the outside. Instead, June gives up her newborn baby Holly, which makes me wonder who will take care of her. Will it be deeply traumatized Emily who will probably be reunited with her wife and son? Or will June’s husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) take care of the love child between his wife and another man (although Luke will probably think the baby is a product of rape).
And what will happen to June? After “stealing” the child of one of the most powerful people of the regime, all of Gilead will probably be searching for her. Where will she go? And how is she supposed to get to her other daughter and bring her to safety? Saving Hannah is probably the only reason why she decided to stay behind. But would her chances to get her daughter back not be better with an organized mission from the outside? I’m not sure if her decision to leave her infant daughter so she can go on a suicide mission to rescue her older daughter seems like the sensible thing to do, as this will very likely leave both her children without a mother. Of course, I don’t believe June will die, but considering the numerous dangers she will face remaining in Gilead, it is hard for me to imagine a believable scenario that leaves her coming out unharmed.
Another major event in the last episode that I could not comprehend was Serena’s major turn of character. Serena’s flashbacks depict her as an educated, highly conservative and religious working woman who wrote books and gave public speeches about her viewpoints on the woman’s place in the domestic sphere. Her ideas helped shape Gilead’s regime of terror. Before Gilead existed, Serena was better known and yielded more power than her husband. But when the men of Gilead, including her husband, overthrew the American government, she lost this power and her husband became one of the most important figures in the new regime.
The paradox of her old-fashioned values compared to her life before Gilead puts Serena in a tricky position in this season. She is clearly bored with her life as the dutiful housewife, just waiting to be a mother while knitting, gardening and tormenting June every day. When her husband is injured after the bomb attack, she seems thrilled to assume some political power again, acting in secret on her husband’s behalf, which results in her husband spanking her as punishment.
During a diplomatic visit in Canada with her husband, she experiences contempt from other women for her more-or-less voluntary lifestyle as a housewife. In Canada, she is also approached by a diplomat and secretly offered asylum. The diplomat points out that with asylum, she has the chance to bear her own children, since her husband is probably the person who is infertile. She refuses the offer, however, although I had the impression that she briefly considered it.
It seems like her highest priority is to have children and be a mother. In her life before Gilead, her viewpoints blame the whole infertility crisis on the loss of core family values and conservative Christian beliefs. She cannot conceive children with her husband and in the first and second season her whole life revolves around her desire to become a mother via her handmaid June. With June about to give birth, she is closer than ever to finally having a child. This is probably one of the reasons she does not take up the offer of asylum and, of course, the fact that her whole life is built upon her vision of Gilead and the oppression of women. Even though she seems to become more disillusioned with her role as the wife and her place in Gilead, her main hope is to have a child of her own.
This is why I struggled with her decision to let June flee with “her” baby in the last season finale. In the episode, June points out to Serena that baby Nicole will not be safe in Gilead as a girl, since even pious Eden (Sydney Sweeney) had been executed for defying Gilead’s rules. Serena was clearly shaken by Eden’s brutal death and tries to slightly change the laws by addressing her husband and the council of Gilead’s powerful men and propose that women should be allowed to read the Bible (women are not allowed to read at all in Gilead). She even reads a passage from the Bible in front of the council. But her husband and the council refuse to consider her proposal and instead her husband orders for her finger to be cut off, which is the punishment for women reading in Gilead. After this shocking event, Serena realizes that neither she nor other pious women are safe in Gilead. When she catches June fleeing with “her” baby, she first tries to stop her, but June convinces her to let the baby go.
To me, this decision still seems very out of character. As mentioned above, both seasons highlight how Serena’s whole life goal is to be a mother. Throughout the series it seems that her finally being a mother makes all the torture, violence and rape worth it for her. But when she loses a finger and the violence is directed against her and another wife in her household, she finally realizes how dangerous this regime is for her and has a change of heart? And now, after she let June go and sacrificed being a mother, has she redeemed herself and are the viewers supposed to sympathize with her?
While I find her character fascinating, especially because women like Serena who advocate for their own oppression exist, I do not think we should let her off the hook for the one decent decision she has made. She helped shape Gilead’s violent laws and is implicated in the rape and torture of June and other women. This is also why I find it incomprehensible that she would give up her daughter since her being a mother was the one thing she always wanted and one of the main purposes of Gilead.
So in the end, both mothers decide to leave their daughters behind. But for what? Will Serena be alone with her abusive husband and continue to garden and knit? Or will she try to escape Gilead as well and be hated by everyone inside and outside of Gilead for her hypocrisy?
After all the violence, torture and abuse, I think this show is in desperate need of hope. The viewer understands the horror of Gilead now. I think the series needs to wrap up by showing the fall of Gilead instead of more seasons of torture porn and violence against women that is so prevalent on television already. There needs to be some narrative purpose for violent depictions and shocking decisions besides shock value.
Sometimes, the problem of TV shows, in comparison to a novel for example, is that many showrunners do not have a clear, coherent plan of how a show is supposed to end, but rather go with it as long as they are successful, providing a rushed, unsatisfying ending when the show is canceled. I truly hope this will not be the case with The Handmaid’s Tale. Why not end on a high note and go into history as a coherent piece of quality television acclaimed by critics?
The unconvincing decisions in the final episode, however, make me worry that we will have another season of Serena deluding herself while being disillusioned by her abusive husband and June experiencing the full terror of Gilead with no end of violence in sight. Atwood’s novel and its visualization in the first season already gave us enough of the horrors of uncontrolled oppression of women. The purpose of a TV show that goes beyond this source material should be to give the viewer some hope and satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with a - more-or-less - happy ending in dystopian fiction.