The Handmaid’s Tale closes a messy season with a surprisingly satisfying finale

Hulu

June embarks on a dangerous mission, as the show attempts to justify its recent creative choices.

Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team gather to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Emily VanDerWerff and staff writer Constance Grady discuss “Mayday,” the third season finale.

Emily VanDerWerff: Watching a largely satisfying finale to a season of TV that never quite came together can feel like watching the ending of a different story than the one previously being told. It’s as if, for a brief moment, the show has provided a glimpse into an alternate universe where the season was everything it could have been.

Such an episode is “Mayday,” which is an altogether stronger finale than the weak closer that capped off The Handmaid’s Tale season two, if not quite to the level of the season one ending. While I would not call “Mayday” a perfect episode of television, from the moment that plane of kids landed in Canada — where they were greeted (somewhat improbably, but whatever) by Luke, Moira, and Emily — to the moment June closed her eyes to rest, possibly for eternity, I was all-in in a way I rarely have been this season. (Also, music by Mazzy Star, courtesy of their mournful song “Into Dust,” was a nice step outside of the show’s usual troll-y hits.)

This is what I wanted season three to be, I thought. Imperfect but interested in difficult questions about where the dividing line is between terrorist and revolutionary, and trying to figure out just how far gone June Osborne is. But, alas, we ended up with something very, very different and much messier.

Was the show we were watching different from the show the creative team thought they were making?

June might have to resort to violence to accomplish her plan.Hulu
June contemplates a handgun.

What’s interesting is that I have some support for the idea that the show we were watching was very different from the one all involved thought they were making — from the show’s actors and producers themselves. Earlier this month, my wife attended the red carpet for the finale screening in Los Angeles, and she overheard several of them talking to press about the season as though June had gone full antihero. Elisabeth Moss, in particular, seems to have been playing June as a suicide bomber all season long, a choice that makes much more sense of her entire arc.

Normally, I would write off the June-as-antihero idea as spin from a show that lost the thread a bit and is trying to insist that, no, you guys, it was totally intentional. But I’ve gotten enough emails from fans of The Handmaid’s Tale in recent weeks to think that, for whatever reason, the show really was trying to develop the antiheroic side of June, in a way that worked for some people but just didn’t land for me.

There’s power to the notion that a great hero of a resistance movement is often just a little bit too far gone to ever regain her old self, that she will sacrifice her soul and maybe even her life to the cause. But the show never seemed especially comfortable living in that space, filled as it was with constant reminders that June is a hero.

Far more compelling might have been a more forthright examination of what it means to be a self-destructive mess who, nonetheless, does a heroic thing, because you’ve entirely given up on the idea of being anything other than a martyr to the cause. (And to be fair, that theme was present in the season, particularly in the early episodes.) But the meandering journey from “June wants to blow stuff up” to “June gets a bunch of kids and Marthas out of Gilead” never had the clean throughline it desperately needed.

There’s plenty to talk about in this episode, Constance, but I want to lead with a pretty big question: Are we supposed to think that June has died, all evidence to the contrary?

Constance Grady: Oh wow, I would honestly love it if June was dead.

Look, obviously Elisabeth Moss is a treasure who has done some wonderful work on this show. But The Handmaid’s Tale does not seem to know how to be about June without also being about June’s specialness, and I have already discussed at some lengths my problems with that angle. If the show killed June off, maybe it could go full anthology as you suggested a few weeks ago, Emily — and then maybe it could find ways to open different windows into this world without turning every point of view character into a Chosen One. Plus, the final voiceover about June becoming, I guess, God in order to save her people from evil men is as fitting a close to this weird and messy arc as any.

But in actuality, no, I cannot imagine that we are supposed to think June is dead. The Handmaid’s Tale’s brand at this point is basically red dresses and Elisabeth Moss’s face looking grim; what does the show even have to sell without her?

And if June is sticking around as the centerpiece of The Handmaid’s Tale, there are worse ways to convince me that the show can work with her presence than this finale. “Mayday” is absolutely the most satisfying ending to the “June becomes ruthless but also the only one who can Save the Day” arc that I can imagine, mostly because for once there are some fucking consequences.

June doesn’t just luck into anything on this mission. Multiple problems arise, and she has to find a way to fix them. The way she fixes them is messy and causes more problems, and she then has to repair those. That is all that I wanted all along!

“Mayday” also benefits from returning to the theme of Handmaid solidarity that made the season one finale so effective. When the Handmaids and Martha work together distract the Eyes by pelting them with stones, it’s an effective reimagining of the scene in “Night” in which all of the Handmaids refuse to stone a prisoner to death — only now their resistance has moved away from a passive refusal to comply into an active push back against the state.

If June is going to be a resistance leader, that’s the kind of resistance I want to see: one based not in June’s unique specialness, but in class solidarity, in groups of people working together to overcome an oppressive state. That’s the kind of grounding that can help move The Handmaid’s Tale out of the realm of fantasy and back toward thinking about how power works and travels, how it can be abused, and how it can be resisted — even just by ordinary people who are working together and don’t have any kind of destiny or special plot armor to protect them.

But while June is off in Gilead setting children free, Serena Joy just got arrested in Canada. You’ve by and large been interested in Serena’s arc this season, Emily. Did her arrest work for you?

This finale sets up a potentially intriguing divide between the show’s Gilead half and its Canada half

Rita and June share a quiet moment in the woods.Hulu
Rita gets out of Gilead, headed to Canada.

Emily: The whole story with Fred and Serena feels like the show is kicking that particular can down the road, which I understand but which means they almost could have been cut from these final two episodes without much fuss.

