This review contains spoilers.
2.13 The Word
Conjuring the illusion that a character’s decisions are being made in the moment and before our eyes instead of having been plotted out months ago is the central trick of a TV drama. For viewers to feel tension, we can’t be afforded certainty about which way a character will turn. But when a character does turn, it also needs to feel as though that decision was inevitable.
It’s a tall order, but The Handmaid’s Tale season two finale made it look easy. The Word dodged predicability while bringing its characters to monumental decisions that made absolute sense for them. Rita arranging the breakout. Emily attacking Aunt Lydia. Serena giving up her baby. June deciding to stay and fight… I didn’t foresee any of those moves, yet when they happened, each one felt destined.
Better than that, you could flatter yourself that it was possible to know the precise moment each character resolved to act as she did. Rita decided to help while watching June, Nick and Holly’s brief scene as a new family through the gap in that door. Emily acted on impulse at hearing Aunt Lydia’s foul, cruel words. A broken Serena realised she knew that June was right about not letting Nicole grow up in that place, and so did the first good thing we’ve seen her do.
June? She decided not to go when she had that memory of Hannah, whom she’d asked to forgive her months earlier for boarding that plane and choosing to leave her behind. When June put up her hood and delivered that final look to camera, the screen echoed with Rita’s earlier words to Nick. “Your girlfriend is a badass.” She’s certainly that.
None of it would have happened though—the escape, the sacrifice, the stand—without the influence of a character who, until the penultimate episode of the season, seemed hardly more than set dressing.
For most of season two, Eden Blaine was little more than a potential trap. The presence of a true Gilead believer (arguably, the only one) in the Waterford household was an additional threat to Nick and June’s safety. In a world already drenched in risk, sweet Eden just signified more danger.
After her death, Eden transformed from a trap into a turning point. She became a symbol of how shamefully Gilead treats even its most dutiful daughters, and inspired the other women in the Waterford house to act. Because of that, this incidental creature turned out to be season two’s most important character.
Rita’s guilt over her coldness and inaction towards the child bride pushed her to rally that heartening network of “Marthas. Friends” to June and Nicole’s aid. Serena’s love for Nicole made her look fifteen years into the future, see her own baby being pushed into the water with a diving bell strapped to her ankle, and realise that she had to try to bring about change.
Serena tried. Like Rita, she called upon her female friends, and like Eden, she was brave. She led an army and staged a revolt. The rebellion though, failed. Of course it did. The Sons of Jacob didn’t carefully bake misogyny into every brick of Gilead just to start treating women as people again. What are they, idiots?
Fred is, clearly, as well as being a woman-beating brute. He expected Serena’s latest chastening—losing a finger—would bring an end to all this nonsense. Well, she lost a finger and he lost a child. Seeing how closely entwined fatherhood and status are in the ranks of Gilead, will he now lose that fancy new office too? Here’s hoping.
Commander Lawrence, whose alignment as either good or evil was also kept cleverly under wraps until the last possible moment (though it now feels silly to have ever believed he could have been anything other than an ally), will have to face the consequences of the “deep shit” he’s in.
Emily’s time in the Lawrence house was gripping because of her, and our, uncertainty about what she was facing. The attack on Aunt Lydia (who has to survive—she’s too rich an antagonist to lose with a whole other season on its way) was shocking and exhilarating, and Emily’s escape tying up with June’s was neatly done.
This episode though, belonged to two women: Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski. June and Serena shared two excellent scenes in the finale, capping off what has been season two’s most compelling relationship. In the first, June dropped the self-preserving armour of subservience and bitterly fought Eden’s corner (“She was trying to understand God”). In the second, she pleaded mother to mother, and Serena acquiesced.
What next? After a season of almost unremitting pain and suffering, let’s hope for a little more victory. Judging by the colour-coded maps on Commander Waterford’s desk, the Sons of Jacob’s grip on power looks anything but secure. If Gilead’s regime is poised to crumble, let’s pull up a chair and watch it fall.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Postpartum, here.