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.
Heading one way, we can follow the revolution to its natural conclusion, as Offred continues to collaborate with Mayday, while Luke and Moira work with their new friends in the paradise of Canada (where refugees get free cell phones, cab money, health care and prescription drug cards on arrival), until eventually Waterford and Lydia and the show’s other monsters are all punished and all the handmaids are set free. Heading the other, it’s more of a sci-fi dystopian version of The Wire, where people keep fighting to change the system, only to learn that the system is more powerful than they are. There are multiple variations within those two major themes, but that’s basically what’s open to Bruce Miller and company, and neither seems ideal. The repeated failure route would take an oppressive idea that was sustainable for a season and make it unbearable over multiple years. The plucky revolution approach undermines a lot of what makes the drama so potent to begin with.
Much of “Night” seemed to be following the rebellion path, particularly the scene where Offred leads the other handmaids in refusing to stone Janine to death. It’s a strong scene but also a pretty stupid miscalculation on the part of Aunt Lydia and the commanders. The scavengings are meant to serve as an outlet for the anger that all the handmaids feel about their circumstances: they may not hate this particular man they’re attacking, but he works well enough as a stand-in for all the others. When you instead invite the handmaids to turn on one of their own, you only give them one more thing to be angry about, and you also allow them to realize the power they can have under the right circumstances. Offred’s not exactly invulnerable now that she’s pregnant — they could always take away one of her hands, as happens to Janine’s commander when his sins became public — but there’s a lot less that can be done to her than before, and this society as a whole depends on this small population of fertile women to continue functioning.
Moss is next-level great, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that this should have been a one-and-done. The weaker parts of the season tended to be the ones meant to expand the world so the story can continue past this one section of Offred’s captivity — or maybe it’s just that the weaker parts were the ones focusing on people who were not played by Elisabeth Moss (or by Alexis Bledel, who vanished once Ofglen was arrested again for her homicidal joyride) — while the most effective were ones simply establishing the monstrous way that Gilead functions. I’ll be back when the show’s back, but I feel less anxious about what will happen to Offred after she gets put into that van (to the strains of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” because she still remembers what this country used to be) than I am about whether the show can sustain its quality going forward.
Still, most of this was dynamite, up through today’s finale.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org