Under Oprah’s Eye. We’ve ended yet another year in Gilead, and things are looking bleak. To commemorate another heartbreaking season inside a patriarchal dystopia, the staff of io9 have gotten together to talk about the second season finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, including that shocking ending that’s divided even hardcore fans of the series.
Beth Elderkin: Blessed Be The Fruit, ladies. So, how are we feeling coming out of the season two finale? My feelings can be summed up in two words: “Goddammit June.”
Jill Pantozzi: Haha, that’s a good summary for sure. I’m also falling along that line. Frustrated is a good way to put it also.
Cheryl Eddy: June’s frustrated too, but I think she wants to stay... she’s got some major unfinished business. I’m just not sure where she’s going to go from here. Surely, not back to the Waterfords? Her life must be in danger, right?
Jill: It definitely puts her in a worse position than ever, basically.
Beth: I’m curious how y’all feel this compares to the first season. In a sense, it ends in a similar way, with June making a choice that could go really good or really bad. But I feel like in this case, it’s far more likely to be really, really bad. I mean, she’s a fugitive now!
Jill: Yes, I am wondering where the show actually takes her now. Is there some actual underground in Gilead she can physically survive in? Otherwise, she’ll be captured immediately and put to death. Then again, I thought Nick was a goner after he’d been captured previously this season so who knows!
Beth: Magical Plot Armor Cape.
Okay, let’s go ahead and backtrack to where we left off. June is back at the Waterfords, and all the women have been traumatized by Eden’s death. It had a serious impact on all of the women, including ones you’d least expect. Why do you feel her death affected them more than the thousands of others?
Jill: It’s because she was so young, I’d wager.
Beth: Surely they’ve put teenage girls on the Wall before, right?
Cheryl: She was a product of the system—and proof that no matter how many rules Gilead has, and no matter how truly pious its citizens are, they are still human I think Serena Joy was particularly affected by the fact that Eden was reading the Bible (and writing in it), and also the fact that her own father turned her in. She realized that’s what Fred would do.
Beth: Oh, that’s a good point.
Jill: Yeah, finding out her father turned them in was...a lot.
Beth: God, Fred is a fucking monster in this episode. He’s got “those eyes,” you know the ones I’m talking about.
Jill: He’s so incredibly evil and manipulative.
Beth: Why do you think Serena Joy decides to push for literacy among girls, and why do the other women initially agree? Moments like Eden’s execution are designed to sow fear, so I’m wondering why it had the opposite effect. At least initially…more on that in a bit.
Jill: Well, we’ve certainly seen Serena have moments, several this season, where she realizes the situation she’s in. Even though she’s in a privileged house, she feels she’s getting a bad deal. We know she had different hopes as Gilead was starting. She didn’t think she’d be in such a bad position. So she almost feels like she’s working the system here. “Reading can’t be denied if it’s the BIBLE.” They’re trying to take a small step to regain some ground.
Beth: Did Serena Joy read from the Bible because she thought the rules didn’t apply to her, then? Was she taking a stand to claim whatever power she thought she had?
Cheryl: I think yes on both.
Jill: I think she just simply believed, wrongly, they’d make an exception for that specific text because they claim ownership of it through their rules.
Cheryl: A few weeks earlier, she makes it very clear that the only reason she supported Fred all the way is because she wanted a baby more than anything else. I don’t think she’s a fool, but I don’t know if she really thought through what it would all mean when the system really got put into place. Especially if that baby was a girl.
Beth: That moment when she opened Eden’s Bible and started to read, I kept thinking of Luke Skywalker: “This is not going to go the way you think.”
Jill: Ha, yeah.
Beth: And then the other women started backing up, and I knew that it was all over for her.
So, we had two shocking moments in this episode: Serena Joy losing her finger, and Aunt Lydia getting pushed the fuck down the stairs. Both of them rattled me, but I audibly gasped when Emily stabbed Aunt Lydia and then chucked her down two stories. Anyone else?
Jill: Emily taking out her anger on Aunt Lydia was quite a scene. I’m sure many are happy it finally happened considering how Aunt Lydia has played a part in Gilead but my first reaction was “Oh no! You’re finally in a somewhat reasonable household!”
Beth: When are we going to get the Aunt Lydia backstory we so richly deserve, that’s what I want to know.
Jill: I thought for sure we’d get some of that this season, but no.
Cheryl: Maybe next season there will be some Aunt Lydia flashbacks.
Beth: Speaking of backstories, or lack thereof, I don’t feel like there was good resolution regarding the creepy commander. We didn’t get nearly enough time with him to see who he is what the hell he’s about. And my goodness, why did he have to yell so loud as he was helping June and Emily escape? “Be careful!!!!” We’ve got it, buddy.
Jill: See, I was biased as I had a feeling they didn’t cast Bradley Whitford just to make him a regular bad guy (though he’s played that role in other gigs certainly). I really appreciated his character Commander Lawrence and what it showed about Gilead and its creation. His wife has been destroyed by what he created, whether he knew exactly how it would turn out or not, so now he’s using his position to try and be...less terrible (???)...than other Commanders.
Cheryl: I think Whitford’s character has kind of gone off his rocker, maybe like Serena Joy he didn’t realize what the reality would be.
Jill: “How can I motivate employees if I can’t leverage salary?” was an amazing line. From the sense I got, he’s part of something larger. That escape didn’t feel like a one-off.
Cheryl: I think they had to keep him mysterious so they could have the big reveal in the finale where he helps her escape. To the blasting sounds of Annie Lennox.
Jill: I will never hear “Walking on Broken Glass” the same way.
