On The Handmaid’s Tale Finale, The Fall Of Gilead Begins With A Dropped Stone

The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale has come to a close, and I feel as though the latest episode (and what it promises for the future) can be summed up by none other than T.S. Eliot: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”

All Photos Courtesy Hulu

“Night” opens on a flashback to when June (Elisabeth Moss) was first brought to the Red Center and tagged, before she became Offred. In her inner monologue, she recalls the terror she could see on each of the other women’s faces, just as on her own. Flash forward to the present, and Offred isn’t afraid any more. Inside her shopping bag is a secret package that could change the course of the Gileadean world, and she’s feeling pretty good about it.

Offred stashes the package behind the tub before entering her bedroom, and it’s a hell of a lucky thing she does, as Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) was waiting, and immediately smacks the crap out of her. At the end of the last episode, Serena had gone into the commander’s office looking for proof of his infidelity, and she clearly found it… meaning the dress Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes) made Offred wear to Jezebels. This crushes her. Serena’s only comfort has been the hope of having a child, to make the awful sexual slavery worth her while. The idea of her likely infertile husband screwing Offred for no reason other than his own pleasure is too much for her to bear, so she needs to make the adultery matter. Serena Joy rips out a pregnancy test and issues an ultimatum: Be pregnant, or die.

But it turns out Offred is indeed pregnant. This was hinted at in the last episode, when Serena asked Rita if Offred had gotten her period yet, but it seems awfully convenient that Offred happened to be with child at the very moment her life depended on it — especially considering that’s not what happens in the book. I understand why the show did this, to raise the stakes for next season, but the moment felt like it compromised reality for the sake of drama.

That said, it’s interesting seeing how Offred changes the moment she finds out she’s pregnant (echoing the changes in Ofdaniel’s behaviour during her pregnancy). Offred has something they need, and that gives her power. So she immediately talks back to Serena Joy, loathing the pregnancy and her role in their entire screwed-up world — effectively denying Serena her (albeit undeserved) happiness. Then, later, when Nick finds out Offred’s pregnant, they share an open moment of intimacy together that would have otherwise been more closely guarded.

Serena, on the other hand, isn’t doing so great. She confronts the commander in his office, ordering him to stop screwing Offred and learn to control himself. Only, Fred doesn’t care to change. The way he sees it, if he’s tempted to cheat, it’s her fault. After all, she tried to give him a blowjob once. This is the moment we’ve been building up to for a while, when we finally see how corrupt the commander has become due to their brave new world. He pushes for leniency for Commander Daniel, who faces punishment for screwing Ofdaniel. He blames his wife for his sexual promiscuity. Then, when push comes to shove, the commander tells Serena she answers to him and orders her to go to her room. And, just like all the other times the commander subjugated Serena Joy… she takes it out on Offred.

The Handmaid’s Tale might exist in a world where women are forced into sexual slavery, but the Serena and Offred car scene might go down as one of the cruellest moments of the season. In a moment of pure villainy, Serena Joy takes Offred to see her daughter, locking her in the car and bringing Hannah outside for a little chat, forcing Offred to watch and scream in silence as her child is paraded in front of her. It wasn’t purely a social call; it’s a threat that she’ll harm Hannah should Offred to anything to hurt herself or the baby.

As they drive away, Offred starts by begging Serena to let her see her child. When that doesn’t work, the walls come down and Offred spills out every vile word and insult she can think of, with Serena leaving the partition open to hear every word. It was truly gut-wrenching to see Offred completely break down at the sight of her daughter, throwing out all pretense. I don’t have a child myself, so I asked fellow writer Evan Narcisse how he’d react in a similar situation. He said he’d do anything to get to his child, including breaking the law. If he was trapped, helpless to reach his kid, he’d feel: “Angry, frustrated, maybe even suicidal.”

After that harrowing ordeal, Offred is desperate to protect her daughter, so she turns to the commander for help. Only, you probably guessed it, Fred doesn’t give a damn about helping her daughter, instead focusing on his child… that he already knows isn’t his, due to Serena’s angry confession. But later on, we see he doesn’t really care that he isn’t the biological dad (or at least he’s pretending he doesn’t). He apologises to Serena, and promises that once the baby is born Offred will be out of their lives forever and they can be a family. He’s never actually cared about Offred, so this isn’t much of a shocker.

