This is a deep dive into the events of Episode 13 of Series 2 of The Handmaid's Tale, which is available to stream now at SBS On Demand. Spoilers are a given, as we discuss all of the plot points within the episode.
Watch episode 13, 'The Word', at SBS On Demand (it's the finale!):
So that happened. And that other thing, too! Here we are at the end of series two, and we’ve hit the reset button. We’re ending the series much like we started it - with June, a van, and an ambiguous plan. The only differences now are that: a) she’s no longer pregnant, so there’s nothing that binds her to the Waterford house; b) Her baby is in the safe hands of Emily; and c) escape is no longer on her mind.
June’s decision to keep her boots on the ground and stay in the brutal hell hole that is Gilead, is the “WTF?!” moment we were anticipating/dreading/expecting as an end of series bombshell. Because, come on. She can’t leave! What’s The Handmaid’s Tale without its Handmaid?
Much as we might yearn to witness June get out and reclaim her name/agency/rights/humanity, the everywoman we know and love ain’t getting out until every last Commander and his enabler gets their comeuppance. Or she dies trying. (Gulp.)
The idea of legacy is very much on June’s mind this week, and we have the recently departed Eden to thank for its prominence. The remaining women in the Waterford household are recovering from the shock of losing their youngest member - in that incredible act of self-directed sacrifice, poolside. Rita, in particular, is wracked with grief for Eden and is beating herself up at having succumbed to that Gileadean trait of mistrusting a woman on sight, and disregarding her humanity. “I treated her like shit”, she admits to June, in a disclosure that pretty much speaks for all of us.
The revelation that Eden could read, and what’s more, that she was secretly harbouring a Bible and scribbling notes in the margins as a means to better understand God, reinforces the tragic futility around the death of Gilead’s most devoted True Believer. It’s a fact that there’ll be no physical marker of Eden’s existence (we know this because of a grisly Gilead factoid: heretics’ remains are used “as animal feed” - !!), but events this week attest to the fact that Eden does indeed leave a legacy, and it lies in the impact she has, posthumously, upon the women of Gilead. Yes, all of ‘em.
Up first, it’s the Wives who attempt to alter the status quo with a showy display at the drafty, downlit Gilead Govt HQ / Council Chambers. Having consulted each other in a coded conversation about their children’s futures (which neatly resembles the tentative way the Handmaids used to size each other up at Loaves & Fishes), Serena, Naomi and the other Commanders’ Mrses appeal to their husbands for a legal amendment. Not to stop the ritual rape/shaming of women, but rather to make the point that the ability to read the word of God goes a long way towards fully comprehending it. This goes about as well as you’d expect in front of Fred and his clique of Powerful Men. Serena, who never shies away from a PR stunt, banks on her leverage as a historically helpful Enabler, and commits the shocking act of - gasp - reading the Bible from page one: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
You might remember that last week Commander Lawrence revealed that punishments have been scaled back a tad (“You know the penalty for reading nowadays? / A finger for a first offence / It used to be a hand. Back in the “good old days”). One wouldn’t go so far as to say that Serena is “lucky” that she chose this week for her act of public mischief-- Come to think of it, Fred would definitely say that; he happily sacrifices his beloved’s pinkie finger as a way to quite literally cut through her fictional narrative that she has any kind of agency in this weird, wild world. “We all have our roles to play. Serena needed to be reminded of hers,” he admits to June later, in another one of his creepy kitchen conversations. Little does he anticipate how much stock Serena puts in her role as Mother, nor the influence June has in helping Serena understand what’s best for their (i.e. June and Serena’s) child.
Over the course of this second season, we’ve witnessed acts of rebellion big and small, but Gilead still stands. The Handmaid grenade? Didn’t change a thing, and caused far too much collateral damage. Personal testimonies? Powerful, yes, but only useful in a diplomatic sense (let’s hope series three shows more international action). Wifely disobedience in the Halls of Power? Welcome to the resistance, Serena, but Fred’s still very much in charge (for now). The lessons learned, over the course of much bloodshed and brutality, are that anything too prominent or which causes a woman to 'rise above her station' has backfired. But a Martha-led Mayday, which uses the very anonymity of Gilead’s domestic servants as a cloak? Now you’re talking.
Leave it to the Marthas to get shit done. Those invisible householders who do the chores, change the nappies, and know where the tea bags are, make the most of their invisibility to facilitate the exit of a Handmaid and her new baby girl under cloak of darkness and across the backyards of the oppressors. It’s Gileadean form of the underground railroad with a strong visual resemblance to the French Resistance. And as finale moments go, it’s perfect. Of course, full credit goes to Rita, whose guilt motivates her into a far more effective act or resistance, especially when Serena’s inability to protect herself from Fred’s wrath speaks volumes about how ineffective she’d be at shielding Nicole/Holly from the sick, sorry fate of all girls in Gilead when the time comes. So it is then, that the steely, witty woman we’ve mostly glimpsed in the shadows of the kitchen and the corridors, gets her time to shine, and she moves heaven and earth to make good on her promise to protect June’s baby from the dark forces. Praise be.
I don't envy June once Rita finds out that she didn't get the hell out of Gilead (!), but then, with all this week's focus on legacy, what would June be leaving behind if she goes? Her firstborn, Hannah, an army of oppressed women (Handmaids, Marthas, Econowives, and Wives even…), and a system of government-sanctioned sexual assault that forcibly reproduces yet more generations of captives.
If she steps up into that van, there would be no marker of her ever having been there. Hannah would never know of June’s efforts to resist, to see her, to free her, and agitate for revolution. We know from Luke’s and Moira’s survivor’s guilt and stunted storylines this year that there’s very little material difference a Gilead escapee can make remotely. As powerful as it was, their actions in getting Fred kicked out of Canada, had zero impact back home.
In the best possible ending, we see Emily head for safety (after an almighty assault upon Lydia! How have we not talked about this yet?! We go into that more in Eyes on Gilead this week). Emily’s storyline has mirrored June’s so much throughout the series, with much worse outcomes: both are mothers, separated by force from their partner and child. Both found love in Gilead, but Emily was caught and mutilated, and her partner, a Martha, was hung. It's a relief to see their timelines merge and converge, and see Emily get a break for once (we hope). It's the bright point of knowing that June's sticking it out and squaring for a fight with Fred - and looking like a Sith Lord as she pops up the hoodie on her cloak. May the Force be with her. And may she can track down that weird new rebel Commander so she can get a roof over her head.
There is so much more to unpack about this final episode of the season. Come debrief with us at Eyes on Gilead.
Box Set: The Handmaid's Tale Season 2