What’s fascinating about The Handmaid’s Tale finale is that, after a season of building out Margaret Atwood’s dystopian world, it ends in the same place as the book. Though true to the series’ penchant for expanding the novel, it took the final two chapters of Offred’s story basically verbatim but then split them into bookends. Or, to take a metaphor from the episode, the first and final scenes were like the wrapping and string on Mayday’s package. Cut them apart, and the entire episode comes spilling out in little, radical, heartbreaking, inspiring moments.
Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale 1×10 “Night”
By the end of the novel, Offred has grown complacent; she’s rebuffed Mayday’s attempts at joining their rebellion, focusing instead inward on the fetus that she’s pretty sure she and Nick have conceived. Serena Joy’s discovery of the dress, of Jezebels, of her husband’s infidelity and Offred’s part in it, brings the Handmaid back to the reality of how tenuous her safety in the Waterford household is. By contrast, the Offred of this series approaches the end of the first season electrified with rebellion; the package she carries in her shopping bag, not an illicit pregnancy, is the hidden secret full of potential to change her life. She also notes subtle shifts in her fellow Handmaids; where they used to regard one another with terror, now they gaze at one another clear-eyed, sharing silent secrets and sedition.
But not even this package can protect Offred from the wrath of a Wife. Despite the brutality of slapping Offred so hard into the doorframe that it gives her a nasty gash, Serena Joy’s outburst carries wounded notes of betrayal: “I trusted you. I tried to help you! You could have left me with something.” But, as is clear from later scenes between the Commander and his Wife, there wasn’t much for Offred to take. In fact, Offred has given Serena Joy the greatest gift: She’s pregnant. This is one of the series’ best deviations from the book, especially because Serena Joy is there at the moment of knowing, weeping and praying over a pregnancy test and then comforting a battered Offred as if this is some great joy they can share in.
Just as the Handmaids are beginning to drop the platitudes among themselves, for the first time Offred is able to speak plainly to Serena Joy. Like Janine, she’s aware that she now has something the Wife wants, which protects her and emboldens her. Her snarl of “Do you think I want this?” is a slap in the face to Serena Joy’s beliefs, with the unspoken threat that she could still dash this small shred of hope on the rocks.
So Serena Joy pulls out the most brutal safeguard: She drives Offred to another household, leaves her in the car like a dog, and goes to meet the child of the couple living there: Hannah, alive and dressed in the pink of Gilead’s next generation. Offred can’t believe that she’s actually seeing her daughter, and she reaches for the door.
And it’s locked.
I didn’t guess that Serena Joy would produce Hannah in the flesh—in the book, it’s just a Polaroid—but the moment Offred registered the locked car, I burst into tears. It’s a breathtakingly cruel power move, even moreso than Serena Joy’s later threat of “You keep my child safe, I’ll keep yours safe.” To bring Offred that close to her daughter, who she has yearned for years to find, and not let Hannah know that she’s alive, is the kind of torture intended to break someone. What’s worse, Serena Joy defends it with condescending calm: Hannah has a better life without you as a mother, is the subtext.
Just like that, Offred is trapped again. Until, in a fit of desperation, she opens up Mayday’s package to see what’s so damn precious to the resistance. And here is the small but vital change that the entire first season has built up to:
The Handmaid’s Tale becomes The Handmaids’ Tale.
The package is a collection of letters, so many that they spill out like confetti. Some are written on paper, but most seem to be scrawled on any potential writing surface: I saw napkins, maybe scraps of wrapping paper or strips of wallpaper. These are journal entries, messages to loved ones, pleas for help. The voices are a million internal monologues like Offred’s, freed onto paper, finally heard by someone else.
I have to admit, I was briefly upset that the series was diverging from the book in such a way, that we would not find out that all of Offred’s silent witty asides and raging rebellion had been surreptitiously recorded onto cassette tapes, to be found by some future population. But it’s what makes the most sense for this season, especially as the last few episodes have moved far beyond Offred’s frame of reference to depict the experience of other Handmaids like Emily and Janine, of Jezebels like Moira, even of Luke fleeing to the border. This isn’t just Offred’s experience; it’s societal, it’s endemic. Furthermore, women have slowly been regaining the ability to read and write over the last ten episodes: Offred playing Scrabble and writing a note to Luke, Moira sending the message of “Praised be, bitch” along with the package. The message of Gilead’s oppression had to come from all of its Handmaids.
You wouldn’t believe just one woman.
