Warning: This post contains spoilers for the season 2 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale spent much of its time on the edge. The premiere brought Elisabeth Moss’ June to the edge of death by hanging, only to reveal that the ordeal was a horrifically elaborate warning from Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) about the consequences of defiance. In episode three, we saw June on the brink of an airborne escape, only to be tracked down by the Guardians and chained to a pole by (who else?) Aunt Lydia. And in the final minutes of the season 2 finale, “The Word,” June was once again on the threshold of freedom — but rather than climbing into the van and escaping over the border, she and the show took a step backward instead.
The disappointment of June’s decision comes at the end of a generally successful sophomore season. Untethered from Margaret Atwood’s source material, Handmaid’s expanded its narrative universe with confidence: The sepia-toned misery of the Colonies, where Emily (Alexis Bledel) takes revenge on a fallen Commander’s wife (Marisa Tomei, in an all-too-brief guest spot). The ongoing resistance effort in Canada, where Moira (Samira Wiley) gets grim closure on the fate of her fiancée, Odette (Rebecca Rittenhouse), and Luke (O-T Fagbenle) gets the opportunity to vent his rage at the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) during a public protest. The slow onset of doubt among Gilead’s faithful, like Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford, in a marvelously mercurial performance) — the eccentric architect of the Colonies who, it seems, has begun to regret his past cruelties. Even Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) has realized the dangerous flaws in the theocracy she helped create; it only took motherhood, and the loss of a finger, to bring her clarity.
Even the brutality, which reached baroque levels at times, felt compelling and necessary. Yes, it was an awful coincidence that “The Last Ceremony” — in which June is reunited, painfully and briefly, with the daughter who was stolen from her by the government — aired the same week our real government said it “will not apologize” for separating immigrant families. But it was also an urgent and crucial reminder that it is not too late to stop this dark fantasy from becoming a full reality. And the grotesque death of Nick’s child-bride, Eden (Sydney Sweeney), redeemed an otherwise useless character by underscoring the threats all women, not just handmaids, face in Gilead — which made Serena’s choice to give up baby Nicole in the finale more believable.
Still, some of Handmaid’s edges are beginning to fray. The power of those extreme close-ups — June’s face quivering fear, pain, rage, or grim determination — is growing weaker with each use. Two thwarted escape attempts in 13 episodes is one attempt too many, and the writers’ unwillingness to commit to Serena Joy — is she an irredeemable villain or a woman capable of reform? — has left the character in a kind of Westworld-ian narrative loop. Like HBO’s sci-fi western, The Handmaid’s Tale is at a pivotal juncture in its creative arc: Both shows need to put their stories on a path to conclusion or succumb fully to creative stasis.
And “The Word” got so close! All June had to do was climb onto the back of that truck with Emily and baby Nicole. From there, Handmaid’s could kick off a final two-season endgame by chronicling the fall of Gilead, which is referenced but not explained in the epilogue to Atwood’s novel. June, Luke, and Moira would fight to bring Gilead down from the outside — while Serena could help dismantle the regime from within. Instead, what awaits our poor June, once the Eyes find her wandering the streets on the edge of town? A slow death in the Colonies? The fresh hell of a new Commander? Systematic psychological torture waged by Aunt Lydia (if she survives Emily’s knife attack, that is)?
Of course, my concerns may simply stem from a lack of imagination; I shouldn’t presume to know where showrunner Bruce Miller and his team plan to take their story. It took a revolution to create Gilead and it will require another to destroy it — and revolutions don’t usually follow a script. But humans are predictable and susceptible to temptation, like the temptation to stretch a tale beyond its natural limits. So let’s join in prayer, Handmaid’s fans, and ask the TV gods to grant the writers enough strength to resist giving us more of the same in season three. After all, as Aunt Lydia says, “One can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Season 2 grade: B+