The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 finale is stressful. It’s the kind of stressful one can only truly handle if they pause it every few minutes — or seconds, even — to give themselves a breather. Most of that stress gives way to catharsis: Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is finally murdered for being a homophobic, misogynistic monster; Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) finally realises, by way of mutilation, that she is not above Gilead’s savagery; June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) finally, finally, finally is on her way to escaping Gilead for what we’re led to believe is forever.
Then, the stress of season-ender “The Word” turns to abject frustration, if not all-out rage for a viewer. Because, June doesn’t escape. She doesn’t escape! June, faced with a truck that will take her right out of Gilead and directly into the democracy loving arms of Canada, declines. Instead, she hands her newborn daughter to a traumatised Emily (Alexis Bledel), shuts the doors to the vehicle, and turns, dead eyed, back to the hell that is Gilead, shrouded in red like an avenging angel.
It’s an upsetting end for fans who have given the dystopian Hulu drama roughly 13 hours of their life this summer; for fans who realise this is June’s third, and least defensible, failed attempt at fleeing Gilead. But, at the very least, the closing gives us a suggestion of where The Handmaid’s Tale will go for its already-announced third season. Next year will likely spell the bloody end for Gilead.
So much of Handmaid’s Tale 2.0 was built around the idea of a fire. That’s why all of the promotional images around the season involved fire, from the key art of June's winged bonnet aflame to the teaser, which featured June surrounded by embers. That piece of fiery symbolism came back in “The Word,” when an actual, massive fire breaks out on the Waterfords' block, creating a diversion for June’s escape with Holly (whom she inexplicably decides to rename Nicole, which is the baby’s Gilead abduction name). Even the final song of the season is the on-the-nose 1980s Talking Heads hit “Burning Down The House.”
But beyond those literal references of fire, so much of Gilead’s structure has gone up in flames during season 2. For weeks, Serena Joy, a woman, wielded her husband Fred Waterford’s (Joseph Fiennes) power in his name as he recuperated in the hospital after a handmaid blew up a Gilead centre, murdering a number of commanders. That means a woman killed a bunch of powerful men, and then a different woman used those deaths to regain some of her own agency. At that same time, other handmaids were whispering their true names to each other. Throughout all of this, June repeatedly escaped, and became all the more fearless in the face of Fred, her commander and abuser. June slapped Fred. She told Fred to fuck off. There were a few times that she seriously almost murdered Fred.
And, we can’t forget the political chaos created in “Smart Power” by the worldwide release of those horrifying letters penned by Gilead captives. Not only did Canada sever all ties with Gilead over the state's human rights abuses, but, as “Holly” revealed through Oprah Winfrey’s cameo, England, and likely other countries, have increased damning sanctions on Gilead. This is a nation being strangled from the outside, that, as our glimpses at the radioactive Colonies has proven, isn't doing so well in the first place.
These weaknesses are what created a vacuum for June to escape and Aunt Lydia to get straight-up stabbed in the back and thrown down some stairs. While quiet discord has been brewing in Gilead for weeks, we find out in “The Word,” that has led to organisation. The Marthas have their own Underground Railroad situation. Commander Joseph Lawrence (newly-minted creep specialist Bradley Whitford) is somehow connected to that Railroad since he helped brand new murderer Emily, his recently obtained handmaid, join in on the escape plan afoot. While all of this insurrection leads both June and Emily to their path out of Gilead, Nick Blaine (Max Minghella) — who we must remember handed off those “Smart Power” letters under his boss Fred’s nose — is holding Commander Waterford captive in his own home.
Clearly, what was once a few embers of rebellion has grown into a full-fledged blaze.
In season 3, we will likely find out what happens when that fire has overtaken the Gilead regime. As we see June march back into the fray of Gilead, it doesn’t seem as though she is returning to the Waterford Home Of Horrors, especially not ever she physically assaulted Fred and stole “his family's” baby. Instead, it seems as though she is aware of the country’s instabilities and plans on using that against them. This is a June who is ready to take Gilead down from the inside. The real question is, how will she manage to evade capture long enough to reach that goal? June is a sex slave who “kidnapped” a baby who “belongs” to one of Gilead’s most powerful men. June will be public enemy No. 1 when we return to the Channel 4 saga.
While we’ll have to wait until next year to find out the answers to that mystery, we do know exactly where June is probably headed: to save her oldest daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake), with whom she recently reconnected in “Holly.” After all, while June doesn’t explicitly say this, all fans know the dream of saving Hannah is precisely why she stayed in Gilead in the first place (yes, of course June would be better situated for a recovery mission as a free woman in a free country, but Handmaid’s Tale isn’t ready to let June leave Gilead just yet).
May the Lord open, June. May the Lord open.