Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale ends in some ways as it began; June is as defiant in episode 13 as she was in episode 1. But over the course of this season it seems her defiance has spread throughout Gilead like a whisper in every woman’s ear. Her story is no longer one of self-preservation. She’s now the woman who will save everyone.
‘The Word’ obviously refers to the word of God and it is shown in the episode that to have knowledge of the word of God, to understand it, especially in its written form is to be free. To understand defiance in the face of overwhelming adversity and terrifying tyranny is also to be free, if not in body, at least in spirit. The difference between the season two premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale and the season finale is that now female defiance in Gilead is happening everywhere.
The first scene of ‘The Word’ is a hint of the rebellion that is to come. June (Elisabeth Moss), still reeling from Eden’s (Sydney Sweeney) execution, collects Eden’s clothes drying outdoors. In a dreamlike voice-over June recites the different roles for women in Gilead: Wife, Handmaid, Martha. Slowly her list evolves in to the names women are given and the societal stereotypes they are slotted into: Queen, Bitch, Mother, Daughter, Girlfriend. As the camera focuses on Eden’s clothes, all that is left of her existence, floating in the bright sunshine, we are encouraged to mentally group all the women of Gilead together, their differences stripped away. It is a beautiful scene and it is not the last time the writers of The Handmaid’s Tale will encourage us to view the different female factions of Gilead as an oppressed collective.
As June packs away Eden’s clothes she finds a Bible secreted away amongst her possessions. Eden’s Bible is truly heartbreaking with its handwritten notes in between the lines of scripture and its childish doodles in the margins. She was trying to understand the word of God, an endeavour that Gilead has always maintained is important. The only problem is that under the regime’s law, women are not allowed to read. Eden was trying to be pious but everyone eventually falls foul of Gilead, not matter how much you try to obey its rules. In a system which makes no allowances for the thoughts, emotions or bodies of women, no Wife, Handmaid, Aunt or Martha is beyond reproach or danger. What is truly amazing about The Handmaid’s Tale is that until now it has been self-preservation that has prevented women from rising up to overthrow the system. In ‘The Word’ it is the preservation of future female generations that finally spurs multiple women to take action.
One of these women is Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and I feel like I have been waiting for her to rebel for a very long time. Faced with Eden’s Bible, she initially baulks at the idea of taking action. The acting in this episode between Moss and Strahovski is some of the finest work from the two of them in all of the series. June’s face is filled with disappointment, Serena’s is filled with devastation. June knows Serena is far too intelligent to presume baby Nicole could ever be safe in this society. How can she ever grow up to understand God if she is never allowed to read his words?
This is the start of Serena’s fight for women to be allowed to read the Bible and her mobilising the Wives in the cause (something we have never seen in the series before). Serena’s loss of a finger for her efforts and the final betrayal of her dictator-like husband is devastating but it is a small price to pay for her finally waking up to Gilead’s all-consuming patriarchy. It could be said that Serena got off lightly with her punishment, considering the forced rape that June has had to endure all these years. But I did feel her pain, especially since Serena has always been a character I have both despised and empathised with, mostly because the writers have wisely never written her as a simple villain.
In the end we expect better things for our children than we do for ourselves and Serena realises that if Fred (Joseph Fiennes) is willing to take his wife’s finger, what might he do to his own daughter when she inevitably steps out of line someday? It is this realisation that forces Serena to make the ultimate sacrifice for her adopted daughter, to let her go so that she can escape with June.
Fred Waterford behaves in much the same way he has throughout most of season two, with a high level of male arrogance and self-belief. His authoritative calmness is perplexing since he is rapidly losing control over the women in his household. June now openly defies him, both physically and verbally, which not only angers him but seems to excite him. Her resistance arouses him as much as the power he has over her. He rarely seems to feel the same way about Serena, becoming more distant from her the more she rails against him. But then June only humiliates him in private, whereas Serena challenged him in public.
Aside from Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), Waterford is the show’s biggest hypocrite, a man who hides behind the words of the Bible while breaking Gilead’s religious rules in his own home. It is not a surprise that he threatens June one moment and then propositions her the next. He’s immune to the growing resistance in his home until the very last moment, when I was delighted to finally see a look of panic on his face when he realises his Handmaid and precious baby are gone.
There are so many satisfying scenes in this finale. Although normally not a fan of violence, I confess that I cheered when the horrendous Aunt Lydia was attacked by Emily (Alexis Bledel), who was later bundled into a car to safety by her bizarre Commander (Bradley Whitford). I was even more delighted when June, in a truly breathtaking act of defiance, slapped Waterford across the face right after he had hit her. Nick (Max Minghella) finally got to hold his baby daughter, and for just a moment pretended to be a family with June. Even Rita (Amanda Brugel) was a joy to watch, instead of quietly tiptoeing around the kitchen, she was glaring at Waterford, icing June’s slapped cheek and calling the Handmaid ‘a badass.’
I am ashamed to admit it, but I underestimated Rita. I underestimated all the Marthas. I was expecting the rebellion to start with the Handmaids, but instead it begins with the Marthas. The Handmaids have committed acts of violence and terrorism, the Wives have stood up to the Commanders in their own council chamber, but both groups have ultimately failed to make any real dent in the iron will of Gilead. It is the Marthas’ small quiet organised resistance that succeeds, for they smuggle a baby, the most precious commodity that the regime possesses, out of the country. These quiet servants, dressed in grey, hiding in plain sight, are the perfect resistance network with each one of them stationed securely in the household of a Commander.
In the end June and baby Nicole successfully meet Emily at the edge of the city and close to freedom. Although it is a pleasure to see Emily escape Gilead with the baby, I always knew that June would not leave with them. The series has been renewed for a third season and so the story must continue. But I believe June will never leave Gilead. She’s not meant to. Even if we as viewers desperately desire freedom for her. She is the person who is fated to bring down the regime. Her perspective has changed since season one. How can she leave all those women? The Marthas that helped her. The Wives that asked that women be allowed to read. The Handmaids who whispered their names to her in secret. How when she has seen the sacrifice Serena made for Nicole, can June leave her daughter Hannah behind? And so June turns away from freedom and lifts her red hood like some avenging angel to the strains of Talking Heads’ ‘Burning Down The House.’ The ‘Word’ isn’t ‘God’ after all. The word is ‘Go.’ Go June! Go get Hannah. Go free the women of America. Go burn Gilead to the ground.