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This exquisite season finale proves just how successfully the show expanded the world created by Margaret Atwood

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July 11, 2018 at 11:13 AM EDT

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)

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