The following contains spoilers for episode 13 (the finale) of season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale.
In the end, it was the Marthas who prevailed. An underground railroad of women, the green-clad domestic servants of Gilead usually relegated to the shadows, were the ones to deliver June’s baby from the horrors of the regime.
It was apt that these women managed to do with words what weapons, brute force and diplomacy had failed to do.
The Gileadian escape route enabled by the Marthas was the physical manifestation of the ladies in red whisper network hinted at in an earlier episode.
In that episode, sick of being nameless incubators for the future of Gilead, June (Elisabeth Moss) reintroduces herself by her pre-Handmaid name to a returning Emily (Alexis Bledel), formerly Ofglen/Ofroy/Ofjoseph, at the market.
June then whispers her name to another nearby Handmaid, creating a ripple effect in what could be described as the first hopeful scene in an overwhelmingly bleak season.
Because the Handmaids have so little agency, their words are their only protection, and this scene mirrors the real-life whisper network that is the #MeToo movement.
What often gets overlooked is that it was African-American civil rights activist Tarana Bourke who founded #MeToo in 2006, long before powerful, predominantly white actresses started hashtagging it.
So while the Handmaids speak softly to each other as they shop for oranges, it is primarily the women of colour who are employed as Marthas on the show who take the biggest risks in order to help them.
Words and knowledge as power has been the general theme of this season. A book editor in her former life, it’s apt that June wields words as weapons, from the letters from Handmaids she helps smuggle out of Gilead, to the Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum (“don’t let the bastards get you down” in Latin) she carves on the wall in her bedroom, to the briefs she helps Serena Joy (Australia's own Yvonne Strahovski, nominated for an Emmy for the role) edit.
She might not be able to hurt her Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), physically but she can wound him by spitting that he is not the biological father of her baby.
Because women in this austere dystopia, whether Handmaid, Martha, Aunt or Wife, have very little at their disposal, it would seem that words and knowledge are the only things they feel are within their grasp.
As Gilead’s most powerful female member, Serena too tries to wield them - initially earlier in the season when she and June draft Fred’s briefs while he’s recovering from the bombing and then when she pleads with the Commanders to allow girls to read in this week’s episode.
Her efforts to gain words and knowledge results in them being placed further out of her reach, as she is punished by having part of her finger removed. While Serena becomes increasingly downtrodden despite getting “all she ever wanted: a baby”, her corporal punishment results in the firing up of June and the other Handmaids.
Then there’s Eden (Sydney Sweeney), a child bride murdered by the state for running away with a man not her husband and who struggles to understand the Holy Bible in a world where she is not permitted to read.
It’s Emily who ends up resorting to violence in this episode, stabbing Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), which shouldn’t be a surprise: she already killed one complicit woman this season, played by Marisa Tomei in a much-too-short guest role, who tried to bond with Emily over their shared jobs in academia prior to Gilead.
Having lost her lovers, child and clitoris, being condemned to a radioactive labour camp and shuffled between three different rapists, Emily understandably reacts with violence because believes she had no other tools at her disposal, but the audience is left wondering what it was all for in the weakest plot point of the finale.
Notably, the Handmaid who set off a suicide bomb mid-season was Emily’s replacement, Ofglen II (Tattiawna Jones), also a woman of colour who had her tongue cut out for refusing to stone to death Janine (Madeline Brewer) last season, quite literally symbolising the removal of the only thing many Handmaids feel they still have: their voice.
These acts of violence were dramatic intervals but ultimately ineffectual.
It is through the passage of words, first with the letters and then the underground Handmaid’s Tale-road, that the women of Gilead prove that the sharing of knowledge is the most powerful resource there is.
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