Feeling desperate and alone, Offred pulls out the secret package and opens it. It’s dozens (perhaps hundreds) of letters, all from women trapped in Gilead. Offred reads the accounts of multiple women who are in the same situation she’s in. Their children were taken away, they have been forced into slavery, and they need help. She’s clearly distraught, but she’s also happy — because now she knows she’s not alone. She has an army of handmaids, and they’re about to go to battle.

The next day, there’s a summoning for an execution, echoing what we saw in the first episode. The handmaids are stunned to see Ofdaniel/Janine brought into their circle as a teary-eyed Aunt Lydia orders them to do their duty and stone her to death. Surprisingly, the new Ofglen (who up until this point has been pretty content with her life) steps up and refuses to kill Janine, calling on the other handmaids to do the same. She’s attacked by one of the guards and dragged away, showing the stakes of their actions. There’s a moment of silence as the handmaids hold their stones, waiting for the first person to strike… yet none of them do. Then, in the face of a screaming Aunt Lydia, Offred takes her stone and drops it to the ground… repeating the phrase Lydia ordered her to say during her introduction to the Red Center: “I’m sorry, Aunt Lydia.” The other girls follow suit, leaving Aunt Lydia powerless, ordering them to go home and prepare for punishment.

I absolutely loved the symbolism in this next scene. As Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” plays, the handmaids slowly walk down the street, heading to their homes. From a distance, their red outfits made them look like a river of blood, the first plague Moses brought to Egypt to free the Hebrew slaves. Likewise, this simple rebellion from the handmaids feels like the first of many plagues that will infect the streets of Gilead. However, it was weird that only white women were at the forefront of this procession, especially given the song selection. It was a poor choice, optics-wise, to push women of colour to the back.

That said, we also get a glimpse at Moira’s fate in this episode. We learn she managed to escape to Canada, where she’s granted refugee status and given the resources she needs to live her own life. In the end, she meets up with Luke, who had placed her on his emergency family list so he could know if she made it across the border. Upon learning this, Moira’s shell cracks and she flings herself into Luke’s arms… crying for her stolen years, and the promise of what’s next.

After Offred herself gets home, she prepares for her punishment; she’s at peace with her fate. A black van arrives, with Nick quietly telling her to trust him… and she does, quietly leaving with the guards to what could be her death. Serena starts freaking out, ordering the guards to stop, which they don’t. The commander demands to see their identification papers, which they don’t provide, simply saying “everything is in order”. Much like in the books, it’s unclear whether these are actually Eyes or members of the resistance… but considering a second season is on the way, it’s pretty obvious who Offred left with. She steps into the van, smiling in the dark as the doors close on her.

The episode opened a lot of doors without really shutting the ones that are still there — except for Moira, although I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of her yet. It felt a little unsatisfying to end the season without definitive closure, but I suppose that’s the point. The men are still in power, the women are still suffering, and Gilead is still broken as hell. It takes more than a stone to break the chains, but at least it’s a start. It’s a small start, but it still heralds the end of Gilead.

Assorted Musings:

  • Rita hasn’t had a lot to do this season, but this latest episode definitely sets up a bigger role for her. We’ve learned that she had a son who died in the war, though we still don’t know what side he was on. And now, she’s gotten the letters from Offred, and I can’t imagine that a mother would be able to turn away from all those women needing help. Plus, in the scene between the commander and Serena, he mentions how three Marthas were arrested for “planning something”. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was foreshadowing for Rita’s role in the future.
  • Almost every one of Offred’s bedroom scenes has her listening to the music box. It shows how desperate she is for outside stimuli, but it’s also clear she doesn’t want to keep the girl locked in her box, continuing the metaphor established last episode.
  • Andrew Pryce is back! Based on his scene in this episode, he’s going to be a larger presence next season. As Commander Daniel prostates himself before the council, Fred and the other commanders kind of chuckle and say “boys will be boys,” wanting to go lenient on the guy. Pryce is having none of that, and instead delivers the harshest punishment… losing a hand. It’s clear next season will be about threats from the inside as much as those from the outside.
  • I liked how the symbolism of the final scene really hinted at Offred’s fate. After all, in a previous episode, Moira said the only way to get out of Gilead was a black van, feet first. But Offred went in head-first.