The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale has ended on a massive cliffhanger - but what does it all mean?
Fair warning: This article contains spoilers for episode 12 of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale (and drops some heavy-handed hints about what’s to come later, too).
The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale has proven every bit as gripping as the first - but the finale left many viewers feeling… well, if not seriously angry, then very confused.
And it’s easy to see why.
For a very long time, we have been invested in June (Elisabeth Moss) and her plans to flee Gilead. Indeed, we began this season in the back of a van, as our titular Handmaid hoped against hope that the driver had been sent by Mayday to rescue her and take her to Canada.
Since then, we have seen her navigate Mayday’s underground railroad in a desperate act to get herself out of Gilead once and for all. We have seen her recaptured, brainwashed, and forced back into life at the Waterford house. We have seen her attempt to steal a car, to forge her own last desperate attempt at the border, only to be thwarted by her own body: she had to give up when she went into labour with her daughter, Holly.
So we wanted so much to believe that, come the season finale, June would finally get the f**k out of this dystopian nightmare.
Everything began so promisingly: Rita (Amanda Brugel) and her fellow Marthas had decided to risk everything in order to get June and Holly to Canada. To do this, they set a nearby house on fire as a distraction, before smuggling her out through a series of alleyways and tunnels. Even a run-in with Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) didn’t stop the plan: instead of insisting June hand her baby back to her, Serena tearfully wished Holly/Nicole goodbye, and let June disappear into the night.
We then followed June on her journey to the side of a deserted road, where she sang songs to her baby girl and remembered the daughter she had already lost to the system. As she showed Holly a well-thumbed photo of Hannah (“this is your sister”), a van pulled up alongside her - with Emily (Alexis Bledel) already sat inside it.
It offered June a direct route to freedom. But she didn’t take it.
It was easily the show’s most stunning moment yet. The door was open, the road was empty, the decision clear: all June had to do was step inside the van, strap herself in and let the driver whisk her away to freedom.
Rather than clamber inside the van, though, she instead handed her baby to Emily (“call her Nicole”) and watched her only means of escape drive off into the metaphorical sunset. Decision made, June then wrapped herself up inside her red hood, turned on her heel and began walking back the way she came.
So why did she do it?
Well, the answer was offered up to us in the form of a flashback: Hannah is still in Gilead. And, for June, the idea of leaving while one of her daughters is still trapped inside a dangerously misogynist society isn’t just unthinkable: it’s truly abhorrent.
Speaking to Vanity Fair, Bruce Miller - the showrunner of The Handmaid’s Tale - explains: “June is diving back into Gilead because she thinks there’s things she can do. And I think initially, the thing she thinks she can do is just get her f**king daughter out.”
He adds: “If she could snap her fingers and get Hannah and leave, she would do it immediately. If that becomes more difficult - which, it seems to be somewhere between difficult and impossible in the real world - then I think hurting Gilead or weakening Gilead is the best way she can plow the ground for her daughter.
“That’s the thing she can do from the inside that she wouldn’t be able to do from Canada.”
We get that, we really do. But, with a missing baby, a furious Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and an almost-dead Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) to contend with, it is difficult to imagine that June will have the easiest time striving for change from within the Waterford’s home. Particularly when Serena finds out she’s handed her baby over to a notoriously violent Handmaid.
All we can do, we suppose, is hang on to the fact that Margaret Atwood’s original tale promises us a happier ending of some kind.
As readers will no doubt remember, the final chapter of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is dubbed ‘Historical Notes’ and takes place in 2195, years after the events described by June take place – and long after Gilead, a version of America, has ceased to exist.
A character named Professor Pieixoto delivers a lecture in Nunavit, Canada, about the Gileadian period of American history and the ‘Mayday Rebellion’.
Pieixoto also discusses the story of an unnamed Handmaid (June) detailed in recorded tapes found decades after the fall of Gilead – and explained that they were found behind the false wall of an “ancient house”. After some probing from his audience, he adds that he doubts June was ever reunited with her daughter – and hints that the situation for Gilead’s women grew even worse before it get better.
But, when an attendee asks the professor if June was a secret member of the Mayday Rebellion, he pauses. Admitting he can’t be certain, he reveals he believes June did partake in her own resistance efforts, but that she hid all evidence of it – even from her own confessional tale – in a bid to protect herself from the repressive habits of authoritarian regimes.
Musing on the role this epilogue will play in the show, Miller has said: “This account of what happened exists means that somehow some way, June got that account out. And that to me sets a story of kind of the triumph of the human spirit and hope that everything else kind of pales in comparison.”
He adds: “The fact that this woman survived and told her story in this place is certainly encourages me to get off my ass and do something politically in these strange times we live.”
So, yes, things will get worse before they get better. However, it seems as if there is there is definitely still hope for June – and, if Miller has his way, The Handmaid’s Tale is building up to a beautiful and hope-fuelled finale.
Too bad we have to wait another year to find out how things play out.
Previous episode: Postpartum
Image: Hulu / Channel 4