Well folks, we made it to the end of season one of The Handmaid’s Tale. In the past ten episodes, the show has explored so many corners of Atwood’s universe, but part of the arc still feels unfinished – and not just because season two is coming up. There were some hefty plot points in this episode, but I still think that almost all of the episodes could be improved by trimming them down to a more manageable size.
Here’s, I think, the main issue with the show: in a universe that’s entirely new to the audience and with a plot that’s built completely of small, necessary steps, it’s really difficult to tell plot from worldbuilding. Because of the way Gilead is set up, even the plot points that happen don’t tend to do much to shift the status quo. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This week opened with a flashback to the very start of the handmaids and their arrival at the Red Center, how the Aunts wasted no time on drilling the message of the new “republic” into these women’s minds. June is forced to apologize to Lydia; she’s implanted with something behind her ear, probably a tracking chip. “There was a way we looked at each other, at the Red Center,” she recalls. “That look was terror, utter and unutterable. Tastes like… gunmetal, like the point of a carpenter’s nail.”
Back in the present, Serena Joy attacks June after finding out what happened at Jezebel’s, splitting open her forehead. She forces her to take a pregnancy test. “Get on your knees and pray that God makes you worthy in some way,” she spits, pushing back against her own humiliation by humiliating June. Involuntarily, June does; both women are hunched in positions of prayer, for wildly different reasons, praying for wildly different things.
The test is positive. June’s pregnant, which complicates measures permanently. When Serena Joy spouts a line about answered prayer, June snarls, “you think I prayed for this? You think I prayed to bring a baby into this house?” In some ways, for the time being, this makes June almost invincible; we’ve seen that handmaids themselves are valued but not untouchable. A baby is another story.
Serena Joy is still bristling after confronting June, and she goes to confront Commander Waterford in his study. She reminds him of her position, the fact that she helped write the very laws that now bar her from decision making. “If I’ve sinned, then you led me to it,” he says, like a baby. “You can blame me all you want, but He knows the truth. Everybody answers to God,” she returns. “You’re weak, and God would never let you pass on that weakness. You can’t father a child because you’re not worthy.” She knocks over the Scrabble game for dramatic effect when she leaves, and it kind of makes you root for her – you want her to destroy him, little by little, and maybe turn around and join June in solidarity.
But that’s an impulse that lasts for about five minutes, because SJ puts June in the van and proceeds to do one of the cruelest things imaginable: she locks June in the van, pulls June’s daughter, Hannah, out of a townhome, and doesn’t let June near her. You can see her, feet away, dressed in a little pink cloak. Serena Joy ushers her back into the house, gets in the car, and drives away. “As long as my baby is safe, so is yours,” she says steadily. It’s a clarifying moment, one that solidifies the character (she’s probably dead to me!). June curses her out, sobbing from the backseat; Serena Joy rolls up the partition.
Warren is punished for his misconduct with Janine by getting his arm sliced off (yikes). June goes into the bathroom and opens the package that she was explicitly told not to open (I don’t blame her). In Episode 9, Moira tells her that the package is probably anthrax, some kind of weapon. She’s right about it being a weapon – it’s stories, scores of Handmaids’ Tales just like June’s. “Please don’t forget us all,” they read. “You have to tell people what’s happening here.” It repeats, over and over: “my name is, my name is, my name is.” She falls asleep reading all of them, late to the gathering of handmaids the next morning.
The girls wait for Aunt Lydia to explain what’s going on; “man, I hate stonings,” one of them whines (well, yeah, me too). The moment before the reveal is one of the most effective uses of suspense we’ve seen in the entire season, and the reveal lands: it’s Janine.
“Convicted of endangering a child,” Aunt Lydia (who had apparently also tricked me into believing she had a soul) explains. “The punishment for that crime is death by stoning.” The handmaids freeze, and – to everyone’s surprise – it’s the new, rule-following Ofglen who speaks out, refusing to throw the stone at Janine. She’s hauled off by guards before she can make more of a scene.
There’s a moment, here, where you’re scared they’ll actually do it, but Aunt Lydia has finally pushed them too far. June takes a step forward with a ghost of a mocking smile and drops the stone. “I’m sorry, Aunt Lydia,” she parrots, exactly as she was forced to at the Red Center. Alma is next, then everyone follows suit, a chorus of insincere apologies.
It’s a moment that gives you chills; you realize that their shared identity is Gilead’s fatal mistake. You can kill a single handmaid, maybe, if they’re scared enough to turn on each other; you can’t kill all the handmaids. Individually, they’re disposable; collectively, they’re irreplaceable. Their bond is what saves, and will save them – and maybe the rest of the country.
“It’s their own fault,” June’s voiceover says. “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”
There’s a punishment for this act of defiance, of course, and the season ends with June being escorted past the rest of the household into a van. But another small act of solidarity passes the torch: June gives the package to Rita, the Martha.
Intercut through the episode, we get a long shot of a figure running through a field, and it takes a second to realize it’s Moira, disguised in bulky clothes. She’s only in a handful of scenes this episode but, as usual, I wish she were in every scene (Samira Wiley is incredible; every time Moira’s onscreen, my brain involuntarily spits out “I’d die for you”). She stumbles across a car and sees Ontario plates, lying on the ground and breaking into hysterical laughter. She actually made it over.
She goes through a refugee processing center numbly, receiving her documents. She tells the employee there that she doesn’t have any family in Canada, which is technically true, but the fact that she doesn’t mention Luke made me wonder (briefly) if she was planning something drastic. But she makes it through to the hall of the missing and freezes. Luke is waiting for her – of course he is. “They called me when your name came up. You’re on my list.” “List of family?” Moira says in disbelief. She finally breaks down into sobs, hugging him. The moment is really lovely, in a way that reminds you of the heart of the show again: the unbreakable power of love between you and the family that you’ve made yourself.