Ring those salvaging bells: The day of reckoning is upon us! Hulu’s big prestige drama “The Handmaid’s Tale” has given us 10 dark but incredibly thought-provoking episodes, and the season finale has arrived.
We start with Offred’s early days at The Red Centre; the classic Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” is playing over the title card. I’d like to think that even if Shakers approved of the Pringle bonnets, they would still draw the line at female enslavement.
The new recruits follow Aunt Lydia in sloppy, swerving lines: it’s precious that they haven’t learned to maintain order out of fear yet. Aunt Lydia forces them to learn proper Handmaid Etiquette — hands clasped, heads down, can’t lose. Offred doesn’t quite get the hang of hanging her head, so she is introduced to Aunt Lydia’s helpful classroom aide Mr. Taser and then forced to apologize.
Having passed Intermediate Hand Clasping with a C average, Offred is dragged to a dark, dark room with a single chair. She sits down, and Aunt Lydia reveals that this has all been an elaborate setup to get her to understand the true meaning of Christmas. In reality, she wheels out a large machine with a hose and a staple gun attached. She goes on about how life is precious and sacred before tagging Offred like an animal, and I’m absolutely not surprised that Aunt Lydia is the kind of woman who gives you a three count and stabs you after one.
In present day Gilead, Offred hides the package she received from Moira and the kindly butcher, wedging it behind the tub. Her mission halfway accomplished, she heads out to see if there is anything in the snack cupboard, when Serena suddenly appears and slaps her hard into the wall.
“You could have left me with something,” she bellows, referring to the fact that Offred was forced to go out with her husband to a sex club at the risk of her life.
Serena makes Offred take a pregnancy test, which, as we previously learned through Nick, is considered a black market item like organs or Marie Claire subscriptions.
“Get on your knees and pray this makes you worthy in some way,” Serena says. Revealingly, she is the one who ends up on her knees, begging with all that she has for a positive result. She wants to have a child more than anything, both out of longing for a family and the desire to fulfill the biological destiny she considers so critical.
Serena’s wish is granted, and she rejoices to Offred that, “their prayers have been answered!” Offred scoffs and tells Serena that she would never pray for a baby to be born in this house in a million years. Times infinity.
When Commander Waterford comes home, he finds Serena sitting in his office. At first they play a game of delicate denial, Serena offering to play Scrabble and Commander Waterford talking about all of the fancy important work he needs to do and casually throwing out the fact that she isn’t even allowed to read — but the charade breaks down quickly. Serena confronts him about his tryst with Offred, which she knows happened because she found lipstick on the collar of her own cloak. Plot twist: I didn’t know I was the one cheating on me all along!
Commander Waterford blames her for bringing “lust and temptation” into the house, and so as much as I dislike Serena, I rooted for her lashing out.
“[The baby] isn’t yours. You can’t father a child because you aren’t worthy!” We’ll ignore the biological disconnect in that argument and say good for you Serena! Waterford is a man waiting to be punched.
Rita is once again all aglow with the prospect of having a baby in the house, though after hearing about her son in Episode 9, I’ve come to view the eagerness with more sympathy. Nick arrives and Offred tells him Serena knows about her nightly visits with The Commander … that and Offred is pregnant, most likely with Nick’s child.
“It’s terrible,” she whispers. In a tender moment, Nick places his hand on her belly, and gently replies, “no, it’s not.” They hold hands across her stomach, and for a brief second of starlight I’m on #TeamNick again. Serena stands in the background, watching them with a mixture of sadness and envy like the third wheel in a telenovela. Offred has everything she desires at the moment: a child on the way, attention from her husband, pure affection from someone. Despite all the green trimmings, her life is pretty empty.
You’re tempted to feel bad for her, but all the sympathy drains in the next scene. She interrupts their moment of peace and orders Offred into a van, without Nick, for a long drive. Where they’re going is a mystery, and Offred has been instructed not to touch the curtains blocking the outside world. They pull up to a stately manor, and Serena tells Offred she is not to leave the van at any time. She enters the house, and moments later out comes Hannah, clad in a rosy pink uniform for well-bred Gilead children. Offred goes to pieces. She screams to be let out, banging on the windows and trying desperately to be heard. “Let me out! That’s my daughter!” she roars. Enormous credit here to Elisabeth Moss for covering all possible octaves of grief. But it’s not enough: Hannah is led back inside and Serena steps up into the front seat as casually if she were just dropping off a friend’s left-behind sweater.
“As long as my baby is safe, so is yours,” she says, resuming her knitting.
Offred replies: YOU B&*2=91 MOTHER ^@!**!_CRAZY %^!@ I should stick a #^@&!)*@)! And then you’ll know &#@)(U@! &*@#$! YOU EVIL #%^$@00*@ AND YOUR MOM IS TOO.
