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The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1 Finale Deep Breakdown: “Night”

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Deep breath and your indulgence, if I may one last time plead it.  We’ve reached the season finale, and I’ve never felt greater trepidation about the continuation of something I have enjoyed so deeply (if “enjoyed” is the appropriate word for something that pulls your guts out and wears them as a boa on the reg; let’s assume the limitations of vocabulary and go with it), because The Handmaid’s Tale ended on a perfect note.  There is too much to talk about and we’ve neither daylight nor word count enough to explore it all, so let’s get the thorny plot business out of the way:

Serena Joy, vindictive, angry, and proving indeed that hell hath no fury, cold cocks June and has her take a pregnancy test.  It comes back positive (and through it we learn the interesting fact that apparently pregnancy tests are outlawed in Gilead, as it is referred to as “black market”), and the carefully measured layers of deception within the household grow deeper and stranger.  This baby, we know, belongs in no way to the people who would claim it; June and Nick made this baby, a fact that June tips Nick off to in a tender breakfast scene.  Serena Joy witnesses it; sees the genuine affection borne between the two despite their debased circumstances, sees that though she pushed them together for mercenary purposes, they chose each other with a warmth and tenderness that she and Fred have not felt for years.  What a beautiful family they would make, June, Nick, and li’l baby eyebrows…and because she is petty, if a villain, and is, at all times afraid of June, she decides to punish her by taking her to the orphanage/boarding school type place where Hannah is being raised.  Locked in the car like a pet, June is forced to watch Serena interact with her daughter – close enough to run to, near enough to touch – with no ability to reach her.  Elizabeth Moss won all the Emmys in my heart as she threw herself against the door and screamed for her child – helpless and irate.  Serena, upon returning to the car, levels a subtle but distinct threat to June; nothing happens to my baby and nothing will happen to yours.  June finally gets the cathartic explosion she’s been needing all season long and rips into Serena.  It does no good, but there is release in finally hearing someone call Serena on being the cold-hearted, merciless bitch she has been all season.

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Meanwhile…

Warren’s punishment for getting a bit too friendly with his handmaid is being determined by a council of Very Important Men.  At first, our dear Fred is a bit cavalier about the whole process, but upon hearing that Warren’s wife has asked for the severest possible punishment, because she is “worried about him” (and not at all bitter and vengeful.  Those are definitely not the motivators, guys.  The italics means sarcasm), he begins to grow a bit more concerned.  Warren’s left hand is removed and we see that indeed, Gilead takes the infractions of its laws very seriously.

The handmaids are called to stone Janine, and June leads a peaceful rebellion; she drops her rock and the other maids follow suit. Aunt Lydia promises consequences and June struts home, having taken action – real, tangible action – for the first time in the show.

Now is the time where I must caution with all sincerity the words of our forefathers; spoiler alert. I’m about to get into the end of all this, so if you haven’t watched the episode yet and want it to be a surprise, close your browser, pull up Hulu, and call me in the morning.


*SPOILERS*

When June returns home, a black van pulls up to Fred’s house.  Nick comes in like a hot, eyebrowed shadow and tells her to go with them; trust him.  June does.  Perhaps because she trusts him and perhaps because stasis is no longer an option.  We close the van doors on the uncertainty of the future and the opening notes of “American Girl” by Tom Petty.

Within these confines, there are a number of truly heartbreaking moments.  Our favorite badass, Moira, has made it to Canada and safety, and spoiler alert, along with having the foxiest prime minister in the history of the world, Canada is the nicest place on earth, even in this fictional reality.  Samira Wiley has always given Elizabeth Moss a run for her money as series MVP, and her work in this episode is devastating and beautiful.  Watching her disorientation and uncertainty at finally being safe tells you more about what this strong, powerful woman must have endured than pages of exposition possibly could.  When she finally sees Luke again and breaks down crying, you know, without it needing to be said, that it is the first time she has allowed herself to cry, and that she has survived something too vicious to truly articulate.


