The Last One
WORDS BY THOMASIN MCCUAIG
Season Two successfully entered into a new chapter of June’s life and proved that the show has scope beyond Margaret Atwood’s novel. This season has been particularly gruelling and taxing as a multitude of horrific scenes have left the viewer feeling depleted. In each episode the show has caused us to lose faith in humanity. We are constantly confronted with the brutality of those in power and the blind acceptance of the lower ranks. It is difficult to gain hope as there are moments in which the viewer may feel that certain characters can be redeemed, yet the writers demolish that prospect. In watching this season, I would recommend viewing it in doses as opposed to binging.
However, in saying this, the second season has delivered an extremely clever plot line depicted through masterful cinematography that is nevertheless highly engaging and entertaining. Unlike many Hollywood television shows, The Handmaid’s Tale does not sugar coat its themes and approaches each episode with a stark realism. The finale certainly did not disappoint in regard to its shock value, heightened tension and gravitas. However, was it the right ending?
The finale explores the responsibility of parents in providing a safe and loving environment for their children. In the greenhouse scene, June asks Serena, “Are you going to lock her up like an orchid?” This particular line is important to Serena’s character as there is a continual theme of her in the greenhouse trying to grow and nurture things and often with little success. A greenhouse, however, is an artificial environment. Orchids only grow in humid climates, therefore, the greenhouse is given a certain temperature for it to grow. This recurrent theme links to the artificiality of Gilead and the idea that things do not grow naturally within this world. The image of the baby within the greenhouse is symbolic as Serena’s world is finally complete. The Greenhouse is her space and whenever anyone enters, it is an intrusion. However, the world that she built for herself is unstable and cannot protect the baby. In Gilead, there is no protection.
Soon after this scene, we see Nick and June finally embracing their daughter together. This moment is bittersweet as it gives us a taste of what Holly’s life could be. Following her encounter with June, Serena asks Naomi Putnam whether she worries about their children’s future. Naomi replies, “I put my faith in Gilead.” Serena pushes further by asking, “Do you think the other women share our concerns?” Both Serena and Naomi are interested in hearing the other women’s opinions. In this scene, change is brewing as women’s opinions start to matter.
Despite the series tendency to build a false sense of hope for change, the finale shows a shift in attitude to the regime, even from its most dedicated believers. In the finale, we discover that Erin has written notes on pages of the bible – which is forbidden. This discovery propels a fire in Serena as she begins to realise that children should be allowed to read the word of the bible to understand God and show their faith. The episode’s title – “The Word” – encapsulates the power of words; of speaking up. The finale centres on female empowerment and the need for change, arguing that a woman’s word is equal to anyone else’s. This urge to speak is epitomised when Serena and the wives propose an amendment to the rules of Gilead. Serena says, “Thank you for allowing me to speak” before stating, “We believe that our sons and daughters should be taught to read it.” The men at the desk view this as a “radical proposal”. Serena defies them by reading the bible. For Serena, this is not out of character. In the time before, she was always a rebel. However, the men prove to remain in the stronger position. In return for her word, Serena’s finger is cut off. Ultimately, Serena is not as powerful as she would like to think she is. This is clear when the commander states, “Rules can be bent for a higher ranking,” however, only he has the power to choose which rules should be bent.
One of the most shocking scenes in the finale would have to be Emily stabbing Aunt Lydia. We see Emily laughing and smiling afterwards. She feels a sense of liberation; however, this is overturned when she begins to realise the ramifications of her action. We still do not know at this point whether her new Commander, Joseph Lawrence, is good or bad. Towards the end of the episode, we see Emily at the back of a car. Happy music is contrasted with Emily’s anxiety and anguish. The show really knows how to make you feel uncomfortable.
From this point onwards, the tension rises. There is a feeling of change, yet the viewer does not know where it will ignite. The central themes of the episode reach a peak in the last few scenes. There is a new sense of hope that is different to any other kind that we have witnessed in the show. We see a house on fire in the street. This appears to distract the guardians. Nick has stepped up his game and is no longer afraid as he subtly threatens Commander Waterford with a gun, blocking him from any movement. We see Rita forcing June to leave with the baby. However, the biggest obstacle is Serena. June confronts Serena, stating, “She cannot grow up in this place… I know how much you love her.” This scene is gut-wrenching and highly tense as we do not know how Serena will react. However, it becomes clear that they have finally achieved a mutual understanding. The baby is safer outside of Serena’s greenhouse; outside of Gilead. After this encounter, we witness a whole network of Marthas helping June escape. Emily’s Commander, too, is part of the much-referred underground network. For the first time in the whole series, hope seems to be restored for good. Real change is underway.
In regard to the finale’s ending, critics argue that it may lead to a disappointing trajectory.
June hands over the baby to Emily, asking her to “Call her Nicole”. June’s last expression makes it clear that she will be a vigilante in the third season. June is not done with Gilead. She is not ready to leave behind Hannah and Nick. She feels empowered. She knows that there is a network. This time, there is real chance for change. Whether this is the right ending or not, the writers of the show have not let us down so far. Why should we assume that Season Three will not be as well-executed and as engaging as the first two? I guess we will have to wait until 2019 to make those judgments.