Up until the closing episodes of season two the Handmaid’s Tale had been on a run of over 20 top class episodes. It made the transition from shortish book to expanded television story relatively seamlessly. The ending however leaves me frustrated.
Thematically the women of Gilead coming together to help June is the right choice and could have been a good ending for this story arc. It turning out that Rita knows about June and Nick’s relationship resolves a glaring plot hole. However, the suspension of disbelief is stretched beyond breaking point. It would be literally insane if season three didn’t start immediately with June and Nick being caught and executed. How either of them could possibly get away with their actions is hard to see and in that light the stupidity of June’s decision to go back risk negating both of their sacrifices.
Always when a series reach a point like this it’s fun to imagine what could have been done to ‘fix’ it. Obviously, it’s easier as a critic to look at and imagine what you could have done better than to be the team actually creating something. Nonetheless here are my thoughts on fixing the Handmaid’s Tale season two.
Firstly, I love the Canada stuff. Of all the expansion from the book to the television world I found this the most interesting, more so than much of the rest of Gilead’s workings which really we could have guessed about from the book narrative. It is in Canada however that I think season two makes a big misstep.
Episode nine sees the Commander and Serena on their diplomatic mission to Canada. This episode was originally intended to end with the rape of Serena. This was cut because it was felt to be gratuitous. Using rape as a plot point can be extremely problematic and I’m not saying that Serena needed to be sexually assaulted.
But by cutting this event – which could have been replaced with something thematically similar – the story arcs of season two seem thrown out of whack. Serena needed to realise at this point that her position within this patriarchal and theocratic society does not truly protect her. Her role in furthering a society based on gendered violence does not protect her from that violence. This lesson is later served by the amputation of her finger, but this seems to come in the wrong place within her story arc leaving her motivations muddled.
It’s basically a rule of film/television that the story punishes rapists. Murderers may get away with murder but as audiences we are trained to expect rapists are killed by the storytelling gods. The systematic rape inherent in the handmaid system is an exception to this rule because it takes place within the accepted rules of the setting. The later rape (episode 10) attempting to induce June’s labour does not escape this rule because it violates not only the audience’s external standards but the internal standards of Gilead. As an audience we are now expecting the Commander’s imminent death and this not being delivered at the culmination of the series leaves us with a sense of injustice. Not a sense of dramatic injustice internal to the story, but of external or meta injustice at the TV show.
The scenes at the house in episodes 10 and 11 then seem muddled and unsatisfactory. Nick being shot but not killed feels like the writers messing around with us and it is hard to sympathise with Serena.
So what should have happened?
In Canada Serena should have suffered in some way that starts her redemption arc. Secondly the scenes at the remote house in episodes 10 and 11 should have been the season finale. Nick’s shooting should have played out as it was but ended with his death protecting June and completing his arc. While June hides in the house and goes into labour the Commander and Serena’s argument over her attempts to influence the politics of Gilead should take place and he should put her in her place. They then arrive at the house ready to pull out June as the Commander threatens to send her to the colonies both women face a bleak future and a struggle between the Commander and June ensues. When it looks bleakest Serena intervenes at the last moment killing the Commander.
June begs Serena to come with and make her escape, but Serena can’t do this she intends to throw herself on the mercy of Gilead’s justice system. June then takes the car – the Commander’s vehicle which will not be stopped at most checkpoints – and her new born baby leaving for Canada. Serena kisses goodbye the child she knew she could have had had she been willing to continue in her role as Commander’s loyal wife.
In the final scene Serena is in a drap prison cell, the system she helped build has failed to grant her any mercy and dejected she awaits exportation to the colonies or death. However, at the last minute an official comes in. They inform Serena that she is pregnant. Her impossible wish has come true in a cruelly ironic way.
This sets up a season three where both Serena and June are ready to start new arcs. Serena becomes the titular handmaid while June escapes the Canada to tell her Handmaid’s Tale. We could follow June as she attempts to sell her story and bring attention to the situation Gilead. We could see her being gaslighted and her story rubbished. The need for closer economic relationships with Gilead and resentment against so many US refugees could turn the Canadian population against the Americans. She could be in television interviews with apologist talking heads and be accused of being just a mouthpiece for anti-Gilead reactionaries. There could even be a rising brotherhood of Jacob style political party in Canada. While this movement rose in America, June was too occupied with their own concerns and insulative by privilege to notice it. Now she is – like her mother – on the forefront of challenging it, but dismissed by many as an hysterical woman.