Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Bridge”
A good season finale ties together most, if not all, loose threads from the season’s plots and character arcs, and conveys a sense of resolution. A great season finale does all of that, while also building on thematic elements and introducing possibilities for more stories to come. “Night” easily falls into the latter category. Among other things, we got answers on what was in the Mayday package and were given some peace in knowing Moira made it to Canada. The show’s central themes were used not only to continue adding depth and nuance to the material, but also to motivate plot and character. The way in which it opened the doors for season two was perhaps its best achievement, though; it was both subtle and overt, leaving viewers content yet anxious for next year.
Part of the reason to be excited for more of The Handmaid’s Tale is the somewhat optimistic note on which the season ended. Though there have been a few rays of hope, much of the show’s scenes could be described as horrifying, heartbreaking, and infuriating all at once. These 10 hours of television haven’t been the easiest to consume: it was hard to breathe at times and so easy to cry at others. The captivity these handmaids suffer in their daily lives was so expertly communicated, it was nearly impossible for the viewer not to feel a kind of second hand claustrophobia. And that was important. More than anything, this show has been about the characters and the world they now live in, and we needed to feel just as scared, depressed, and defeated as they did. Without that, the small moments of triumph wouldn’t be as inspiring as they were.
Moira’s first escape attempt failed and, inevitably, left her spirit broken. The relief that washed over her, and us, as she unveiled the Ontario license plate was one of the most well earned moments of the season. Had she made it out the first time we would have been happy, but there’s an added enjoyment to it after seeing her so miserable at Jezebels. Samira Wiley wasn’t given the screen time she deserved this season, but she did a lot with what little she had. “Night” gave her more room to shine and it was her best performance by far. Wiley made every single one of Moira’s emotions tangible for the audience; from her happy tears in the garage, to her near inability to comprehend the open-armed generosity of Canada, to the emotional weight that was lifted when she finally saw a familiar, friendly face in Luke. Their reunion is by far the best example of how the finale subtly created possibilities for next season. We can feel good about where they ended up and it does offer a sense of finality, but Moira and Luke surely must play a bigger part in season two and the path they might take is very intriguing.
Of course, “Night” had its fair share of emotional horrors, mainly during the interactions between Serena and Offred. Some viewers have argued that we should feel sympathy for Serena, even after discovering the large role she played in creating this world. If her actions in this episode didn’t eradicate that belief entirely, it’s hard to say what could. At best she’s duplicitous and a complicit cog in Gilead’s wheel, at worst she’s evil incarnate. Yvonne Strahovski’s performance is chilling when she turns on a dime (or, in this case, a positive pregnancy test) from violent, physical abuser, to gentle, woman of God. But if you were unsure of the cruelty this woman could inflict to assert her authority, it was made clear when she forces Offred to see, but not be allowed anywhere near, Hannah.
If there are lists created about the standout moments in The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred’s frantic attempts to get to Hannah and her obscenity-filled outburst at Serena have to be included. Elisabeth Moss has been tasked with an incredible amount of weight to carry throughout this season. She very rarely faltered and this was no exception. So often Moss had to shield Offred’s anger behind a fake smile or a closing of the eyes accompanied by a deep inhale, but here she’s compelled to let it all out. She’s been raped, physically abused, psychologically tortured, etc., but in being so close to and yet so far from her daughter a primal instinct of rage was unleashed.
The way Moss spits out “crazy, evil bitch,” the way she distorts her face to find the perfect way of enunciating “motherfucking monster,” is so fulfilling for the viewer. But the directorial choices serve as a reminder that she’s ultimately still defenseless. Whether it’s only showing Hannah and Serena from Offred’s perspective behind the small bit of uncovered window, or focusing on the glass barricade Offred must sit behind as it steams up from her angered rant; she’s trapped, an equal to the ballerina in the music box that “heartless, sadistic” Serena gave her. Ultimately, this heartbreak, like all the others, is what adds fuel to the fire for Offred’s and the other handmaids’ rebellion at the stoning.
Somewhere right in the middle of subtle and overt plot setup for season two, lay the scenes of Janine’s salvaging and the opening of the Mayday package. They suggest a spark in the revolution, but it’s hard to know what shape that will take with so many obstacles standing in the handmaids’ way. Will more women be ready to join Mayday, or will their punishment for standing in solidarity with Janine be enough to crush them back into submission? Regardless of outcome, these were two very moving scenes in an episode, and season, already full of them. What really stands out is the fact that so many handmaids were given a voice. Not just in the stoning circle when repeating the line “I’m sorry, Aunt Lydia,” but in the voiceovers when Offred reads their letters.
These women risked losing their hands, and probably worse, in writing their stories on whatever scraps of material they could find, all for the chance that it may one day set them free. That each of their stories started with “my name is,” so perfectly mirroring the end of the season premiere when we first learned June’s name, is just the icing on the narrative structure cake. The moment is both heavy and uplifting. The possession of these letters means Offred carries the weight of countless handmaids’ hopes. However, it’s also an echo of Moira inscribing “Aunt Lydia sux” on a bathroom stall and of Offred #1 carving Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum inside the closet. It’s more proof that she is not alone, not in the slightest. That this may be the best sleep Offred has had since the inception of Gilead, surrounded by the comfortable warmth of her sisters; it is enough to overlook how painful it was to watch, knowing that at any moment she could be caught.
The final moments of “Night” are narratively ambiguous. Neither Offred nor the audience know if the black van will offer a chance at freedom or if she’s simply being carted off for further punishment – the only thing we can be about 99% sure of is that she won’t die, because a pregnant handmaid is far too precious to Gilead. It’s the finales most overt way of setting up plot for next season, because everyone will be waiting to find out what happens to Offred. And despite this being a fairly common, cliffhanger-type ending that almost always works to bring audiences back for more, it doesn’t detract from its undeniable emotional effect. Even if it’s ultimately futile, Offred at least tried to impact change in the only ways she could. Even if she couldn’t facilitate the delivery of the package, maybe Rita can. Even if Janine will suffer in other ways, she’ll know that her fellow handmaids stood by her when they had the chance.
These efforts have started to frame Offred as a kind of hero – it is The Handmaid’s Tale, after all – but ideally the letters, the rebellion at the salvaging, and Mayday in general are more indicative of what’s to come. These moments of collective resistance were some of the most powerful, and, if we’re being really honest with ourselves, it’s highly doubtful that the actions of one white woman would be enough to liberate the victims of Gilead. To continue telling effective stories, and to make them all the more inclusive, season two should shift into something more like The Handmaids’ Tales. Even Offred knows there is more power in numbers:
“They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”
Under His Eye
- It was odd to see Mrs. Putnam have so much influence over her husband’s fate. Since when do the powerful men of Gilead care about a woman’s opinion? It rang a little false and seemed only in service of pushing Fred to try and make nice with Serena.
- Though I’m sure we’ll see more evil from them in the future, it was delightful to see Serena and Fred’s authority trampled on as Offred was being taken away. The fact that they are suffering in a system of their own making is just too fantastic. You reap what you sow, Waterfords.
- I really want to believe Nick has something up his sleeve to help Offred. However, it won’t make me dislike him any less. Before he knew she was carrying his baby, he was content to let Gilead have her. If he really has any power within The Eyes, he could have at least tried to help her out before this moment. Nick is the kind of guy who makes everything about him, though. He only ended things with Offred out of some warped jealousy over her outing to Jezebels with the Commander. As if she had any choice. Yeah, screw Nick.
- Till next year, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum, bitches!”