You can always count on something serious to go down on every episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, so we’d expect nothing less from the season finale. Much life the end of the first season, the show throws us some truly jaw-dropping moments, then ends on a cliffhanger that leaves us wondering just what will happen to not only June, but everyone.
“The Word” begins with the women in the Waterford household, be they Wife, Martha, or Handmaid, wrestling with the aftermath of Eden’s violent death. She left little behind, but what June discovers makes quite an impression. Eden not only had a Bible in her possession, she made notes in it. In a country where women who can read or write can be punished by dismemberment, Eden’s once common abilities are a remarkable thing.
It’s unappreciated by her father at least. When he comes to the Waterfords to apologize, he and Fred are more concerned with Eden’s infidelity than her death. They’re genuinely ashamed for her, so much so that Eden’s own father admits to freely and gladly turning his daughter in. It appalls June and leads her to give as good as she gets when the Commander’s abuse crosses from emotional to physical. He may have transformed into an outright villain long ago, but his new avowed hatred of women also represents just how much a society like this can eat away at a person’s soul, even when they seem to be in a favored position.
Fred’s other half is also inspired by June in a far different way. June is bold and smart enough to point out that Serena’s daughter won’t be able to prevent herself from trying to understand things much like Eden attempted to. Fearful for her child’s future, Serena tries to inspire the other Wives to make change. Seeing them all assemble before the condescending group of men to make their case is an interesting moment, even if it’s likely they would’ve have been informed on long before. The consequences are dire, as Serena is punished for her defiance (and having the nerve to publicly read aloud) with the loss of one of her fingers. Bafflingly, June is all sympathy, both her and the show seemingly forgetting that she was a willing participant in June’s rape not too long ago.
Emily is at least faring better, with her Commander deciding he’s not going to do the Ceremony with her. It doesn’t seem to lead to more stable behavior on her part, as she decides to literally stab Aunt Lydia in the back and push her down the stairs, with her ultimate fate unknown.
When Emily and June’s stories intersect at the episode’s end, it’s in an unexpected way that turns out to be another frustrating, if understandable, decision on the part of The Handmaid’s Tale. I wish the writers would try to be more realistic about June continuing the fight from afar, or maybe deciding to come back for her daughter Hannah’s sake if it feels such a need to keep her within Gilead’s grasp. The show is at its best when it shows how the human will to survive is constantly at odds with the desire for freedom in a totalitarian regime. When June does take risks and lose control, it’s supposed to showcase her transformation into a badass rebel. Instead, it comes off as a kind of fantasy wish fulfillment. The finale may give us another intriguing change of direction, not to mention great new characters like Commander Lawrence, but it’s also can’t help be somewhat hollow at its core.