'And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light'
What’s on the other side of those black van’s doors?
It’s a question we’ll all be wondering now that the season is over — one fans of The Handmaid’s Tale have actually been wondering for decades, ever since the book left Offred’s story in similarly ambiguous fashion when it was first published in 1985. It makes for a fitting endpoint for this 10-episode run and could have easily worked as a series finale had the show ended here. But, as we all know, there’s more coming — and certainly so much more to explore in this world.
We begin with the day June is brought to the Red Center, where Aunt Lydia begins the women’s reeducation immediately — where to stand, how to stand (hands clasped, eyes down). Any deviation will be punished, which is why June gets her first encounter with a cattle prod for staring at passing handmaids in the hall — her eyes meeting theirs in what she later understands was mutual, prolonged terror, “utter and unutterable.”
But they don’t look at each other that way anymore. Not when she’s carrying that package from Moira with her daily shopping, exchanging meaningful looks with her fellow red-clad handmaids. “It’s their own fault,” she says now. “They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”
She hides the package in her bathroom, but that hidden contraband quickly becomes the least of her problems when she ends up on the receiving end of a slap/wall-faceplant combo courtesy of Serena Joy, who finally caught onto what’s been happening between her and the Commander. (The giveaway? Makeup on the collar of her cloak. Whoops.) Serena Joy has had so much of her agency taken away from her — as we’ve discussed, by a revolution she helped put in place — and this latest betrayal brings out a mix of hurt and fury. “You could have at least left me with something,” she seethes, dragging a dazed, bleeding Offred into the bathroom and forcing her to take a pregnancy test. And in this time, finally, her prayers are answered: Offred is pregnant. For Serena, it’s joyous news. For Offred, it’s much more complicated. “You think I prayed for this?” she asks Serena Joy. “You think I prayed to bring a baby into this house?”
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Serena Joy also confronts the Commander, albeit with less bodily harm. She’s waiting in his office, Scrabble tiles out, offering to play. He reminds her about that pesky rule about women and reading. (She remembers – she helped write it.) Her warning to him is clear: stop the late-night rendezvous with Offred, so she doesn’t do what their last handmaid did. The Commander twists that request by placing the blame on her — if he’s sinned, it’s because she led him to lust and temptation. When he dismisses her, Serena reveals Offred is pregnant and casually adds that the baby isn’t his. “You can’t father a child because you’re not worthy,” she says.
When Offred breaks the news to Nick, she’s still conflicted. “It’s terrible,” she tells him, as he crouches down to her belly. “No it isn’t,” he replies. And there, she lets out a hit of a smile, allows herself a small amount of happiness at the prospect of this baby. Unbeknownst to them, Serena Joy witnesses this tender moment in the kitchen and then promptly moves to make Offred even more miserable (and, more importantly, compliant) — they go for a drive, chauffeured in a different car and not by Nick. What follows could be the most gut-wrenching scene this season (and this is The Handmaid’s Tale, so that’s saying something).
As Offred waits in the car, Serena Joy goes up the steps of a home and brings out Hannah, sitting with her briefly on the stoop. The elation Offred feels seeing her daughter alive quickly turns to agony when she realizes the car doors won’t open — no matter how she begs or cries or screams, she can’t get out and see her, and Hannah has no idea she’s there. It’s a torturous threat, one Serena Joy makes even clearer when she returns to the car: “As long as my baby is safe” — note that emphasis that it’s her baby, not Offred’s — “so is yours.” The string of expletives Offred unleashes from the other side of the partition is impressive and feels more than warranted, but Serena Joy is unmoved. A plea to the Commander to protect her daughter also goes ignored — he’s more interested in the current blessed miracle, and whether or not it’s his. “Of course,” she says, but he knows she’s lying.
And then there’s the package, opened by Offred later that night. What was it that needed smuggling out of Jezebels? Letters. Hundreds of them, from women looking for children and family members and begging the world to hear the horrors happening to them in Gilead — begging the world not to forget them. She reads them all in horror, and falls asleep surrounded by them.
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Commander Putnam goes before a council to confess to his sins of lust and covetousness for his indiscretions with Janine. Waterford seems happy to let him off lightly (perhaps thinking of his own dalliances?), but even Mrs. Putnam is on board to give him the harshest punishment possible. That path to redemption? Losing a hand and part of his arm, amputated below the elbow in an operating room. Maybe that’s what makes Waterford go home and apologize to his own wife. He promises that as soon as the baby arrives, Offred will be gone, and they’ll be a family.
Offred is awakened by the sound of bells signaling a Salvaging, mirroring the one we saw in the premiere. The handmaids assemble in the park again, but this time, stones are brought in. When they each take one and form a circle, they find out who their intended victim is: Janine, who survived her plunge into the river and was convicted of endangering a child, for which the punishment is death by stoning. In the first episode, the group attacked the accused man on command. This time, though, they’re faced with brutally murdering someone they know and care for, and they can’t just comply. When Ofglen first tries to object, she’s beaten by a guard and taken away. When Aunt Lydia blows the whistle, Offred steps forward and lets her stone fall to the ground, and the others follow suit. They’re all sent home, but you know that’s not the end of this. They’ve won this battle, for now, but not the war.
Meanwhile, Moira’s bid to head north succeeds — she’s made it to Ontario, Canada, officially outside the confines of Gilead. It’s enough to make her collapse from shock and joy, but her journey isn’t over yet. She ends up at a refugee center, stunned and overwhelmed as a caseworker runs through a barrage of information and hands her things that were unthinkable in the land she left behind: a cell phone. Money. Health insurance cards. Welcome to Canada, indeed. That welcome becomes warmer when Luke arrives, having put Moira on his list of people (“family”) to be notified about should they escape Gilead. It’s a tearful reunion, and it’s all the more bittersweet because June is still trapped.
Offred knows she and the other handmaids will be punished for defying orders and refusing to kill Janine. And so, she waits. “This might be the last time I have to wait. But I don’t know what I’m waiting for,” she tells herself, a line pulled directly from Margaret Atwood’s text. But she’s not scared — instead, she feels “serene.”
“There’s a kind of hope, it seems, even in futility,” she muses. She tried to make the world a better place, even just a little bit, for Hannah. Then the inevitable happens: She sees a black van out the window, and Nick comes into her room and whispers, “Just go with it. Trust me.” Two guards enter and lead her out of the house, past a heartbroken Rita (a whisper from Offred points her in the direction of all the letters, and I wonder what she’ll do with them), an indignant Serena Joy (“After everything we’ve done for you!”), and the Commander, who can’t stop what’s happening.
Her head held high, she enters the back of the van and embarks toward an uncertain future. Atwood’s text is again used word for word: “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped,” she tells us. “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”
That, of course, is where Offred’s part of The Handmaid’s Tale novel ends — there’s an epilogue, but that also doesn’t provide definitive answers about what happens to Offred after the van. Is this a journey toward imprisonment and death? An escape plan devised by the resistance? We don’t know, and neither does she, but Offred is ready to accept whatever comes. And we’ll find out more when the show returns for its second season.
And so, I’ll end this recap — and this riveting season — the same way that Professor Pieixoto does in that epilogue, with an invitation for discourse: “Are there any questions?”