The cliffhanger of episode 11 — where we wondered if Serena betrayed Fred as the two of them were arrested — would have functioned far better as a place to leave their story than Fred offering up what intelligence he has on Gilead (or, more accurately, what intelligence he can get away with offering up without endangering his standing within Gilead, should he be released) and Serena being arrested again (and this time seemingly for good) based on what Fred told Tuello. It’s marking time, just a little bit, especially since it’s hard to imagine this story ending in any other way for either of them than lifetime imprisonment or the death penalty.

One interesting thing to note is how the show has bifurcated itself in such a way that a small majority of the series regulars are now in Canada. Left behind in Gilead are June, Janine, Aunt Lydia, and Commander Lawrence (and since Bradley Whitford is on a new show set to debut this fall on NBC, who knows if he’ll even be back). Everybody else — including Rita, who escapes with the kids — is in Canada. (Nick is also in Gilead, technically, but since he appeared in all of two episodes this season, I’m starting to think he’s no longer a major part of the story.)

Much of season three’s best material was in Canada, and if season four is going to set up some sort of Underground Railroad parallel to get kids and women out of Gilead with June and Janine on one end (with an occasional assist from Lawrence) and Moira, Emily, Rita, and Luke on the other, then I’m all for it, as a way to knit the Canada characters into the story. (That June is now sort of symbolically Harriet Tubman is, like, what’s pictured in the dictionary next to the definition of white feminism, but let’s set that aside for a second.)

But one drawback of the Gilead/Canada divide is that the villains on the show no longer possess the intimacy they had in the first and second seasons. In those seasons, we knew Fred and Serena up close, in a deeply personal way. Watching them could turn your stomach. Now, with both of those characters in jail and many of the other characters free in Canada, we’re dealing with a much more generic “fight the dystopian regime” story where the man that June kills in this episode is functionally not a character but, instead, a faceless official of Gilead.

Maybe that’s necessary! If June really is going to move more into the world of resistance fighting (presuming that she’s not, y’know, dead), she’s inevitably going to have to see the people she kills or hurts as nothing more than the side they are aligned with. It’s a necessary psychological shift for those who go into battle. But for viewers, that shift will sap yet another element of grim horror from the show.

With that said, if season three had been another slog through the oppressions of Gilead, we’d inevitably have a completely different set of complaints. “Mayday” establishes so efficiently the terror of this world with that cold open flashback set after June was first captured and brought to some sort of Gilead processing center that it makes everything after that scene feel more satisfying somehow. I’m not always a fan of Mike Barker’s direction, but his use of flashing lights to just briefly illuminate this sequence created a great sense of chaos and horror, and it served as another reminder of how far June has come from the pilot.

Or, at least, that’s what the episode wants us to think. There are so many overlaps between this finale and The Handmaid’s Tale’s first season that my primary argument for June being dead is that the show is clearly trying to bring some portion of its story to a close, even as I know the business realities of “We have Elisabeth Moss under contract, and even if her movie career is starting to take off, we’re going to take full advantage of that.”

“Mayday” in some ways seems like a new pilot for the show, establishing it as more action-oriented but still weirdly intimate. The only big action beat in “Mayday,” after all, is June shooting a man in some lonely woods. The episode works on its own terms, so long as you ignore everything that led into it.

So that brings us to the inevitable question: After watching “Mayday,” are you more or less interested in season four? And what do you think of The Handmaid’s Tale’s new split between Canada and Gilead?

Serena and Nichole share a few small moments together.Hulu
Serena gets a few moments of happiness, before they’re taken away.

Constance: The season three finale has me feeling much like I did after the season three premiere: uninterested in so much of what has come before, yet cautiously optimistic about the future. But after experiencing everything that came between, my optimism is now much, much more cautious.

At the end of season two of The Handmaid’s Tale, I did not expect to enjoy this show ever again. I thought that what the show did best was evoke the horror and claustrophobia and dread of living under a totalitarian government, and I had no interest in watching it become a rape revenge superhero show, as the final episodes of season two seemed to portend.

But the season three premiere put a lot of other stuff in motion that I thought was potentially compelling. I was really looking forward to seeing what would happen to Emily in Canada as she recovered from her PTSD. I thought the setup of Joseph’s brand of cosmopolitan Reddit-inflected misogyny could mean The Handmaid’s Tale was going to update its fairly ’80s-era understanding of gender politics to look at how today’s misogynists operate. I wasn’t particularly drawn in by any of what happened with June (plotting rebellion) or Serena (feeling sad), but I thought there was enough other good material floating around that the season might be worth sticking with.

As has proven to be a pattern with The Handmaid’s Tale, at least for me, none of the ideas I thought were potentially interesting ever got much screen time (I still have no idea what the fuck Joseph thought he was doing building Gilead, and boy did Emily disappear after a few episodes). Instead, the show devoted itself to the things I did not care about, like June being special and Serena being sad. While there were a few stray great moments to mine from those plotlines (June trapped in the hospital, Fred and Serena talking in the forest), by and large, they never rose above the level of “generic government resistance stuff I could find on many many other TV shows.”

There was a lot that I liked in this finale, and a lot that I would be interested to see thematically continued in season four. The Handmaids banding together to forge an alliance with the Marthas was great. June trying to decide if she was going to have to kill anyone who fell out of line was actually pretty interesting. Moira and Emily both existed and were onscreen!

But this show has such a spotty track record at dealing with the themes I find most compelling that I have to assume that, going forward, all of these ideas will come up again just often enough to tantalize me before drifting lazily out of sight again. I could even get invested in watching Serena Joy be miserable in Canadian prison, if we hadn’t already seen that sending someone to Canada just means they are no longer on the show for half a season at a time.

So here’s to what is most likely going to be another season of getting frustrated with The Handmaid’s Tale, of badly wanting it to be a show that it is not interested in being, but still holding out hope while watching it do something lazy and mediocre instead. Cool.

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