So in the midst of something so beautiful and brutal, why am I so afraid of season two?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Season one turned a perfect circle.  The first episode, we saw the maids rip a man apart in a state sanctioned execution, one that June participated in fully. This episode we saw them resist killing one of their own.  We can use the Janine episode to shed some light on that first execution; including my early suspicions that “the rapist” was probably just a man who had consensual sex with a handmaid.  We have now seen how they manipulated the circumstances surrounding Janine’s supposed crime to fit their narrative, and this seems to support the notion that the man was probably an innocent.  It also occurred to me that while that first instance registered initially as a way to vent the anger the maids were feeling towards men, turning them against a maid, one of their own, felt like perhaps these organized mob slayings were also a way of making the maids complicit – bloodying their hands both literally and figuratively.

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This season forged a love story in the most unlikely of places (and yes, I will fight anyone who tries to tell me June and Nick were not a love story. I’ll meet you behind the school at noon, bring your lunch money because I take no prisoners); it breathed life into a truly memorable and insidious villain.  Serena Joy pulses with malice, never more potently than when she accuses June of taking Fred from her – as if the woman who has no say over her own fate could in any way be held accountable for Fred’s actions.  But doesn’t that echo the sentiments of so many women who can’t stomach their partner’s infidelity?  Blame it on the woman who “took him away?”  Serena Joy is more potent a villain, because in some, horrifying lights, she’s relatable.  But most importantly, The Handmaid’s Tale gave us a heroine.  June rose from the ashes through small acts of defiance.  She didn’t have a lasso of truth or wear a weird, patriotic bustier to pound on bad guys.  She became a hero by paying attention.  By listening and learning.  She started the episode being taught to keep her head down, to avert her eyes.  It is a moment of pure power and defiance when June lifts her head and stares into the eyes of her oppressors.

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This season was a perfectly captured nightmare.  How do you expand that without taking away from the power of June’s story?  In many ways, I wish this had been a self contained mini series.  I would rather remember it as damn near perfect and brief, than long and diminished.  But I will still be here for season two.

And now, one last, particularly lengthy, “What did Jim think of it?”

“This week’s episode takes a dark and unexpected turn and punishments are handed out freely on both sides of the gender line.

Warren pleads for forgiveness for his misdeeds with his handmaid and, despite Fred’s suggestion of leniency, the counsel of really important men decided to chop off his arm.  His own wife asked for the strictest sentence, which may have influenced the group.  Fred is now visibly concerned for his own fate.

Moira somehow manages to successfully escape, wanders across the border, and is welcomed with open arms in Canada.  They throw some cash at her along with a free Obama phone and and some sweet, sweet free socialized health insurance and she even gets a surprise visit from Luke.  In case you were wondering, this does not happen in the book.  The book makes no mention of any escape or her fate after the cat house visit.  I read the book last week in a vain attempt to jump ahead and see how things wrap up.  The book was great but it ends with Offred being whisked off in the van with no mention of anything beyond that point.  So season 2, it seems, will be going well beyond the original source material since they pretty much covered the entire book already in season 1.

The crazy scene of the handmaids stoning poor Janine also did not happen in the book and, fortunately, it didn’t happen in the show either.  Don’t dress us up in uniforms if you don’t expect us to be an army!  The ladies have taken a stand and won’t punish their own kind.

Mrs. Waterword hits poor, pregnant Offred with a vicious back-fist punch and showed her true colors as a crazy, evil bitch and was incredibly cruel to Offred in an attempt to protect the baby that she so desperately wants.  She says a lot of mean stuff to Fred and tells him the baby isn’t his and that he is worthless as a man and all that was well deserved.  

Super Nick eventually saves the day and takes Offred away in his van with his fellow May Day secret friends. Hopefully we get to see how this all plays out in season 2 and hopefully the writers don’t screw things up and ruin a great story.”

Sorry I ran long, friends.  Know that I could have run seventeen times longer.  I’ll be back next week for a “book versus the show” wrap-up and then we’ll chat again in season two.  Till then, don’t let the bastards grind you down!

 

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Kelly Mintzer hates dolls but loves movies about evil ventriloquist dummies. She is working her way through the “Sandman” series slowly but surely, and has been compared more than once to that iteration of Death. Holding down South Philly with a creative writing degree and the full series of “Hannibal”, she hasn’t seen her natural hair color in years.

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