This exquisite season finale proves just how successfully the show expanded the world created by Margaret Atwood
The Word
Credit: George Kraychyk/Hulu

If the primary fear headed into year 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale was whether the show could successfully expand Margaret Atwood’s world, the second-season finale — titled “The Word” — proves the remarkable extent to which it’s done just that. Several characters around June emerge in the episode with a major, defining moment, each of which had been steadily developed over the course of more than a dozen hours of storytelling. It’s a model for TV adaptation and working beyond source material, yet it also hints, if only slightly, at what’s consistently held the season back a bit: While the people and places around her grow richer and more interesting, June remains unable to transcend her circumstances.

“The Word” is a frequently terrific episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, blending gorgeous cinematography with strong character work — not to mention plenty of suspense. But its ending — June sacrificing her freedom to fight for Hannah’s — while affecting, doesn’t feel earned. There’s still no escaping that season 2 has provided a version of this plot-point multiple times already, even if it’s by design.

Grief hangs over “The Word” from beginning to end. The episode opens on Rita and June looking through Eden’s things, lamenting her fate and that they didn’t do more to save her. It seems her loss has been particularly difficult for Rita. “I treated her like s—,” she says, anguished. “I should have tried to help her.”

June finds Eden’s Bible and makes a startling discovery: close annotations of passages, some of the pages rendered near-illegible by her scribblings. At just 15 years old, Eden’s careful note taking would have been not only forbidden, but considered incredible, since she grew up in a time and place where women weren’t allowed to read or write. June takes the news to Serena and begs her to consider Eden’s transgression in a light other than the one mandated by Gilead. But Serena won’t go there. “My daughter will be raised properly,” she says, after June asks her how she can keep their baby safe. “She will obey His word.” June offers a sharp retort: “She cannot read His word.”

Serena sends June off but, given everything she’s been through and seen this season, can’t help but take her warning seriously. She is afraid for Nicole’s future. Initially she stays quiet. During a ceremony at the Waterford home, she watches in pained silence as Eden’s father reveals just how twisted their family is: He was the one who called the authorities when Eden showed up at the house with Isaac — who essentially had his 15-year-old daughter killed simply for having an affair. June, horrified, turns her attention to the Commander when the rest of the group leaves: “What are you going to do when they come for your daughter?” He smacks her across the face. But June, energized by her fury, doesn’t back down. She smacks him back. He scolds her, coldly, “You are the misery of all men — all of you.”

Here are still more warnings that Nicole is entering a dark, dangerous world. And so, after a little covert intel gathering — essentially judging whether other wives feel similar concern, which of course they do — Serena decides she can’t stand idly by. She takes a proposal to the (male) decision-makers, with an army of fellow wives behind her: allow Gilead’s sons and daughters to read scripture. Looking on from behind the bench, Fred looks alternately embarrassed and enraged. And when Serena begins reading from the Bible — with some wives choosing to dart out of the room as a result — Fred goes so far as to punish her. He has guards take her away; she returns home somber and silent later — with her thumb cruelly, forcibly removed. June sits beside her in sympathy. Serena says to her, crying, “I tried.”

This is, for June, yet another indication of Gilead’s unyielding oppression; there’s no maneuvering within its totalitarian structures. She’s increasingly drawn to her new family, saying “I love you” to Nick for the first time (he’d already said it) and taking advantage of every second she gets to spend with the baby. But so long as she’s stuck with Nick and the baby in the Waterford home — in Gilead — nothing can really change. Fred perversely offers her more visits with Hannah, and a chance to stay in the house with the baby, if she can be a “good handmaid.” The nasty offer leads her to get in another jab: “Go f— yourself.”

While June is facing more of the same, Emily is in a situation without precedent — living with a most unpredictable Commander, whose broad intentions are impossible to discern. Walking with June and Janine as they discuss Eden’s brutal execution, Emily reveals that it’s time for her first “ceremony” with Joseph. She tells June she’s glad she came back and reunited with her, but when we see her back at her new home, she’s unsettled. Her rebellious streak moves to the fore again: Panicked, she searches for a knife, and patiently but tensely sits by the fireplace, waiting for Joseph to enter. Typically, however, Joseph bucks expectations. He shrugs off the possibility with weary nonchalance: “No, get up. I’m not going to do that with you. Go to your room.” (Recap continues on page 2)

The knife still gets put to use, though. Aunt Lydia stops by later to check in on Emily, gleefully passing on that Joseph said the ceremony went well, and then again scolding her for not “appreciating” the opportunity of getting another chance. She leaves furious, and Emily runs after her — and stabs her in the back, literally. It’s a layered image, given how intimately Lydia perceives her connection to her handmaids, and it’ll be fascinating to see how it plays out in season 3. (Miller has confirmed Lydia is not dead.) It’s also a strangely triumphant moment for Emily. Alexis Bledel won an Emmy for this role last year, and she’s been better than ever in these last two episodes of season 2. As Emily rushes into the bathroom, elated and empowered and then again finally crushed by the reality of what’s (presumably) next for her, Bledel is heartbreakingly expressive throughout.

