Spoilers below for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 finale.
There were more than a few times when I threatened to stop watching The Handmaid’s Tale in its second season, but then I’d hear a recent episode was really good, or offered some hope, and I’d get pulled back in. That was a main feature of the series’ second season — just enough positivity to string us along through its otherwise unrelenting bleakness. June is on her way to freedom! Oh no, wait, she was stopped and pulled back to Gilead at the last moment. Janine gets to hold her baby, which seems to signal a change in the way Handmaids are allowed to interact with their offspring! Oh no, actually nothing has changed at all. Serena and June strike an accord and write/edit together while Fred is laid up! Except once they’re found out, and Serena is punished, she then punishes June by encouraging Fred to rape her, which he does. June gets to see her daughter again! But her daughter questions why she didn’t try harder to save her. Everything is so horrible.
For its second season finale The Handmaid’s Tale was coming off of the sudden and gruesome deaths of Eden and her brief lover, continuing a pattern of misery porn that the show has fallen into. It started off this season with a fake mass hanging (“just kidding!”), and continued to show an exceptional amount of murders and suicides throughout, many of them painted in the most brutal possible ways. There’s point where you want to say “we get it,” which is where the finale more or less started. Everyone has had enough — even Serena stands up against the patriarchy with the backing of the other wives and suggests that girls be taught to read as well as boys (and she loses a finger for it). Rita is revealed as a May Day member, or at least, as part of a network of Marthas who help free Handmaids. Emily stabs Aunt Lydia and kicks her down the stairwell, although she’s a tough old bird and I would imagine she eventually makes it. Nevertheless, it hastens Emily’s freedom, one that coincides with June being offered a way out for her and for her daughter Holly. Serena lets them go, and before all of that, June tells Fred to go fuck himself, and writes him a “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” message on the wall of her room. Good things are happening!
And then … because The Handmaid’s Tale is presumably not wrapping things up soon and we need eyes on what’s happening inside Gilead, and because that’s where the misery is, June decides to hand Holly off to Emily (wanting her to be called Nicole now, which was Serena’s name for her) and stay behind. Why? There is no way that the Waterfords will take her back now, right? She has no power, no agency, and once it’s clear that her baby is gone there are only so many excuses that she can continue to make about being kidnapped or taking a long walk or whatever else. What good is she doing? What is the point of staying? (And don’t get me started on that final stare into the camera — there’s nothing badass or triumphant about this moment).
As far as Gilead stories go, there are plenty of other characters who could be our window into that world (Serena, Janine, Rita, Nick, to name a few). To allow June to operate outside of Gilead for awhile, and mount a campaign to save her older daughter, would be a far more interesting dynamic than to continue to examine every miserable corner of Gilead for another season (or many more seasons to come). Yes, the seeds of resistance seem to be ever-so-slowly flourishing, and yes, perhaps June can continue to stoke the fires of revolution (her small comments to both Eden and Serena about “finding love wherever you can” and wondering about Nicole/Holly growing up illiterate, respectively, led to them each making bold decisions against the current regime). But how much more torture can we take before an overthrow happens? How much more can we watch Elisabeth Moss suffer onscreen? (Even though she is exceptionally good at it).
There are few shows that can pack as much into an episode as The Handmaid’s Tale, which is one reason it’s so exhausting. It’s a little amazing to think that we spent time in the colonies this season, saw June attempt to escape Gilead more than a few times, went through an entire pregnancy and its aftermath, witnessed a bombing, a horrific underaged wedding ceremony, and spent time in Canada all within 13 episodes. And yet, things never felt rushed. If anything, the pace was restrained. But where, really, are we going?
The Handmaid’s Tale has created a rich, aesthetically unique tapestry on which to paint its emotionally draining story, one that leads us on just to chasten us later for daring to hope. The series is very good at setting up its payoffs (and punishments) to wring maximum feeling out of key scenes. But the overall effect is still a largely negative and difficult one. In its first season, the consensus was that this TV-inflicted pain was a useful and necessary warning for how the embrace of fringe ideals and reductive thinking, through fear-mongering, can lead to a dangerous societal sea change (I even named it he best show of the year). But its second season, which can feel too much like a mirror to extreme current events (the execution of Boston Globe reporters in the show, and the horrific real-life slaying of Capital Gazette employees as one example) has made it both incredibly eerie and difficult to stomach. As the series has doubled-down on its horror, has it become more necessary, or just a depressing reflection of the worst of our current society? Ultimately June chooses to stay in the darkness of Gilead rather than escape to hope of a better life. That’s her choice, but it doesn’t have to be ours.