That’s that for the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale then, and for the sake of our health, that’s probably a good thing. Our blood pressure can go back to normal; our shoulders can return to their normal position instead of keeping our ears warm; we can take a break from Rage Tourette’s, and ease off on the alcohol for a bit. Except, you know, when we read the news.
It was, as the rest of the season has been, horrifying and emotional. Consider this your final spoiler warning for the season!
The title of the final episode, ‘Night’, takes its name from a series of chapters in the novel, which are spaced at key intervals, and represent a time of quiet for Offred as she is alone, and often bored. At night, she is able, to an extent, to shed the Offred persona and come back to herself. She talks about the past, about what has happened to her, about her family and her friends. She thinks about how to rebel, how to survive, and how to resist. She is only herself when she is alone; in front of everyone else, there is a sense of performance. The isolation is crushing, punishing and tedious, but it is a form of freedom from performance, and it’s a paradox that represents her complex position as someone who conforms outwardly, but resists in her mind. The paradox is the only way she can survive physically, mentally and emotionally.
The show plays with the paradoxes differently, and I loved this episode despite the really cheesy formation strut to Nina Simone. The show’s central paradox is between value and degradation. During an infertility plague, logic would suggest that the fertile, being rare, would be precious and therefore powerful. But this is a misogynistic regime, and so fertile women must be reduced to a resource. Instead of being worshipped for their fertility, they are diminished to “two-legged wombs”. But they are also “ambulatory chalices”; their inherent value is still clearly perceptible. In order to oppress the precious few, they must be stripped of any sense of self. They are brainwashed, tortured and abused. They are taught to not trust each other, which isolates them. And isolation in the show doesn’t give them any freedom. What the show points out to us, by broadening out the world of the novel, is just how powerful they are en masse. They outnumber the Aunts. They might be punished when they resist, but they are rarely destroyed completely for their resistance. And they have been oppressed so savagely that they have nothing left to lose. Fear them when they unite. As June says, “It’s their own fault. They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”
The mysterious package from last week turns out to be countless letters, evidencing the scale of female suffering in Gilead. For June they are overwhelming and paralysing; the letters read aloud in voiceover prove that this is a tale broader than just her own. Perhaps the main way that this show has adapted the novel is to make it The Handmaids’ Tale rather than The Handmaid’s Tale.
Much is made of the “look of terror” in this episode. We see June’s arrival at the Red Centre, in what Aunt Lydia calls the “parade of sluts”. We see the red tag being put in her ear, and the first shocks with the cattle prod. And after a while we understand: there is only so much that you can do to a person. The initial shock has passed; terror has become a baseline emotion, and they have become desensitised to it. This week, we can see that the women are mobilising.
I say women rather than just handmaids, because this episode was also a story about how scary the wives can be. The episode juxtaposes Warren’s trial and punishment with Serena’s rage, and for once we see the “look of terror” in Fred’s eyes. As he tries to steer his fellow Commanders away from harshly punishing Warren’s crime, Mrs. Putnam has outplayed them both, begging for the harshest possible punishment in order to save his soul. Yeah right. This was revenge, pure and simple. It’s no wonder Fred turns to drink, and we see him desperately apologising to Serena later on. Serena is scarier than Mrs Putnam.
Apologising was a big change from earlier in the episode, when Fred patronised his wife and tried to send her off to bed like a naughty schoolgirl. He won’t play Scrabble with her; “You know the law,” he says. She replies, “Yes I do. I helped write it.” It’s a reminder of her power. As much as he tries to blame her for bringing lust into the house, she has the upper hand in this exchange. “She’s pregnant. It isn’t yours. You’re weak. You can’t father a child because you’re not worthy.” Hell yes, tell him off, Serena. And it brings us back to the consent of the governed idea. He orders her to go to her room; he has ideological and institutional power over her in theory. He believes in this power enough to issue a direct order. But she has the power to refuse this order, and this refusal exposes the sham of Gilead. The enforcers of the regime expect to be obeyed, and when they aren’t, they don’t quite know what to do. It foreshadows the Salvaging rebellion really neatly.
Yvonne Strahovski was absolutely brilliant this week. She went from violent rage, to seething evil resentment, to cruel heartless bitch, whilst also getting cheered on for telling off her husband. It’s hard to pull that off without getting into pantomime territory. Yes, she’s utterly horrible, but she’s also vulnerable and desperate. When the pregnancy test came back positive, her apparently friendly attitude to Offred was ridiculously unsettling. Rightly so, for the scene when Hannah was used as a bargaining chip to terrify Offred into submission was Serena at her most cruel. Offred’s desperation to get to her daughter was entirely heartbreaking, and the resultant rage delicious. I played Offred’s rant to Serena in the car a good few times - firstly because I enjoyed it so much, and secondly so I could get it all down to quote here! Are you ready? Apologies for the language!
“You are deranged. You’re fucking evil, you know that? You’re a goddamned motherfucking monster. Fucking heartless sadistic motherfucking evil cunt. Fuck you, Serena. You are gonna burn in goddamned motherfucking hell, you crazy evil bitch.”
