A review of The Handmaid’s Tale season finale — and season one as a whole — coming up just as soon as it’s mac ‘n cheese night…
What a great and terrible season of television this was — in that it depicted so many terrible things so greatly that (as I suspected at the start of the season) I began to dread watching episodes after a while. The real world is dark enough these days, you know? And the toughest part is, if I wasn’t in the mood to watch Handmaid’s in a particular week, that meant I had multiple episodes to try the following week, and this is not a show that’s particularly conducive to bingeing — or even, at times, watching whole episodes in one sitting.
Things did get a bit less intense after the first three episodes, with the show trying to expand beyond Offred’s point of view with flashbacks in different hours focusing on Serena Joy, Luke (who turns out to be very much not dead, and hiding out in Canada), and Nick. Offred’s circumstances improved marginally as a result of Commander Waterford’s desire to use her as more than just a womb with legs, she found an emotional escape from this nightmare in her affair with Nick, she got involved with the Mayday resistance, and even discovered that Moira was alive, albeit in a different kind of prison from the one Offred was herself trapped in.
This, inevitably, was setting us up for the gut punch of the finale, where Serena Joy brings Offred to watch while she talks to Hannah, then threatens harm to Offred’s daughter in the event anything happens to the one gestating in her womb. Offred’s reaction to this power play, and to the psychological torture of bringing her so close and yet so far from her daughter, is stunning even by the standards Elisabeth Moss has set in the previous nine hours. So much of what Moss has done over the rest of the season is powerful precisely because of all the anger she is clearly keeping under tight wraps because of how dangerous self-expression is for the women of Gilead. This is the wrapping being torn to shreds by a rage so primal and ferocious, it seems barely human. Moss’s entire face seems to change shape and proportion as she begins cursing out this woman who holds her captive (and who, we know, helped write the disgusting and misogynist laws that define this hellscape). She has endured rape and beatings and all manner of abuse since America fell and Gilead rose to take its place, but this is a bridge too goddamn far for June. The explosion would be cathartic except for the fact that there’s nothing she can do in the moment.
Which leads me to my major concern going forward for the series. My understanding is that the season largely exhausts the plot of the novel. This doesn’t have to be a creative death knell for the show — The Leftovers similarly burned through all the events of the book in its first season, and was even better once it started charting its own course — but the available paths here feel more limited.