That’s what happened in “A Woman’s Place,” when Offred finally risked her safety to tell everything to Mrs. Castillo, only for the other woman to acknowledge Gilead’s crimes against women and place that atrocity below her own country’s need for babies. But if all of the Handmaids speak, their words might actually travel outside of Gilead’s borders.
The revolution begins with letters, and with stones. The attempted Salvaging of Janine/Ofdaniel, for endangering her infant daughter, turns into a cheeky take on let (s)he who is without sin cast the first stone: Ofglen, the new one who supposedly would do anything to hold on to this life better than what she had, draws the line at killing Janine. Then Offred, who has found her voice, says, “I’m sorry, Aunt Lydia” and drops her stone, prompting every Handmaid to follow in a Spartacus-esque moment. This moment was uneven for me; on the one hand, the Handmaid solidarity was excellent, but the self-congratulatory use of Michael Bublé’s “Feeling Good” kind of ruined it. But the “I’m sorry, Aunt Lydia” was perfect, considering the episode opened with a flashback where Lydia forces June to apologize to her for the first of many times.
Of course, Gilead isn’t brought down with dropped stones. The Handmaids still file away to their respective households, and Offred finds a black van waiting for her at the Waterfords’. This is where we return to the book’s ending, where she doesn’t know whether to fear her fate or be serene. Nick tells her to trust him—Nick, who openly embraces her in front of Serena Joy when he discovers she’s pregnant. Maybe, like Offred, he knows that she is untouchable now; perhaps that’s when he begins planning this extraction. But a car comes, and Nick tells her it’s going to be OK.
Before she is pulled away, Offred passes on the location of the letters to Rita, who finds them behind the bathtub. Rita is not who I would have expected to take on the package; if anything, I had briefly entertained Offred somehow smuggling the letters to the Salvaging and leaving one in each of the Handmaids’ bonnets. Yes, this would have been impossible, but wouldn’t it have been a great visual? At any rate, the point stands: The letters must be delivered in one package to ensure their veracity and effectiveness as a mass narrative. Rita and Offred’s relationship has developed so slowly over the course of the season that their tenderness in this episode still came as a surprise. When Rita thought Offred might be pregnant in “Late,” she gave her preferential treatment because she knew that a baby would save their household. When the pregnancy happens for real, there seems to be genuine joy and care in how she holds Offred.
Offred leaves behind the Waterfords with no message beyond a smirk—enjoyment at their panic as they watch their pregnant Handmaid taken away. They are powerless to stop her, and possess enough secrets between them that either could be to blame for the Eyes’ sudden arrival. I hope that we return to the Commander and Serena Joy next season, as this episode spooled out several fascinating threads of their dynamic: She tells him that it’s not his child, insulting his manhood and his worthiness in the eyes of God. He deflects his infidelity onto her, blaming her for bringing temptation into the household (presumably when she tried to help him with performance issues during the failed Ceremony). But he quickly changes his tune after the Leaders of the Faith condemn Commander Warren for his philandering with Janine, all based on his Wife’s testimony and desire for her husband to have the harshest possible punishment—that is, his hand cut off. Suddenly Fred is all about this family and raising another man’s child, anything to stay on Serena Joy’s good side. Before she’s taken away, Offred asks him to protect Hannah from his Wife, but I don’t think she should put much stock in his power there. I didn’t think I would say this at the end of this season, but I really want to see Serena Joy take over the household.
But for now, we drive away from the Waterfords’ home, in a black van carrying a serene Offred. I have to admit, I briefly wondered if it were going to be Luke behind the wheel, spiriting her away. Instead, we got just as satisfying of a reunion: Moira makes it to Ontario, to a refugee center. In one of the episode’s best scenes, excellent for how bizarre it was, Moira wanders through the room as her case worker hands her clothes, money, a prepaid cell phone, and health insurance—basic human decency, no strings attached. Her trembling disbelief is heartbreaking. Then Luke appears, because he had her on his list of family. Reuniting these two was an unexpected move but will hopefully lead to a united front from the Canadian side next season, as Offred is spirited away to god-knows-where.
Weirdly, I feel about as serene as Offred about where she’s headed. In part, I think, because the series has expanded its scope to include so many other characters that I have faith that, whether Offred is headed to the Underground Femaleroad or the Colonies, there will be a way for her to return to her family—or, at the least, for The Handmaids’ Tale to get into the right hands.
What do you want to see happen in season 2?
Natalie Zutter still can’t believe she got to see one of her favorite books in such a powerful adaptation, and that there’s more to come! Share your season 2 theories with her here or on Twitter.