Serena refuses to engage, instead going for the icy response: “Don’t get upset. It’s not good for the baby.” There is no rattling her at all. In desperation, she marches in to see Fred. “I need you to protect my daughter. Please. From her.” Fred is too busy panicking about himself; he is barely able to protect himself from her, let alone anyone else. But he clings to what he thinks is assurance of Serena’s morality: “Mrs. Waterford would never hurt a child.” Offred is right when she says, “You don’t know her.” I wouldn’t bet on Serena’s mercy extending to Hannah. She would definitely hurt both Fred and Offred though. As soon as she gets what she wants from her handmaid.
There was an almost sad moment between the two of them when they discussed the pregnancy, and a recognition of how well Offred lies. “You do that so well.” I couldn’t stretch to full sympathy for Fred, but I did appreciate his vulnerability for about a millisecond. He deserves to feel vulnerable; he deserves to be afraid. Because of Fred, the child of a handmaid does not belong to the handmaid; taking the child away is a cruelty sanctioned by the state. I refuse to feel sorry for Fred and his paternal ownership worries. When he asks ‘It is mine?’, the phrase is ideologically loaded, and there was a prime opportunity to yell at the TV: none of this is yours. June doesn’t belong to you.
But blessed be the fruit: Moira has made it to Canada, and goes through possibly the nicest ever application for asylum. “Any family? Then I get to be your best friend.” What a lovely, lovely man. And hooray for Canada - what great PR this episode was for you. It’s unsettlingly nice, for Moira anyway, who seems to be in a sort of trance, until we glimpsed a familiar face. (I’m crying AGAIN just writing about this bit.) She might say she has no family, but she was on Luke’s list. He got the message that she was there, and came running. She collapsed into his arms, sobbing, finally letting it all out, and this was why we needed Luke’s story, to set up this glorious, miraculous moment. I’m so happy right now, though you wouldn’t guess it from the state of my mascara. Praised be. (Where are my tissues?)
When the show included a Salvaging in the first episode, I thought they would follow it up with another, as the novel’s Particicution towards the end is an important catalyst in the last parts of Offred’s narrative. The show’s second Salvaging did just that, but again, they turned it up to 11. Offred is obstinately refusing to say ‘Good morning, Aunt Lydia’, which might seem insignificant, but remember when she didn’t join in the chanting at the Red Centre and got slapped for it? (By Margaret Atwood playing an Aunt, no less.) This is a development. As Aunt Lydia started to list the crimes, I had a sinking feeling. Surely not Janine. No. I’d decided last week that Janine might have somehow escaped, but it was not to be. She has been sentenced to stoning. Aunt Lydia is crying. The handmaids’ faces drop.
The first sign that this will not go according to plan is Ofglen’s refusal. Not Emily Ofglen, the “new, treacherous” Ofglen, who told us that her life is better under the regime than it was before. Even Ofglen has reached her tolerance level, and she is violently beaten for it. In another episode, that might have quashed any rebellious instincts. But ordering the handmaids to kill one of their own crosses a line. Janine is one of them. She might be a bit crazy and annoying, but she is one of them nonetheless.
When the whistle blows, no-one moves, until Offred steps forward. A gun is pointed at her, but Aunt Lydia won’t let the Angel shoot her. “These girls are my responsibility.” She protects Offred, yes, but she also unveils the paradox. These women are too precious to execute en masse. It would be self-defeating to shoot any hope of the next generation, and she has just exposed the illusory nature of Gilead’s power over the handmaids. And they know it. One by one, they follow Offred’s lead, dropping their stones and apologising politely. Then Offred does something entirely unexpected: she smiles.
Aunt Lydia has lost. “Go home. Go home all of you, and think about what you have done. There will be consequences, believe me.” Of course there will be consequences. Janine is taken back into custody. Offred, the ringleader of this, will be punished. In some ways, nothing has changed. But simultaneously, everything has changed. The handmaids have reminded Gilead of their agency, of their power and their potential. Cheesy it might be, but you can understand why ‘Feelin’ Good’ plays as they walk home.
Offred’s calmly awaits the consequences of her actions. “This could be the last time I have to wait. I ought to be terrified, but I feel serene.” However, the look of fear is not far away when the black van arrives. Nick, so visibly moved by the news of the pregnancy, and aware that Serena no longer trusts him (as she didn’t use him for the visit to Hannah), has taken care of business. (Or has he? She isn’t quite sure.) Show-Rita is not angry; she is devastated, and she takes ownership of the parcel of letters, so Mayday has another recruit at the Waterford house. And Serena and Fred, for all their power and prestige, are left throwing unanswered questions at the Eyes/Resistance. We don’t know for sure where this van is going, and whether she is saved or in more trouble than ever, but I for one was surprised they ended the first season at the same point as Offred’s narrative in the book. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess, but I can’t wait to find out.
“And I so step up, into the darkness within. Or else, the light.”
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.