WHEW. Well that was a heck of a ride. All season long, The Handmaid’s Tale has been lauded as a harrowing and cautionary tale against extremism, and it certainly delivered. It has been about what happens when fear overtakes a society, and a desire for isolationism and religious fundamentalism (or in this case, just crazy-pants rules and brutality) allowing for the creation of an oppressive regime. Some of the most terrifying sequences in Handmaid were its quietest — flashbacks to before the rise of Gilead where then-June (Elisabeth Moss), Luke (O-T Fagbenle), and Moira (Samira Wiley) talked about how fast everything happened. We watched June and Moira lose the ability to hold jobs or have bank accounts, and the next thing we all knew, there were children ripped from their parents, “ceremonial” rape, and public hangings.
Hulu swung for the fences for this original series, and they connected. This was also the first time I genuinely wasn’t mad that they didn’t drop the whole series at once. Honestly, it would have been too much. Handmaid needs to be consumed slowly, thoughtfully, and with breaks in between. Its unmistakable, controlled aesthetic was a visual representation of its story, and included color palettes helped inform our understanding of this strange and familiar world. It was also a rare case where narration worked, because Offred’s thoughts were not commenting on what we were seeing, but what we were not. In her mind she cursed and rebelled while to everyone else she was the embodiment of meekness. Of course, she wasn’t always meek, but she did whatever was necessary to both survive for her daughter, and to stay sane.
Though Offred initially relied on Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) as an ally and an inspiration (with the May Day rebellion), it was Offred who became the rock after Ofglen sacrificed her life for her freedom. Her story was desperately important not only as that of a “gender traitor” (in Gilead’s world), but also because it led Handmaid to tell a story as horrific as genital mutilation in the cold and calculated context of Gilead. This show has never treated viewers with kid gloves, but it also let its most shocking moments sink in quietly, pervasively, sometimes to the point of giving the series a claustrophobic feeling.
Though Ofglen helped to give Offred a path to follow, it’s Janine (Madeline Brewer) who helped Offred come into her own. Janine, the “crazy” girl who dared to talk back and lost an eye for it. Janine, who relished in her pregnancy and fell in love with her rapist commander in the hopes he would save her. Janine who wanted to kill herself and her baby because she could not process the pain of having her child taken from her and being shuffled off to a new rapist to repeat the entire process. Janine, the most sane woman of them all, who never let the bastards get her down.
Offred’s story was tied to Janine’s from the start, and she became a crucial friend to her in the last half of the season. Most importantly, she led a quiet rebellion to not stone Janine for putting her baby in peril, a move the other Handmaids went along with. In these moments we began to see the first glimmers of hope, bolstered by Moira making it to Canada (O Canada! Ontario has never looked so good), and reuniting with Luke. And though Offred seeing her daughter Hannah was tainted by Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) threatening her, it was also a triumph — Hannah is alive and safe, and that sighting gave Offred something tangible to hold on to. But now that Offred is again pregnant, she has two children to think of, and her refusing to kill Janine was the moment she tried to help secure that better future — even if it meant potentially sacrificing everything.
We know The Handmaid’s Tale is returning for Season 2, and will still star Offred and her story. But just knowing that Offred survives the events of Season 1’s final moments is cold comfort. There are a lot of ways for her life to be made into a living hell. And yet, still, hope: Nick whispers to her as the guards come to to with them and to trust him. He seems to know the baby is his, which gives him even more of a reason to try and advocate for Offred as she is punished for her rebellious act. But no matter what, there was also that moment with Rita (Elena Khan) as Offred is led out — she tells her to look behind the tub, where she has re-stashed the letters from women all over Gilead who have been trapped just like they have. I’m not entirely sure if the implication is that Rita is part of May Day, or that Offred thinks she could be once she is confronted with the letters, but either way it’s another hopeful moment.
Those letters are just one example of some of the quiet female power that dominates the last half of the Handmaid’s finale —a suggestion of a kind of universal sisterhood that people like Serena Joy have viciously turned from, but one that the Handmaids and the Marthas (even in their fear) can use to unite them. Still, Serena Joy exercises her influence to ensure a baby happens without her husband involved, just like when Putnam’s wife turned on him and asked for the harshest punishment “because she loved him” — and wanted him to pay for his transgression. The tables can be turned. The letters of desperation, and the impact they had on Offred (and viewers) speak to this same emotion. There’s no plan yet, and Offred’s fate is uncertain. But the show proved with “Night” that even when walking through the darkness there can be light. The future is still female. Praise be.