[Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 1, Episode 10, “Night.”]
The first season finale of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was rich with one of the show’s best traits: its ability to find human and relatable moments within these extraordinary yet awful circumstances.
And the emotion captured is as diverse as it is heart-wrenching. Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss), upon learning she’s pregnant, snapping at Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski): “You think I prayed to bring a baby into this house?” Nick’s (Max Minghella) quiet acknowledgement that it is, technically, his child. Moira (Samira Wiley) discovering via a license plate that she’d made it to freedom, and later stunned by the depth of human kindness that would greet her in Canada. Serena Joy snapping at her husband: “I know the law. I helped write it.” And of course, June opening the package smuggled to her from Jezebel’s, discovering something truly dangerous inside: the words of women like her, trapped within Gilead and pleading for help.
But what really marks the moment where “The Handmaid’s Tale” proved itself as one of the year’s best accomplishments in television is a climatic scene that echoes both the pilot and the book, but also celebrates the importance of the changes made from text to screen that have made the series so engaging week to week.
If you’ve read the original novel by Margaret Atwood, you might have been caught off guard by a significant change to the story: the “particicution” of an unknown man. The Handmaids are told he raped a pregnant one of their own, who then lost the child — in this world of infertility, it’s an act that can only be considered the most evil of crimes (assuming, of course, you believe that Aunt Lydia is telling the truth about his crimes). The “girls,” given carte blanche to treat this man how they might see fit, beat the man to death with their bare hands; Offred/June, who has just been told her best friend Moira is dead, is at the forefront of the violent charge.
In the book, this scene takes place relatively closely to the end of Offred’s story; previously we’ve been eased, to some degree, into the physical violence, which is just one way in which Gilead keeps its citizens in check. The show, however, moved it to the very first episode, a daring choice that was just one of the ways the pilot knocked us sideways.
While interesting, it was a choice that didn’t necessarily seem to carry with it any deeper significance — until, that is, the season finale, when the Handmaids once again gather in that field, and are presented with a new criminal to punish.
This time, though, it’s Janine (Madeline Brewer), who in the previous episode had attempted to kill both herself and her infant daughter, and has always been an object of pity for the series. And this time, the Handmaids react quite differently: Shockingly, it’s the new Ofglen, so cautious and bitter and rule-abiding, who’s the first to speak out against this cruelty (and pays the price). And then it’s Offred who steps forward into the circle and drops her stone. “I’m sorry, Aunt Lydia,” she says, an act of rebellion echoed by the other girls, one by one. Aunt Lydia promises “consequences,” but in that moment all the audience can feel is triumph.
What’s so beautiful about this sequence is the way in which it bookends the season. We begin with rage and brutality; we end with resistance and mercy. It testifies to the possibility of change within this world. It speaks to the existence of hope.
As the Handmaids march together through the streets, with the always welcome tones of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” playing, you can’t help but remember one of the episode’s best lines, uttered earlier by Offred in voice-over: “It’s their own fault. They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”
We don’t end with an uprising of Handmaids, however (at least, not yet). Instead, we contend with this: The season finale is nearly identical to how Offred’s story ends in the book. Nick, who may be more deeply embedded in the spy network of Eyes and/or the resistance than we know, tells Offred to trust him while a Eye van rolls up to whisk her away from the Underwood house to parts unknown.
Her fate remains uncertain for now, but was kept a complete mystery in the book. Meanwhile, we have Season 2 to look forward to, and the knowledge that thanks to Hulu, showrunner Bruce Miller and this team of extraordinary actors, writers and directors, there’s more story to be told.
The first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was full of both pain and triumph, cathartic and haunting. The next season can’t come soon enough.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 1 is now streaming on Hulu.