While Serena is off playing mind games with Offred, Warren Putnam testifies in The Court of Gilead, taking responsibility for his lust toward Janine and the subsequent damage to his family. He asks for mercy, and in the council deliberations, Commander Waterford is inclined to give it to him — basically saying boys will be boys, and Putnam seems awfully sorry. I wonder if there is a reason why he feels compelled to go lenient on a man who lusted after his Handmaid. Huh, I’ll have to sit with that one for a while.
Other members of the committee, including Nick’s direct supervisor C-Eye-A, don’t want to appear biased, especially given that Mrs. Putnam came to them and asked for the harshest punishment. So Mr. Putnam is to lose a hand, and we watch as it is removed, graphically yet with surgical precision.
Offred is scarred after Serena’s cruel and manipulative threat, and in desperation she seeks out Commander Waterford for help protecting Hannah. He assures her that Mrs. Waterford would only hurt someone if it gave her power and influence over others, and being a woman there’s no way she could want those manly things! Offred is not convinced of his judgment of his wife’s character, but all Waterford is concerned about is the new child.
“Is it mine?” he asks.
“You do that so well.” He means lying!
Needing a win after an objectively terrible day, Offred opens the package from The Maydayers. Inside are countless letters from women across the country forced to become Handmaids and separated from their children. Though the accounts are harrowing, Offred has long needed to feel as though she is not alone, and she can’t help but smile as she reads story after story, everyone processing the same horrible experience.
Speaking of shared sisterhood and nightmare scenarios: what ever happened to Moira and her awesome disguise? We get our answer to that in this episode, as well.
Moira struggles through wintry tundra. I guess viewers complained that her survival efforts weren’t authentic enough, so she has ditched the car she stole in order to trudge through snow-covered fields on foot. She finds shelter in a nearby barn and hides herself in the garage. Wiping the dust from the license plate of the stored car, she realizes with joy that the plates are for Ontario. Canada! The land of the freezing, the home of the brave!
From there, Moira makes it to a refugee shelter. Her caseworker is extremely attentive, taking care of her most basic needs and providing her with plenty of materials to help start a life in Canada. Moira’s eyes widen with every gesture of kindness. She’s not used to such warmth, and that is most keenly indicated when he gives her choices about what she would like to do with her evening. Choice … is that some kind of French pastry? Shortly after arriving, she receives a surprise visitor — Luke had her on his list of family, so he was set up with text alerts if she were ever to make it into Canada. I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Offred wakes up in the pile of letters to the sound of the three bells: there is a salvaging today. Sadly, we don’t get to see how she manages to get all of the letters back into a neat stack — the director said they had to cut for time — but we are treated to a delightful interaction with her and Ofglen #2 that basically amounts to “shut up/no you shut up.”
It’s the dead of winter, and snow is falling on the ceremonial field. The Handmaids shiver in the cold while Aunt Lydia gushes over the beauty of God’s holy winter, which has its beauties and its evils. Please proceed to the giant pile of rocks and select one that most closely resembles a celebrity, for there is to be a stoning.
Aunt Lydia says that the harming of a child is the greatest sin of all, and we immediately can guess who is about to be brought into the circle. Sweet Janine. They kept her alive not to use her as a fertility vase, but to make her an example, and The Handmaids will have to throw stones at her until the point of death. The women look around at each other in horror. This is not a nameless perp — this is one of their own, someone who has sacrificed and lost so much, just like they all have, and there is no artificial duty that can make them forget that.
This empathy is so powerful that the first person to stand up and plead for Janine’s life isn’t Offred or Alma — it’s Ofglen #2, Offred’s walking partner, who up until this point has shown nothing but loyalty to the established rules. She refuses to kill Janine, and for that she is struck in the face with a patrolmen’s rifle. They drag her away, and Aunt Lydia blows her whistle. The girls stand motionless. Offred steps forward and the patrolmen point their guns at her and order her back. At that point Aunt Lydia finally comes down from her podium to stop them from harming the girls but also to yell at everyone for not behaving.
Offred takes another step, puts out her stone laden hand, and drops the rock onto the ground.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Lydia,” she says.
One by one, all of the other Handmaids follow suit, dropping their rocks and apologizing to Aunt Lydia. We love you, Miss Hannigan!
Unable to handle these youths and their disregard for the town’s ban on dancing, Aunt Lydia orders everyone home, forewarning Offred that there will be consequences for her actions. The Handmaids walk in pairs down a long street and peel off to their residences to the soundtrack of the incomparable Nina Simone. A small victory in the service of a friend, they are Feeling Good, indeed.
That is until the consequences Aunt Lydia describe pull up to The Waterford residence. Offred can see them coming from her window upstairs, and she quietly awaits their entry. Nick comes through first and soothingly whispers something akin to “they have snacks, you’ll be alright,” and Offred walks placidly ahead with the guards. Serena hears the commotion and demands to know what is going on because do you even know who her husband is?
The patrolmen won’t be dissuaded, though, and neither will Offred. She walks out, head held high. We get a crucial cut to Rita, reaching behind the bathtub and bringing out the pack of letters. The patrolmen bring her out to the windowless van, and she steps inside, toward darkness but possibly the light.