Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 12 of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2. Catch up with our weekly reviews of previous episodes here. Not seen Season 1? Click here to see where you can watch it online.
“How are you going to keep her safe?” demands June (Elisabeth Moss) of Serena in the Season 2 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a question driven by the fate of Eden last episode – if death can be sentenced upon a devout, Gilead-believing girl, what hope does Nicole/Holly have? Looking at her Bible, June notes that Eden was a God-fearing, well-meaning girl, notating in the book how to interpret key passages. Even though writing is forbidden, surely that shows willingness to comply with the regime’s ultra-religious ways?
That questions raises the subject of literacy, and it’s a sign of how much Serena is affected by Eden’s fate that she takes up the cause with surprising conviction. She takes it all the way to the head council, where she asks for a change in the law to allow young women to read and write, so they can better understand and serve their divine purpose. It’s an argument that the council says it will consider, despite being “radical”.
After her hissed “What are you gonna do when they come for your daughter?” at Commander Waterford, though, you suspect that her husband is less annoyed about her suggesting a change to the system and more angry that he would dare embarrass her in front of the council. And so it comes as no surprise that as soon as their council session is over, he orders her to be taken away for corrective discipline: the loss of a finger.
As always, it’s both easy and difficult not to feel sorry for Serena, and the real success of The Handmaid’s Tale’s sophomore run is not prolonging the pain inflicted upon the titular Handmaid’s but exploring Serena’s character in great detail. It’s impossible to forget her role in the systemised raping of June, but it’s also hard to ignore the way that she, too, has suffered sacrifices, seeing her idea of what Gilead could be turned into something altogether more horrid by the patriarchy. Indeed, it’s Eden’s father who reported her and Isaac to the authorities, leading to their execution – Fred, meanwhile, actually proposes to June that she could Remain his handmaid in the future, as if maintaining the status quo is, in some way, a reward for the ordeal she’s already endured.
With Serena’s protest, though, there’s the first real sense in The Handmaid’s Tale that the women have had enough, and that they’re finally starting to snap. That’s confirmed beyond any doubt when we catch up with Emily in Commander Lawrence’s house, where even he seems to be done with the ritual of The Ceremony. “I’m not doing that with you,” he says dismissively, before moving onto other matters. It’s enough of a shift from that status quo to embolden Emily, and we witness the outcome when Aunt Lydia visits – and Emily attacks her with a kitchen knife, then pushes her down the stairs, and, for good measure, kicks her body repeatedly while she’s on the floor.
That gob-smacking outburst of violence feels like a watershed moment for the series, as violence is firmly struck by the oppressed against the oppressors. It’s enough, we soon discover, to mobilise the Marthas into action, as the previously silent, unseen women start to reclaim their agency; as a house burns down across the street from the Waterfords, suggesting that rioting is on the Cards, it’s Rita, the Waterfords’ Martha, who unexpectedly pops up and tells June that this her chance to escape with Holly – and the Marthas spring into action with an Underground Railway-like channel through the city to its border.
Nick, also catalysed by the unrest, stops Fred from going after them, threatening him with a gun. And even Serena, who catches the pair as they flee, decides to let them get away. It’s a key moment, one that sees Serena recognise the well-being of her daughter as more important than her own.
The result is a thrilling climax to the season, one powered less by the threat of discovery and more by the hope of liberation – a feeling we haven’t really had since the end of Season 1 and the very start of Season 2. And that’s where things get very interesting: at the border, June is reunited with Emily, who is dropped off there by Lawrence himself. Bradley Whitford’s performance is wonderfully enigmatic, as he seems to be taking his handmaid for punishment, playing loud pop music in his car as he drives, but ultimately reveals that he’s putting himself in “deep shit” by helping the trio to leave.
That trio, though, is soon downgraded to a duo, as June ultimately decides to stay and passes Nicole to Emily for safe passage. With Lawrence having driven back into town, June stands in the rain facing Gilead, a fiery hunger for retribution in her eyes. Burning Down the House plays on the soundtrack (one of the series’ most explicitly knowing jukebox choices), teasing the idea of retribution finally arriving on the doorstep of Gilead. It’s a surprising move, for June to give up her newborn child, but it’s one that makes sense as her character grows, tying right back into the episode’s opening dilemma: for June, a mother of two, it’s not about just one daughter safe, but about keeping both of her daughters safe.
There’s a frustration in knowing that a third season will once again place June back in Gilead, opening up the series to falling back into all the same gutters that have held back this season – you can bet that Aunt Lydia will even be miraculously healed and return for more ferocious bullying. There’s hope, though, in the form of Lawrence and Serena, whose moral awakenings could spell something different in the future. On the one hand, June, Serena and Commander Waterford are in exactly the same position as she was at the start of Season 2. On the other, as the soundtrack has promised, a house actually is on fire. If the writers really do burn down some of the structures of old, Season 3 could be very interesting, indeed; the narrative has already moved away from solely that of June, but The Handmaid’s Tale needs to open much wider for people to keep reading.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1 and 2 are available on-demand through Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it online on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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