This is, you could say, one of those “major” moments I’d alluded to earlier — a shocking turn of events that in hindsight feels narratively justified. Emily’s arc this season began with her living to die in the Colonies, and ended with a return to Gilead — a forced reintegration into the place that’d isolated, mutilated, and banned her. She gains her strength back by this finale, in part on the understanding that she’s living with the man known as Gilead’s “architect” — a face to blame. After Emily stabs Lydia, Joseph rushes her downstairs and into his car; his wife believes he’s about to kill Emily, but as he drives away, blasting music with Emily sobbing in confusion behind him (credit, again, to Bledel’s brilliant silent acting), it’s clear other plans are in store.

The second pivotal character shift — which sets the finale’s endgame into motion — is an ingenious sneaker. June is peacefully cradling her baby when, after around a minute, she spots a fire outside the window, across the street. Rita appears out of nowhere: “We can get you out — you and the baby. But we have to go now.” The Handmaid’s Tale has used Rita smartly this season, tracing her evolution in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reaction shots and comments. Where once she was unable to even converse with June normally, now she’s proudly calling June a “badass” to Nick and beating herself up for not better protecting Eden or June. In this finale we see the thrilling culmination of her transformation, one that was mostly in the works off-camera: Together with an underground network of Marthas, Rita has created an elaborate path to freedom for June. The last we see of Rita is her locking eyes with Fred, shortly after June leaves; she glares at him, a silent acknowledgment that she’s finally joined the Resistance. (Nick, it should also be noted, turns on Fred in this instance as well: revealing his gun so as not to allow him to form a search team.)

Which leads us to the third game-changing move — from Serena. Over the course of season 2 she’s emerged as the show’s second lead, the repressed and tragic foil to June; the season’s strongest element by far has been the twisted, lovingly hateful, deeply resentful relationship established between the two women, as June’s pregnancy developed and then after she had the baby. It all comes to a head here. June is about to leave the Waterford premises, having already hugged Nick goodbye, when Serena catches her and asks for the baby back. June has tried and failed so many times to appeal to Serena’s sense of decency, her love for the child’s well-being. And she tries again. “I can get her out,” June says. “You know she can’t grow up here.” Serena breaks down. She knows she’s right. And finally, at long last, she lets June — and the baby — go free. Yvonne Strahovski, so extraordinary all season, gets one last moment to shine, holding the baby and bidding farewell. She passes it back to June, tears streaming down her cheeks. And she says goodbye. It’s a devastating scene, a real feat given that it’s not really Serena’s baby and that June is the hero of this story. But it’s hard not to feel for Serena, as the show has so clearly and emotionally revealed how suffocating and inescapable her predicament is.

And so we’re left with June and her baby. As the getaway progresses, it’s striking just how meticulous and detailed this plan really is — June goes from Martha to Martha, guided across streets and into alleys and through tall grass, always assured “It’s not far” or “You’re almost there.” The whole thing moves seamlessly. It’s a reminder that this show is fundamentally from June’s point-of-view; as with the shocking midseason bombing, months of careful work happened off-screen, manifesting in a most satisfying twist.

As June gets closer she can’t help but reckon with the unfinished nature of the escape — of leaving without Hannah. She comforts her baby while waiting to be picked up, and flashes back to an earlier memory of singing softly to Hannah, her first-born. Then the car arrives. June runs toward it — and, in the episode’s most surprising turn, she sees none other than Emily and Joseph. He’s the final ingredient to the scheme, the reason it can finally work after those previous failed attempts. “I’m getting myself in deep s—,” he tells Emily. June adds: “You’re getting out of Gilead.”

Another car pulls up. This is it. Emily runs toward it and gets in, while June stays behind for a moment, contemplating. Then, a knowing smile. She walks toward the car, baby in hand, and gives her to Emily. “Call her Nicole,” June says, referring to the name Serena gave the child in a form of honoring her. “Tell her I love her.” She closes the door and watches them drive away.

It’s a powerful note to end on, and, I suppose, an intriguing one for June, as she enters the next phase of her Gilead Resistance while also making good on her promise to Nicole — to get her out. But of course, June’s decision does drag the show back into familiar territory. While so many characters come alive in “The Word,” moving the plot and opening up new avenues of exploration — what’s next for Emily and Nicole, how Joseph fits into a sophisticated underground network, what will happen to Serena now that Nicole is gone — all roads lead back to June and her long, difficult path to total freedom. And it’s deeply frustrating, given how much of a loop that path is on. In season 2, The Handmaid’s Tale proved it could get bigger and go wider, offer newfound hope for a world that could often feel so hopeless. By ending with June almost back at square one, it reminded us whose story this is meant to be — even as she’s becoming more of a narrative liability than a strength. Whether that’ll change course in season 3, the jury’s still out.

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