Spoilers ahead with for The Handmaid’s Tale finale.
Season one of The Handmaid’s Tale started out harrowing and stayed that way right up until the end, when Elisabeth Moss’s Offred stepped into the dark cavern of a black police van to face whatever fate awaits her.
Anyone familiar with the Margaret Atwood novel on which the Hulu series is based could have predicted that the initial ten episodes of this series — it’s already been renewed for season two — would be an often unsettling experience. Parallels between Atwood’s oppressive, misogynistic Gilead and real-world politics have always existed, but, as has been said over and over since The Handmaid’s Tale debuted in streaming form, those parallels certainly feel more pronounced at a moment when conservatism, attempts to suppress free speech, and proposed laws aimed at stripping certain rights from women are running rampant. If the state of the world has been making you anxious, The Handmaid’s Tale was not here to calm to you down. Watching this show in 2017 has been the televisual opposite of taking an Ativan.
The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale has been many other things, too: gripping, well acted, photographed with an appropriate mix of precision and sumptuousness. Subtle, however, is not one of them. The rules and abnormal norms in Gilead are extreme and the creative choices and tone of the series have been designed to match, in ways that usually work but every once in awhile go a step — or a stoning — too far. The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent series, but it does have a tendency to deliver body blows when a simple, firm shove would do.
That tendency is certainly on display in the final episode, which races from one intense confrontation to the next. The most excruciating sequence, at least from my point of view, is the visit with Hannah, Offred’s daughter, whom Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) interacts with in full view of Offred while refusing to let her out of the car. (There’s something particularly heartbreaking about seeing Hannah in a pink hooded coat, an outfit that’s a only a few shades away from the red that the adult handmaids wear.)
As Offred, Elisabeth Moss reacts to this form of maternal torture like a feral, caged animal, screaming futilely into the car-window glass and contorting her face with such desperate fury that you practically expect a vein to rocket-launch out of her forehead. The purpose of the trip, of course, is so Serena can keep the now pregnant Offred in her place. “If my baby is safe,” says Commander Waterford’s wife, who will eventually become the mother of the baby growing in Offred’s uterus, “yours will be, too.” In response, Offred spits every awful obscenity that can be lobbed at a woman squarely in the direction of her mistress. It’s a doozy of a scene, one that’s effectively dramatic, makes yet another case for Moss to be nominated for an Emmy, and requires a series of deep, cleansing breaths afterward.
It also highlights a central issue in this episode and throughout this season: the damage that women do to other women. The series clearly views the patriarchal system in Gilead and its many abusive men with great, justifiable contempt. But as our Angelica Jade Bastién wrote last month, “The Handmaid’s Tale is at its most potent when it interrogates the ways women participate in systems that exploit them, holding onto power that is ultimately transitory.” Indeed, the primary physical and emotional damage Offred suffers in the finale is inflicted on her by women in power: Aunt Lydia, the closest thing this series has to a nasty nun, and Serena, who could easily inspire her own fragrance called Complicit. To underscore the gender issues percolating within these interactions, both women cause pain by wielding distinctly feminine tools. Lydia “pierces Offred’s ear” in a manner of speaking, while Serena manipulates Offred’s maternal instincts and turns them into a source of agony.
The power possessed by such women can be dismantled, however, when exploited women work as a singular force, as proven by the handmaids’ collective refusal to stone poor Janine to death even though Aunt Lydia insists that they must. Offred might not have summoned the courage to lead that resistance had she not read the package of letters — each one a confirmation that thousands of other handmaids are suffering and willing to let the world know it — beforehand. And she would never have seen those letters if Moira hadn’t made sure they got delivered to her. The message in all this: It takes a village to be a Wonder Woman.
The finale makes that point forcefully in the form of that stoning rebellion scene. But right after, it pushes the message harder than it needs to by showing Offred and her fellow handmaids walking home, in slow motion, to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It’s a moment that just doesn’t work, in part because The Handmaid’s Tale has gone to the “walking with swagger in slo-mo” well a few too many times this season and also because this particular Simone song, fine as it is, has been overused in film and on television.
In her review of The Handmaid’s Tale for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum cited a similar moment from the episode “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” as a “go-girl moment” that she could imagine being hashtagged. The “Feeling Good” walk, in addition to seeming a little too jarringly jubilant, has that same self-conscious, “badass bitches” vibe that suggests the writers and director Kari Skogland, who do otherwise terrific work on this episode, are trying too hard. Hopefully that impulse can be curbed in season two.
The note this season ultimately ends on is a deliberately ambiguous one. As she climbs into the van, presumably to be punished for her insubordination, even though Nick (Max Minghella) implies it’s okay to go with the arresting officers, Offred admits she is “giving herself over to strangers” with no idea whether what’s in store for her will be worse or better than life at the Waterfords’. As the season ends, we hear the strains of “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the sort of upbeat track tailor-made for liberating road trips. At first listen, this suggests that Offred may have freedom on her horizon. Or maybe something even better: Canada, where refugees get health care, complimentary cell phones, and all-you-can-eat macaroni and cheese.
But then you remember that this song has been heard in other movies before, too, specifically in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. A senator’s daughter named Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith) croons along to Petty’s “American Girl” while driving home late one night. It ends up being the last song she hears before she steps into the back of a van and gets kidnapped and tortured by Buffalo Bill.
Is that a foreboding sign of what’s ahead for Offred? I don’t know. But can someone pass me the Ativan?