*Spoiler warning for The Handmaid’s Tale season finale.
The season finale of this show left me speechless and tearing my hair out. It wasn’t surprising, but it is immensely frustrating. As The Handmaid’s Tale picks up 20 nominations for this year’s Emmys, we have to discuss the future of this show, as we look at how this season ended.
This episode is called “The Word,” and it’s not a question why. Woman aren’t allowed to read in Gilead, but that gets directly challenged this episode. It all starts when June finds a Bible hidden in Eden’s things, as they pack them up to give back to her family. She immediately rushes to go show it to Serena. Despite everything that has happened between them, June can’t help but feel that Serena will be as elated about this as she is. Serena, however, only responds that Eden sinned in this too. She is not as cold and brainwashed about this as she may seem. Just before she leaves, June reminds Serena that their daughter will not be able to read under Gilead, and how can she be proper and pious to God then? This stays with Serena, and affects her deeply.
It only gets worse when Eden’s father come to pick up her things, and reveals it was him and his wife that turned Eden in when she arrived at their farm with her new boyfriend. After he leaves, June has a violent confrontation with the Commander, which ends with her punching him in the face, which is pretty satisfying to watch. More importantly, it wins her the respect of Rita, who also watches a private moment between Nick and June as June introduces him to their child, and Nick holds his daughter for the first time.
Serena shares her concerns about their daughters not being able to read with the other wives, and they resolve to do something about it. They appeal to Gilead’s council (read: old, white men). Serena speaks for the women, all of them in force together to fight for this right. As she pleads her case that their daughters need to learn how to read just as much as their sons, you can see the council’s indifference. They don’t care, they’ll tell the wives that they’ll look into it and then move on. Serena, seeing this happen, decides to make a bold move. She brings out Eden’s Bible, and reads a portion of it to the men. When the women are dismissed, the Commander meets with Serena privately, as he speaks with her, two guards come to take her away. As we learned last episode, a finger is cut off for a first offense for reading. The Commander’s betrayal, however, is what truly cuts deep. The council is never going to give them the right, and it was naive to think they would, but it was brave to ask. Serena doesn’t always do the right thing, but I’m not sure there are many lengths she won’t go to, to protect her daughter.
When she arrives home, June is horrified to see what they did to her. “I tried,” she tells June. In contrast, the Commander further vilifies himself when June arrives back downstairs. He tries to coerce her into sleeping with him again by promising that she’ll be allowed to stay in the house with her daughter, or even see Hannah some more times. “Go fuck yourself Fred,” she tells him.
On the other side of this episode, we have Emily’s story, though the two storylines will meet at the end. Emily reveals that her first ceremony at the new house is going to be that night. “You’ll get through it,” June tells her. But I don’t think Emily planned on getting through it, because right before it’s time, she finds a sharp knife in the kitchen, and hides it in her dress. The message is clear: I’m not going through this again. Luckily enough, she doesn’t have to. When Commander Lawrence finds her, he has no idea that it’s even ceremony night, and is disgusted by the idea of taking part in it. Given the unorthodox manner in the house, and his wife’s madness, I’m not surprised.
Trouble comes the next day however, when Aunt Lydia comes to check up on Emily. She commends Emily, telling her that Lawrence said the ceremony went splendidly. Emily just stares at her in a state of shock. When Aunt Lydia turns to leave, it seems Emily just snaps. She chases after her with the knife she stole and plunges it into her back. At first Emily is elated by what she’s done, but then she freaks out, and cowers in her room in fear. If this were any other house, Emily would be hanging on the wall by the end of this episode, as Eden is now, but she’s in Commander Lawrence’s house, and he takes a different view of things. Instead of turning her in, he decides to help her. They start driving somewhere, and while Emily’s still afraid, it’s clear to us that he’s helping her escape.
It’s June’s time to escape too. That night a fire is set to the house across the street. Rita arrives and tells June that she and her martha friends can get both her and the baby out of Gilead. Remember when I said Rita’s respect and sympathy were important? This is what I was talking about. You’ve never seen someone flee for their life so slowly; it’s maddening. But just as June is escaping, with the fire across the street as a distraction, Serena catches up to her. She’s not angry, but she’s terrified that June is taking this baby away from her. “She cannot grow up here,” June pleads with her. Serena knows this, and so with a lot of tears and one last goodbye, she lets them both go. “Nolite de bastardes corbundurum,” June leaves scrawled on her bedroom wall in chalk. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
June is led by a series of marthas through backyards and back alleys to a tunnel where Lawrence and Emily pull up in their car. Emily, still doesn’t understand what’s happening. “I’m getting myself in deep shit,” Lawrence tells her. “You’re getting out of Gilead,” June translates with a big smile on her face. After Lawrence leaves, a van pulls up. Emily eagerly climbs in the back, but June hesitates. Finally, she makes a decision. She hands Emily the baby, tells her to call her Nicole (which is what Serena named the baby) and closes the door. The van drives off, leaving June there. She doesn’t say it, but it’s understood, she’s going after her other daughter Hannah, so that she can get both of her children out of Gilead.
It makes sense, but it makes me want to tear my hair out. June has a chance to escape, and she doesn’t take it. We also now know how she gets separated from Holly/Nicole. The writers are using June’s love as a mother to justify her staying in Gilead, but that’s just a facade. The truth is, that if June got out of Gilead, there would be no show. So they had to find a reason for her to stay, and this is what they came up with. What’s going to happen next? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. We’re off the reservation now.
Note: Both Elisabeth Moss (June) and Alexis Bledel (Emily) have been nominated for Emmys for their roles on The Handmaid’s Tale.