At the end of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a big black van pulls up in front of Offred’s Commander’s house, and two Eyes escort her outside. On her way out, Nick whispers, “It’s all right. It’s Mayday. Go with them,” but Offred (whose real name we’ve never learned) is uncertain. In a society whose scaffolding is constructed entirely of lies, suspicion, and rumor, it’s entirely possible that these men have come to hang her, torture her, or bury her. “And so I step up,” Offred’s story concludes, “into the darkness within; or else the light.”
An epilogue adds thin but integral layers of subtext. Offred’s story, we discover, via a professor presenting his findings at a conference, was found on a series of cassette tapes in the ruins of a building in Bangor, Maine — once a stop on the “Underground Femaleroad.” From there, nobody knows what happened to her. Gilead’s reign has ended; it’s now a blot in history. Offred’s precise Commander can’t even be identified. For all the import of her story, she is translucent.
It’s a perfect, maddening ending that refuses to offer any tidy summaries. How did Gilead turn to ash? What political Vesuvius erupted all over it? Most pressing, what happened to Offred? But Atwood’s ending for the character is no trick: Her transparency is the point. Offred’s story is metaphor; it’s representational. She was just one of the many women in red who were lost to the brutalities of history. The specificity of her story is what moves us — the universality of it is what moves us to action.
It’s likely we’ll learn more about the fate of Offred in Atwood’s forthcoming Gileadean follow-up, The Testaments, which promises to “answer the question that has tantalized us for decades.” But the June Osborne we’ve come to know onscreen in Bruce Miller’s TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has just led the charge in rescuing 52 children and delivering them to safe, responsible, progressive Canada. (Let it be known that Atwood has done more to bolster her home country’s image than any Ryan Reynolds ad ever could.) The episode — titled, ahem, “Mayday” — ends with June getting shot while leading a Guardian away from that plane full of children. She closes her eyes and drifts off … perhaps into the darkness within, or else the light.
And now it’s time for The Handmaid’s Tale to let June die.
I don’t say that lightly. Elisabeth Moss’s performance remains unparalleled — her final eff-off saunter down the hallway at Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was a mere glimpse into the sort of arch badassery and wry, bold-faced gazing she would bring to The Handmaid’s Tale. For three seasons, June has endured beatings and cattle proddings, forced separation from her daughter, ritualized rape, more than one escape attempt, and the snarly, one-note acting skills of Joseph Fiennes. Moss made every second of it real and personal. In less capable hands (and eyes), this adaptation might have ended exactly where Atwood’s novel does.
We know instead that it will continue into a fourth season, most likely with Moss at the forefront. She is piling up the accolades, the show has lured in stars like Bradley Whitford and kept supreme beings like Ann Dowd locked up in rich, complicated roles, and Hulu claims the show’s viewership is still growing. Why let go of an Emmy winner like Moss when you’re luring so many eyeballs?
But according to the rules that govern the fictional world of Gilead, June should by rights be dead a dozen times over. She beat the odds once in season 2, when she was recaptured after her escape attempt and sent back to the Waterfords to quash any rumors of her rebellion. Since then, she has violated every rule Gilead holds dear to its fervent, Scripture-memorizing, ritual-loving heart. June has had sex with men other than her Commander, she has abetted her own child’s escape, she has essentially spat on Aunt Lydia, she has raised her voice to Commanders and their wives, she has plotted a rebellion among the potatoes and tinned fruit of Loaves and Fishes, she has visited a female doctor and attempted escape twice. June’s pregnancy once kept her safe, but even after baby Nichole was born, June’s heavy, shrapnel-laden plot armor deflected the execution that might face any other character. Two episodes ago, she destroyed Christopher Meloni’s Commander Winslow, a walking protein-shake ad, in hand-to-hand combat. Admittedly, I cheered and raved about the episode, but still.
Punishment in Gilead, we’re led to believe, is swift and furious. Bodies swing in public squares for crimes as varied as “gender treachery” and “abusing” a child by conspiring to reunite her with her real mother. Nick’s wife Eden had a weight chained to her and was thrown into a pool for her affair. Janine and Emily each lost a body part (an eye and the clitoris, respectively) and were sent to the Colonies for their crimes. After the second Ofglen blew up the Rachel and Leah Center, her Commander’s entire family was executed, even though they had nothing to do with the explosion.
June, on the other hand, wanders into unlikely scenarios every week and leaves them unscathed. She has turned into the superhero blessed with such indomitable strength, speed, and healing powers that she just can’t die — which means that watching her fight has become an utter snooze. As long as June is protected from death by her VIP status as the heroine of Gilead, her story arc can’t evolve.
Sure, June could ultimately triumph after another season or two of quick wits and implausibly light punishments. She may eventually make it to Canada and reunite with her husband and both daughters so we can feel the fleeting gush of fulfillment that comes along with a beleaguered character finally making it to the promised land. But that erases every trace of the novel’s crushing anonymity and substitutes a treacly sentimentality. Atwood originally titled her novel Offred, then changed it to the purposely vaguer The Handmaid’s Tale. We’re meant to wonder about the woman we now call June, to see only a glimpse of her story before it’s subsumed into the mass of horrors.
For Atwood, the endgame was to remind readers that women — even brave, bold, brilliant ones — could sink into the ditches of history. June has already secured her place as the handmaid who ushered a planeload of kids to freedom. Now if she also miraculously heals from a gunshot wound, makes her way out of the forest, and rescues Hannah from her earnest kidnappers, she’ll transcend the very nexus of The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea that these systems of oppression are bigger than any one individual.
So imagine that instead of the show’s writers teasing us with yet another cliffhanger season finale that puts June in a so-called “impossible” predicament we all know she’ll weasel out of, they kill her instead. Wouldn’t that shock, along with thoughts of where exactly this story will wander without its lead, lure you in far more that a third escape attempt or another foiled plan? What if Janine, Brianna, and Alma buried her body, then carried on with her work, heading north and slowly gathering a small collective of children and women on the lam? What if season four would shot-put us across the country to coastal California or down to the woods of Georgia to uncover a tribe of women who have stayed off the grid and work to sabotage Gilead’s power supplies and armories? What if, instead of regurgitating the idea again and again that this single woman is the only savior who can undo the heinous work of these men, some people with actual penises got to work cleaning up the mess too?
After all, there are other handmaids and other tales. Far, far too many.