A Bold and Defiant Season Finale for 'The Handmaid's Tale' - Pacific Standard

A Bold and Defiant Season Finale for 'The Handmaid's Tale'

At the end of its first season, Hulu's buzzy series announces its intentions to keep 'The Resistance' strong in 2018.
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The Handmaid's Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale.

Over the weekend and on Monday, nearly 50 women dressed in red gowns and white bonnets were spotted striding in pairs around Los Angeles. Pairs stopped at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, waited at bus stops, and loitered at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Hollywood Forever Cemetery. LACMA and Hollywood Forever asked the women to leave, but not before Instagram photographs picturing their blood-red gowns began streaming through users' feeds.

The march turned out to be an ambitious "For Your Consideration" advertisement sponsored by Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, not a protest for women's rights. But bystanders might forgivably have mistaken it for one: A similar performance took place the next day, when 16 women dressed in identical outfits walked into the Ohio State Courthouse and sat in silent protest as they heard testimony on Senate Bill 145, which seeks to ban dilation and evacuation, a common abortion method in the state. In Texas earlier this year, members of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas dressed up as handmaids to sit in on a Senate meeting to protest Senate Bill 415 and SB-25.

Hulu is the beneficiary of happy timing: The Handmaid's Tale enjoyed its first season at the beginning of the Trump administration, when speculative fiction about the policing of women's reproductive rights don't feel quite so speculative anymore. The timeliness of the show's themes has distinguished it in this spring's packed television landscape, and is in part responsible for its critical acclaim; critics have called it "the most unintentionally timely show of the year" and "essential viewing for our fractured culture." But the show has also benefited from some free marketing: As Hulu brings Margaret Atwood's 1985 book back into the spotlight, protestors like those handmaids in Ohio and Texas are using the story's iconography to paint some state and federal decisions as dangerously authoritarian.

While a good deal of the show's "relevance" is intrinsic to the book—fertile women are forced to bear children for the upper classes in the story, and those who rebel belong to a movement called the Mayday "resistance"—in the latter half of the 10-part series, Hulu's series diverges sharply from its source material. Three episodes focus on ancillary characters in the book, including a driver, Nick; the main character Offred's husband, Luke; and her mistress, Serena Joy. Characters commit suicide whose fates are unknown in the book; Offred joins "The Resistance" and completes a dangerous mission. The series has expanded from a first-person fable to a multi-faceted examination of life under a theocratic regime, from the perspectives of both the oppressors and oppressed.

In its season finale, which aired Wednesday, the series wrapped with the same scene that concluded Atwood's original book; the moment also announced the series' intention to chart its own course in its second season. In a roundtable discussion, Pacific Standard writers Francie Diep, Elena Gooray, and Katie Kilkenny chat about the emotional finale, the capsule episodes that led up to it, and the future of 2017's most talked-about series.

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Elena Gooray: Guys, I can't stop thinking about the finale. What happens after she gets in the van?

Francie Diep: That's also exactly how the book ends, which is cool, because it suggests season two is going to fill in the blank between the end of the novel and the beginning of its epilogue, which happens in the far future. Basically, how did Gilead fall apart? How did the resistance do its job? What happened to all the characters in the book whose fates are unknown to us: Luke, Moira, Hannah, basically everybody except June, who we know, because of that epilogue, survives, at least a little while?

Katie Kilkenny: The ending was really kind of clever. The series starts off as the book does. Ending as the book does was a nice tribute to the source material that also staked the show's claim as something entirely new, since it plans to go on for several seasons more. And it was a real cliffhanger.

Gooray: Apparently more of a cliffhanger than the book, which tells you upfront that June lives! I wonder if I prefer the TV version, where you truly don't know. When the finale is open-ended, it forces you to really make a decision from your read on the show's themes about whether optimism or despair will win, based on what we've seen. Has this whole story been June accumulating a bunch of small triumphs to survive for a bit and then be crushed by this regime, or does our protagonist actually eke out some freedom and justice in this otherwise incredibly bleak world?

Kilkenny: I have a question about the beginning of the finale episode. What did they shoot into Offred's head? If it's a bomb, then this whole "resistance" thing seems like a suicide mission.

Gooray: They haven't given anyone else nearly enough depth yet to replace June. A tracker makes sense to me, in which case she can't get very far?

Diep: It seems like it could be a tracker, but the Moira scenes suggested to me that Canada is accustomed to receiving Gilead refugees. Do they get handmaids often? Like nobody in Canada said: "Hey, were you a handmaid? We need to get this tracker out right now." Or maybe it's something nefarious that outsiders haven't figured out yet.

The Handmaid's Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale.

Gooray: Speaking of who could replace June, I would also love to talk about how the second half of the series has three big anthology-type episodes for secondary characters.

Kilkenny: Who knew someone named Serena Joy could have such depth? (No offense to all the Serena Joys out there, it just seems like a deliberately ironic name in this series.)

Gooray: That actress is really great at being someone I mostly hate, yet feel for on occasion. I completely bought into her transformation from deferring pitifully to her god-awful, believable cliché of a husband to playing master manipulator and diplomat by the end of her episode, when she orchestrates the trade agreement between Gilead and Mexico like a pro. I thought she played the contrast so, so well.

Kilkenny: It's certainly tricky to play someone who is a figurehead for a so-called "Domestic Feminism" movement.

Diep: I think she's always been a manipulator and diplomat, but maybe she didn't want to overshadow her husband before. I read her as always having been the smart one. But now she's getting fed up with the society she's created.

