“If I was going to try to hurt Gilead, the first thing I might do is kill all the Handmaids,” teases Bruce Miller.
Warning: this article contains spoilers for the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale – and drops some pretty heavy-handed hints about what’s to come in the show’s third series, too.
The Handmaid’s Tale may be based on a single novel by Margaret Atwood, but fans of the TV show are in it for the long haul: the story of June – or, to use her Gileadean name, Offred – has gone far beyond the book’s plot. And, with the third season due to land on Hulu and Channel 4 later this spring, many fans are wondering what will happen to our titular Handmaid now that she’s elected to remain behind in the shadows of Gilead.
Well, judging by the trailer – which aired for the first time during the 2019 Super Bowl – it seems as if June is done with following the rules. No longer will she smile, wear the red dress, wear the wings, shut her mouth, be a good girl, or roll over and spread her legs. Instead, she intends to fight for what’s rightfully hers – and she’s willing to win her freedom by any means possible.
“Wake up, America,” Elisabeth Moss’ voice can be heard saying in the trailer, as Gilead’s so-called ‘perfect’ world is seen bursting into flames.
In the book, of course, June’s story ends on the same intriguing cliffhanger as we saw at the end of season one: Moss’ character is ushered into the back of a van, with no way of knowing if she’s on her way to freedom or capture.
Since then, Bruce Miller’s show has explored what happens next: that black van didn’t spirit June across the border to Canada, it dumped her back at the Red Centre for some psychological torture at the hands of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). She briefly went on the run, but was recaptured at the border and sent back to the home of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). She struggled to come to terms with the baby growing inside her belly, and the idea that her unborn daughter would be raised within Gilead’s oppressive theocratic state. She fought to make her voice heard, to get her child out, to rescue her other daughter, Hannah… but, as a Handmaid, June found that she had little to no control over her own destiny.
No wonder, then, that she elected to remain behind when offered the chance to flee across the border with her baby. No wonder, then, that she determined to risk everything to save Hannah. And no wonder, then, that June has disguised herself in the grey garb of a Martha, so that she might better slip through the streets of Gilead unnoticed.
As Miller explained: “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 added: “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.”
However, as we all know too well, an attack on Gilead will always result in collateral damage. In the seventh episode of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale – simply titled After – we witnessed the aftermath of Ofglen 2 (Tattiawna Jones)’s shock suicide attack on the Red Centre.
“I heard 26 commanders [died],” noted one Handmaid, dressed in black. “[And] 31 of us.”
While the mass funeral was incredibly sombre, and the likes of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) seemed shaken by the loss of life, the dead were only ever referred to by their patriarchal Gileadean titles. Their real names were masked in anonymity, their human lives forgotten, their graves essentially unmarked.
The scene was a staunch reminder that, in Gilead, Handmaids are nothing but government assets – albeit ones which cannot be easily replaced. As Miller notes in an interview with the New York Times. “If I was going to try to hurt Gilead, the first thing I might do is kill all the Handmaids. You’re trying to weaken the state.”
He isn’t wrong: the deaths of 31 Handmaids saw Gilead forced to go back on its old laws and retrieve the fertile Unwomen from the Colonies. Imagine what the deaths of 50 Handmaids would do? 100? 150? Every single Handmaid in the district?
It was a sentiment echoed by producer Warren Littlefield, who added: “When you have this kind of world with these kinds of rules, there will be an uprising… and the consequences will be devastating for both sides.”
But could June really bring herself to kill her fellow Handmaids? Well, she might, if it was between their lives and that of her daughter. And the trailer does end with a shot of hundreds of Handmaids gathered in a twisted version of Washington DC (in the show, the famous Washington Monument is a giant cross) – making them the perfect target for an attack.
Well, and yet we know that June finds strength in numbers (“They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” she told us way back in season one). That she puts her faith in others (nothing else can explain why she bundled her newborn baby into Emily (Alexis Bledel)’s arms in the season two finale). That she has, in spite of the nightmarish punishments and executions and particicutions, found solace in acts of kindness (when she was bed-bound, and starving, and near madness, each of her fellow Handmaids broke the rules to silently place a scrap of food on her pillow). That she will, above all else, never let the bastards grind her down.
All together now? “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.”
Perhaps, then, June will direct her rage at Gilead, and Gilead alone.
“I think there is a happy ending and don’t think everything is always going to be terrible,” Miller told E! Online. “I believe in June and I believe that if The Handmaid’s Tale is the story we’ve decided to tell from this imaginary place of Gilead, if June’s story is the story we tell, we’ve told it because it’s a story of hope.”
He added: “I do feel like every episode where it ends and Offred is alive, June is alive, is a huge victory and story worth telling. To see how someone in this world doesn’t just survive, but in their own way find ways to live…
“In terms of an ending, I think this is a story of a woman getting out of bondage, so I think in the end that’s the story.”
Of course, 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.
Blessed be the spoilers, eh?