Spoilers for Season One of The Handmaid’s Tale
As Alan Sepinwall noted in his review of the first season finale of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the episode ends the same way that Margaret Atwood’s novel ended: With Offred (Elisabeth Moss) being taken away in a black van. “Whether this is my end, or a new beginning, I have no way of knowing,” Offred says. “I have given my fate over to the hands of strangers … and so I step up into the darkness within, or else the light.”
Many viewers who are now finishing the episode are having the same struggle with the ambiguous ending that readers have had with Atwood’s novel since it was published in 1984. Is Offred being driven away to safety by members of the Mayday? Or are the menacing men with guns The Eyes transporting her someplace to punish her for playing a leading role in the handmaids’ refusal to stone Janine to death?
The difference between Atwood’s novel and the Hulu series, however, is that this isn’t the end for Offred on the television series because Hulu has picked it up for a second season. Knowing that changes the more optimistic possibility offered in the novel.
In Atwood’s book, like the series, there are two possibilities, and both hinge upon what the viewer thinks of Nick, who whispers into Offred’s ear before she gets into the black van, “Just go with them. Trust me.”
Do we trust Nick? That depends. In the novel, he says he’s a member of the Mayday and not an Eye, as Offred had feared, but we aren’t certain that Nick is telling the truth. However, there is reason to believe that he is: Offred’s baby is most likely his, which is something Nick has mixed feelings about — he’s happy she’s carrying his baby, but sad that he won’t be able to be a father to the child. So, why would Nick send Offred to her death if she’s carrying his baby? Unless, of course, he is lying and he is an Eye, in which case he would want to send Offred away to erase any evidence that he slept with her.
There’s another clue in the novel, as well: Nick expresses some intimacy by calling Offred by her real name, June, which lends some credibility to the belief that he is providing a means for her escape.
In the television series, we’re not as sure about Nick’s motivations. We know he’s an Eye, because we’ve seen his backstory. We don’t know, however, if he’s a double agent, playing both sides. In the series, however, he does not call Offred “June,” which could be a hint (especially to book readers) suggesting that he has only been an Eye all along.
In the novel, too, there is more evidence to suggest that Offred escaped. There’s an epilogue, set 200 years in the future, in which scholars discuss a series of audiotapes that Offred leaves behind detailing her story. We can assume from the tapes that Gilead is eventually eradicated and that Offred escaped to record the audiotapes the scholars are listening to. “The central character — the Handmaid Offred — gets out,” Margaret Atwood said in a 1986 interview with the New York Times. “The possibility of escape exists. A society exists in the future which is not the society of Gilead and is capable of reflecting about the society of Gilead in the same way that we reflect about the 17th century.
However, that epilogue does not exist in the Hulu series (at least not yet). Knowing that there is a second season suggests here that perhaps Nick is an Eye and that he has sent Offred toward “the darkness within,” a notion further bolstered by an interview Elisabeth Moss gave to The Pool. “Wait till you see what’s coming!” Moss says. “It’s going to get worse, girl. Season two is going to be bad too, really dark.”
That second season will also further explore Gilead, showrunner Bruce Miller told Entertainment Weekly.
We are realizing that especially as we move into season 2, that there’s lots more to explore, and at the end of season 1, short of finding new and interesting areas to go, there’s so many things that have happened during the season that have been unresolved … Season 2 will be exploring lots more to the world of Gilead.
Miller notes that the second season will also explore some unanswered questions about the relationship between Serena Joy and the Commander, which suggests that Offred will eventually end up back in the Commander’s home since much of the series is told from her point of view.
What does that mean? Ultimately, it means either that either Nick was lying when he told Offred to trust him, or that Nick’s plans to help Offred escape will be thwarted in season two and that she’ll spend at least another season in Gilead. However, she will enter the second season in a more rebellious state knowing that her pregnancy will probably spare her from immediate death.
Don’t assume, however, that Hulu will stop at only two seasons, as Bruce Miller hinted earlier this year at the Television Critics Association press tour. “I have an enormous plan in my head. There’s so many things that are mentioned in the book, so many worlds to explore.” Hopefully, Miller can explore those worlds with the same deftness in which he explored Gilead in season one.