Beth: All right, well let’s get to that big climax: The Escape. A bunch of Marthas, including Rita, have put together this detailed plan to get June and Emily (and possibly others) out of Gilead. As June is escaping, she’s discovered by Serena. That moment…broke me.
Jill: I was really worried about how that would play out, it could have gone in so many directions. Between the two of them spotting each other and Nick having to keep Fred at bay in the house—basically at gunpoint!—while the distraction was taking place, there was a lot that could have gone wrong.
Beth: Seriously Fred, how have you not arrested Nick yet?
Jill: But when Serena asked to hold Holly/Nicole so she could say goodbye is when I specifically got wide-eyed. Serena was in such an emotional state at that point I wasn’t sure what she’d do. But June had successfully, and finally, made her point clear—Gilead is bad for any woman.
Beth: I bet she’s wishing she went to Hawaii right about now.
And yet, after all that—everything that so many people sacrificed for June and her child—June stays in Gilead. Just…why? All of the whys. She could do so much more for these women from Canada. She’d have power there. She’d have influence. In Gilead, she cannot show her face or she’ll die. What’s she going to do, peep around every tree in Gilead and whisper to a woman: “Hey, hey you. Got a sweet rebellion over here.”
Cheryl: Because of Hannah. And all the other women and girls.
Jill: The character reasoning is clear, for sure. I just...why are we keeping her there AGAIN? I’ve long been of the mind that they need to move on from June in Gilead and focus on someone else while the story can expand in Canada and elsewhere.
Cheryl: Hopefully the next scene—like after she hands over the baby to Emily—is her marching somewhere and taking some direct action. Like, I hope she had a concrete plan in mind.
Jill: I just can’t imagine what that would be.
Beth: What’s going to happen to everyone else? Nick? The Marthas? Serena Joy? How’s Fred going to respond? There are a lot of players here, and their futures are…shaky.
Jill: Unless Commander Lawrence did have something larger in the works that can still be carried out, they’re all screwed.
Cheryl: I think Aunt Lydia will be alive.
Jill: Yeah, for sure! I would also think, Fred has to be pulled from power after screwing up this badly so many times.
Beth: Here’s my theory, and I know I’ve talked about it with all of you. I think Commander Waterford is going to lose it, and in a last-stitched effort to regain his baby and keep his position of power, he’s going to push for a war with Canada. Sure, lots of people have fled to Canada, but I think this is the first time a Gilead-born baby has been taken away. They’re not going to let that slide. That’s their primary resource.
Cheryl: I could see that. Plus, relations with Canada are now very frosty after the letters got out. Thanks, Luke—also Nick.
Jill: I wonder what kind of records they keep on the babies and how they’d prove the child was stolen, or if they’d even bother.
Cheryl: I bet they’ll say she was “kidnapped” like how they spun June’s escape last season.
Beth: Oh yeah, they’ll find a way to “Blame Canada.” Final thoughts on this season? How does it compare to the first one in your mind?
Jill: Overall I’d say this season didn’t improve on last season. Neither was bad in my mind, but I felt there was a great opportunity for growth both in story scope and characters that they missed.
Beth: What’s the biggest missed opportunity?
Jill: I think there’s so much more going on both in Gilead and Canada, so many interesting stories to be told, and instead we kept the focus on this singular household for the most part. And I felt there was a bit too much back and forth for Serena this time around, with these realizations, and somewhat of a turn of character, to just go right back. And that happened several times.
Beth: We did see a lot of Wash Rinse Repeat in this cycle.
Cheryl: There was still zero addressing of the race issue.
Jill: Yes, that is another big thing season two could have expanded on. Which, sadly, a lot of folks still don’t see or understand.
Beth: There were some great stand-out moments, especially “Holly,” but others felt unimpressive. For example, the Colonies didn’t matter to the plot nearly as much as I thought they were going to. And characters seemed to make stupid decisions to justify bad choices—Nick has overstayed his welcome by about 40-billion years. And yet the Commander keeps trusting him.
Cheryl: Janine is an interesting character that I don’t think they knew what to do with this season at all. The Colonies—I get that it’s a labor camp, but was there a purpose to them digging into the toxic soil? I didn’t really get it either.
Jill: I feel like a lot of the stories touched on this season could have been spun out into larger plots for sure.
Beth: Have you left this season feeling excited about what’s to come? I’m left a little ambivalent myself.
Jill: Right now, knowing nothing of what’s to come, I don’t really feel like watching the third season honestly. As time progresses and they tease what they’re up to maybe I’ll change my mind but mostly I’m tired.
Beth: That’s how Gilead gets ya…it breaks you down. Slowly.
Jill: And, you know, it doesn’t help with what’s going on in the US.
Beth: That’s a good point, and a solid one to close out on. I know some people who said they couldn’t watch this season because it hurt too much. They were already sad enough with the events going on in our own pre-Gilead, they didn’t want to spend time watching how things could continue to get worse. Have you felt that yourself? And what’s more, would you be watching if you didn’t have to for work?
Cheryl: I would still watch, and I’ll definitely tune in for season three. The performances are so good. And you guys know I love horror...
Jill: I wouldn’t have watched season two until I heard more about what happened had I not had to write about it.
Beth: Yeah, I feel like I’d still be watching but probably not on a regular basis, something to catch up on when I felt like hating myself and the world around me. But we’re all caught up now, with a long time to go before season three. At least we’re getting a new Supreme Court Justice, so we may not have to wait until season three for Gilead to get here! Aren’t you excited?
Jill: Blessed be the Fruit Loops.
Cheryl: I’ll see you guys in Canada.