The season finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Word,” is likely to split audiences. Was this an action-packed cavalcade of sublime twists, or was it one massive cop-out that shows the drawbacks of the show’s stubborn reliance on having June remain its primary character? Can it be both? Yes, it can be — and the finale was.
Eden (Sydney Sweeney) may be dead, but her presence looms over all the progressions of the finale. Her death represents the danger Gilead holds for all women, but especially the younger generation of women, who, under Gilead’s strict confines, will never have a chance to develop an independent sense of self. Eden had been a victim of Gilead’s justice system and of a toxic, sexist mindset that had infiltrated her household. After Eden and Isaac ran away to her home to escape, Eden’s father turned them in. During his meeting with Eden’s father, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) remarks that he hopes that Eden’s punishment will be a lesson to her sister.
This is a lesson that June can’t stomach Eden’s fate cannot befall her daughter. In two separate instances this episode, June confronts Fred and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) about protecting Holly/Nicole from Gilead. After meeting Eden’s father, June asks Fred, “What are they going to do when they come for your daughter?” Fred, high on power, slaps June across the face. June slaps him right back. Somehow, June has received carte blanche in Fred’s heart. He may grab her face and spit strange, vile things like “the mouth of a woman is a deep pit,” but hours later, he’ll go back to flirting with her and talking about how “fun” it would be to have another kid together. This time, a son.
In short, June’s talk with Fred is not productive — but her talk with Serena actually sets things in motion. On a relatively satisfying front, this episode saw Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) drafted to June’s team. June visits Serena in the greenhouse and brings her one of Eden’s last remaining relics: A heavily marked-up Bible. While Serena is, at first, dismissive and offended by June’s insistence that Holly/Nicole should learn to read, we see later that the words sink in for Serena. It takes until Gilead’s monstrosities reach her household for Serena to wake up: Gilead is bad, bad, bad news for women. That said, don’t mistake this as a complete change in personality or values. Serena still lacks fundamental empathy for her fellow women. Rather, her sudden decision to comes out of an urgency. She saw how Gilead’s snarl took Eden; she saw how it could potentially take her daughter.
So, even though she’s wearing the blue dress of a Wife, Serena acts like she’s donning the cape of a revolutionary. Using heavily coded language, Serena and Naomi Putnam (Ever Carradine) address their doubts regarding Gilead’s lack of opportunity for young women. It seems like Serena and Naomi’s misgivings are shared among the Wives, because next thing you know, they’re all standing before the Commanders in their dark wooded meeting room. Serena — who was the rhetorician who successfully spearheaded the creation of Gilead — states the Wives’ thesis forcefully: They believe sons and daughters should be taught to read the Bible. It’ll make them better citizens, more adept at following Gilead’s mandate (kind of like Eden, who was pious and able to read the Bible).
However, Serena’s serious tone is not matched by her husband, Fred, who dismisses her with a condescending promise to discuss the matter. It’s obvious the commanders won’t be taking this plea for women’s literacy seriously. Because as Eden proved, even the most pious women can use the Bible’s teachings to question Gilead. Gilead’s Commanders don’t want pious women — they want obedient women.
And Serena is not obedient anymore. Serena, facing a glacier of indifference, is compelled to do something radical. Maybe she thinks it’s her responsibility. Maybe she thinks she’s above punishment, that her power buffers her. Serena takes out Eden’s Bible. She reads — and it costs her a finger. Serena, holding her maimed hand up to June, says, “I tried.” Forcibly fixed back in her role of Wife, she is a shell (she reminds me of June after Aunt Lydia broke her earlier this season).
Elsewhere, Emily is also rebelling against the confines of Gilead – only her intentions are more murderous. Before her Ceremony with Commander Lawrence, she stuffs a knife down her shirt. But Joseph is unlike any other character on the show. While he was an architect of Gilead, he has no interest in participating in its rituals — including the Ceremony itself. He’d rather listen to music and be in general, an off-putting presence. He calls off the Ceremony. Emily spares Commander Lawrence, but her anger seethes. Eventually, it finds a more appropriate target. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), the cheerful, patronising enforcer of the New Normal. Emily lunges, stabs Lydia, and pushes her down the stairs.
After that, things happen so quickly it’s hard to keep track. Commander Lawrence puts Emily into his car. We think she’s going to get murdered; she thinks she’s going to get murdered. He doesn’t say anything. He plays Annie Lennox and remains, tonally, the show’s strangest presence.
Around the same time, the house across the Waterfords’ starts to burn. This, my friends, is a decoy created by the Marthas — the show’s lowkey superheroes and clearly, the seat of Mayday. Rita (Amanda Brugel) bursts into the bedroom where June stands with her daughter, and delivers the news: June and her baby can escape. June doesn’t leave the Waterfords’ house without scrawling, “Nolite bastardes combarnadorum” on the wall, an homage to the handmaid who had come before her and wrote the same words in the closet. Don’t let the Bastards grind you down.
June’s greatest impediment to escape comes in convincing a battered, weepy Serena to let her take Holly/Nicole to Canada. For the first time in the history of The Handmaid’s Tale, June and Serena see each other. They both love the daughter, and they know she cannot grow up in this place. Compared to talking to Serena, the actual escaping part is easy, thanks to the Marthas. Opening up the gates of their Commanders’ backyards, the Marthas create a path for escape (the scene reminds me of the iconic Shaun of the Dead fence-hoping scene). Eventually, June and Holly end up at the same stretch of road where Emily is dropped off by Mr. Weird Lawrence.
Long story short: In the finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, June at last gets the chance she’s been yearning for — the chance to escape. Yet when faced with the vehicle that can take her and her child, Holly, away from this hellhole, June makes a surprising decision. So surprising my eyes rolled to the back of my head. She hands her baby to Emily (Alexis Bledel), tells her to call her Nicole, and lets the car drive away without her. June remains in Gilead, staring up out of her red robe like some demonic angel of revenge.
Given that final twist, the questions I have about Season 3 are extensive. Some relate to the actual show’s events. After looking at the map in Fred’s study, it seems like not all of America is Gilead — will we see the other regions in that map next season? How will Nicole/Holly survive the journey to Canada without her mother’s milk? Is Luke going to raise Nick and June’s baby? Is June going to find Hannah, or will she devote her energy to a murderous rampage? Will we ever find out what happened to all the celebrities?
I also have questions about the show itself – and its end game. Why must June constantly be our entrypoint into Gilead? Why can’t June’s story end here, and other characters be our guides to Gilead? How interesting it would be to see June and Luke adjust to their years apart. Why is June given so many chances to escape, and the other, less charismatic handmaids forced to live out their days in ignominy?
Look, I’m definitely excited for Season 3. Of course I am. But June’s been given so many chances to escape. I wish she would’ve taken this one.
On a final note: I’ve listened to the song “Ichycoo Park” by Small Faces, which Commander Lawrence plays before the faux ceremony, 30 times today.