[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2 Episode 13, “The Word.”]
Dedicated TV fans know this to be a true fact: plenty of shows can have a great first season, but the make-or-break year is Season 2. Season 2 is when the plot has to move beyond the premise, while the actors have to push past tropes to really unlock the truths of their characters. Season 2 reveals the flaws of a series, strips them bare, and also serves as the proving ground for the show’s future.
So, after watching the season finale of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it’s easy to say this: While this wasn’t a perfect season of television, it without a doubt proved itself to be a show with legs, one that remains exciting to track even as the unsettling darkness persists.
Looking back over the course of the season, there’s not a single episode that really dragged down the story, and the last half really built up a new level of momentum (which is itself to be admired, given that moving from a 10-episode order to a 13-episode order as the show did this year could easily have led to a feeling of bloat). And while there might have been more obvious ways to end the season — with the birth of June’s daughter, with the explosion that tore through Handmaids and Commanders alike — things end as they began: with an escape.
Until nearly the very end of “The Word,” the most active character proves to be Serena — though, as we saw all season long, the character’s dedication to making her greatest desire (to become a mother) underpinned nearly every decision she made. How much of the assault endured by June in “The Last Ceremony” had to do with inducing her labor versus petty revenge is a topic worth debating, but it’s a credit to Yvonne Strahovski’s performance that the massive shifts Serena experiences, from dedicated Gileadean to a woman ready to talk back to a woman almost but not quite broken by the system, all manage to track.
The way in which Serena’s mini-rebellion backfires ties so nicely into the episode’s real climax — not June and Nichole’s escape, but Serena’s decision to let them go — that it cements Serena as an essential character of this story. Which does lead to concerns, when considering what’s to come next for the series. The first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” left us breathless with what was going to come next for June, especially given the speculation over whether she was being loaded into that van as a prisoner or a woman on the verge of escaping to freedom occupying our attention for the following months. Here, the specifics of what June has planned aren’t clear, but the gist is pretty apparent — as Elisabeth Moss herself said in a post-screening Q&A this Monday, it’s time for June to “fuck some shit up.”
The final shot of the season, which communicated exactly that without a word, was a big statement, but it definitely feels like something that we’ve been building to all season long, as the show has continued to stretch beyond the original novel. As the world of the show expands, the number of story elements it has to sustain are mammoth, and how Serena and others fit into the future is at this point the most concerning issue going forward.
Honestly, those concerns surfaced even earlier this season, as great actors like Ann Dowd, Samira Wiley, and O.T. Fagbenle felt underserved by the limits of the narrative. In general, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is clearly teetering between its potential to become more of an ensemble drama and its title-issued mandate to tell the story of a Handmaid, singular. The finale didn’t assuage any concerns on that issue.
In addition, there’s an element that went underserved this year: no show has been better positioned to explore the issue of what it means to resist a political regime since the best days of “Battlestar Galactica.” Yet the one major event of the season that might have inspired real conversation over this topic, the bombing that occurs at the end of Episode 6 (“First Blood”), feels relatively isolated. We do, of course, see various instances in the finale of how women are working within the system to resist, from Serena’s failed attempt to petition for women’s literacy to the network of Marthas that ultimately helps get June and her baby out of servitude. But the big challenge now is showing us what happens next. What does it really mean to fight while also balancing all the other elements that have helped the show grow beyond one novel to what feels like a very real world.
However, that’s really been one of the challenges that has always hovered over this show, and it’s worth noting that the expectations are nearly impossible to overcome here, especially in an era when we crave stories about those who fight, in search of the inspiration we need to continue doing so in the real world.
But say this for “The Handmaid’s Tale” — it continues to step up to the plate. Baseball might be dead in Gilead, but bravery is not. And that’s a quality worth relishing.