Kilkenny: I almost wonder if Serena Joy is going to turn on her husband the way that her friend, the wife of Commander Warren, did, as we learned in this latest episode. She came to testify for her husband in his trial, but ask for the harshest possible punishment because she "fears for his immortal soul." That was a punch in the gut to the men in the room who think their wives aren't harboring some resentment about the power they've lost.

Diep: This was the first episode where we really saw a loophole in the power men have over women in Gilead.

Gooray: Were they really foolish enough to think that while they retain this secret life of illicit sex clubs, the women are just happy where they are?

The Handmaid's Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale.

Diep: Speaking of power, I thought it was really interesting how June went to Fred to ask him to take care of Hannah. It was frustrating that she had to seek out male protection.

Gooray: She also asks Luke to "save Hannah," which is another pragmatic request of protection from a man. Hot take: Hannah is the manic pixie dream child of this show, more of an idea than anything else. Just kidding, but for real, she's gestured at for emotional punches, even though we really have no idea how the hell she's doing.

Kilkenny: Definitely the most underdeveloped key character.

Diep: In a way, isn't Nick June's studly savior?

Gooray: Ah yes, the inevitable "Which of June's suitors is least terrible?" question. I’m #teamluke: Nick's backstory was interesting and believable and made him out to be a passive, morally weak survivor.

Kilkenny: Blessed be the truth you just dropped, Elena.

Diep: Who, by the way, I feel like was only motivated to save June because she was probably carrying his child. He basically broke up with the un-pregnant June.

Gooray: That also made me uncomfortable yet fit in really well with the general fetishization and worship of childbirth in the show. He seemed motivated to save her only after her pregnancy, which suggests he's at least partly bought into Gilead's fundamental betrayal of women, valuing them only as procreators.

Kilkenny: Seems to me he's just a survivor; a former steel-mill worker who will agree with whatever it takes and follow whomever to keep his job. Hm... sounds eerily familiar.

Diep: He was certainly there when the Commanders laid out this gross concubinage system. Never breathed a word.

The Handmaid's Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale.

Kilkenny: But I am intrigued by his relationship with this former James Beard award-winning chef. She makes him pasta? Hot. Speaking of Jezebels, what do we think of Moira's journey here?

Diep: I like it. I mean, I think it's a cop-out to make June the hero all the time. But at least we had Moira to voice the perfectly normal fears that June should have had too. And I was happy that Moira got her badassery back.

Gooray: I loved that Moira finally got a moment to herself too, when she discovers that she's hit Canada, instead of just being a conduit for June's problems all the time.

Diep: And she finds that Luke thinks of her as family. Aw.

Kilkenny: The refugee experience seems like it's going to be a central piece of next season, which is only appropriate. Also, can we talk about Ofglen? The new Ofglen, that is?

Diep: Yeah! I thought for a second that her speaking out against stoning Janine was an act, that Aunt Lydia put her up to it. Maybe she told Ofglen beforehand, "You step out and pretend to rebel"—without telling her what the guardians would do to her—so that there would be a deterrent example. But maybe Ofglen really did have her own sense of justice and dignity.

Kilkenny: That would be truly nefarious, and I wouldn't put it past Aunt Lydia, who is low-key the best villain in the show, give her the Emmy please, thank you.

Gooray: I like that puppet-master idea, otherwise I have no guess what Ofglen's motives are. Then again, it is fair to have characters whose feelings toward their situation suddenly shift, or just aren't apparent since everyone has to hide their inner lives all the time.

Diep: Do you think Aunt Lydia set up Janine's stoning because she's a true believer in Gilead? Or do you think she was just trying to discourage anybody from attempting to kill themselves the way Janine did? Aunt Lydia, so far, has been pretty good at her job, which is to break these women down and to fight for whatever small rights she thinks they should have. It's unclear what she thinks about the whole affair though.

The Handmaid's Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale.

Kilkenny: It seems to me that belief is perhaps her primary concern here—the belief in motherhood being a woman's calling in life. She calls her handmaidens "girls," and she punishes them like a mother would (even when she's doing horrible things to them, she almost uses baby talk) and wants to maintain order like a parent. At least, that's my theory.

So how do we feel now that the first season's over about the show as a whole? Are you all going to keep watching? Do we think it can keep up its zeitgeistiness in the conversation next season?

Diep: I'm going to keep watching. I think their explicit references to Moira as a refugee, and the generosity of the Canadian refugee center, are little pointers toward how the show is going to try to maintain its zeitgeist.

Gooray: Same, and I shall request more Moira.

Diep: Since critics of the Trump administration have explicitly branded themselves as The Resistance, I think the Gilead rebellion is going to have people really interested.

Gooray: For me, it also touches on the zeitgeist really naturally, rather than forcedly—almost as if the show just can't help it—which makes it all the more appealing. It allows it to be escapist and relevant at the same time for me. It's written so that you're so focused on the survival of a few characters that you're not even thinking about the breakdown of the system as a whole most of the time, which I like because it feels less didactic.

Kilkenny: The show's very lucky to have Elizabeth Moss playing its central survival portrait. I'll keep watching just to watch her performance. She's so changeable as an actress—it's mesmerizing to watch her go through all the different roles she has to play to keep alive.

Diep: As a counterpoint to the idea that the show touches on the zeitgeist naturally, I think that the focus on the rebellion and fall of Gilead (which is what I think the second season will be about) is going to be zeitgeisty in a way that it wouldn't normally be

Kilkenny: Would Hulu's sponsors boycott it if the fall is too obviously zeitgeisty? Just kidding. But maybe not! As long as the Commander doesn't encounter a murderous Rebel one day as he's shacking it up at Jezebels in an orange wig and red tie.

Gooray: I'm optimistic the show can play that in a fresh way.

Kilkenny: Wherever you are, Reed Morano, make it happen.

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