Just why did it take so long for The Handmaid’s Tale to get up to its old tricks? There’s barely been an episode where belief could be suspended enough to make June seem anything but invincible. But the season finale “Mayday” is a reminder of just how frail even the strongest person can become under unbearable pressure and that the world can offer hope rather than just grim reminders of its cruelty.
Or maybe this is just the first time in a while where we’re able to feel like there are actual stakes, perhaps because not everything revolves around June. The involvement of others means that characters we’ve grown to not just know, but care about, could feel the brunt of what Gilead reserves for those who step out of line. And everybody, I mean everybody, is thinking of the children.
Yes, they finally show up in “Mayday” and The Handmaid’s Tale makes a point to remind us just why it’s all been building to this. The conversation June has with a young girl who’s the same age as her own daughter would be too on-the-nose if it weren’t so beautifully done. When she asks just what it’s like outside, June tells her she can not only wear, read, and think what she wants, she doesn’t have to be a wife and mother if she doesn’t want to. The girl can only respond with, “What would I be?”
It’s all the more reason June has not only committed to sparing this girl and others like her to the horrors she’s suffered and witnessed, but a new ruthlessness. As the episode’s opening reveals, June got a taste of what was in store shortly after she was separated from her husband and child and found herself in a holding center reminiscent of a concentration camp. Traumatized and terrified in a night filled with flashing lights and alarms, cages, children with Down Syndrome being herded to an unknown fate, women being beaten, standing nude to be examined by doctors, or in June’s case, placed in a cage with other women and herded onto a truck with a still defiant, fiery Janine into a horrific future.
To June, the reason the men responsible triumphed can be traced to this ruthlessness and she’s committed to emulating it in order to secure her own victory. Thankfully, as The Handmaid’s Tale hardens June, it seems to remember there’s more to it than that. Moss has made June’s emotional journey watchable, if not always believable, again and again. And during the show’s most uneven season yet, there was an awe-inspiring commitment that no amount of repetition could ever degrade.
“Mayday” finally gives her some material that’s worth it. Things go wrong, last-minute changes occur that could stop the plan from succeeding. June and the women around her adapt. Lawrence wants to pull the plug and June faces him down. Then she and the frightened women who were once quivering in fear under Gilead’s thumb band together to actively fight so the kids can reach the plane that’s just beyond their reach at the eleventh hour. It is also June who makes herself a literal target just so they can get those few extra minutes that could literally provide a future for the next generation.
Once they arrive at that future in Canada, other cast members are there to welcome them, along with a few reunions that are all the more heartwarming for being completely unexpected. There’s far too little of Emily and June is given all the credit for it, but the sheer relief that occurs when this show remembers to pull itself out of its own malaise and do some good work thankfully outweighs it. Even the presence of the Waterfords doesn’t completely sour it, as Serena is finally punished for (of all things!) forcing Nick to impregnate June. As her American contact points out, even if Nick and June formed a relationship, it’s still rape. So Serena experiences some consequences and June is saved as we knew she would be. It’s just by the gentle, capable hands of her fellow handmaids, which makes all the difference.