Critic's Notebook: 'Handmaid's Tale' Finale a Case of Brilliant Acting, Frustrating Storytelling

From June's questionable choice to Serena Joy's too-hasty arc, the 'Handmaid's Tale' finale had problems, even as Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski continue to shine.
George Kraychyk/Hulu
'The Handmaid's Tale'

[This story contains spoilers from the season two finale of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale.]

After a second season that generally proved surprisingly resilient and expansive despite the absence of direct source material courtesy of Margaret Atwood, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale built to a polarizing finale, and I'm not talking about some viewers loving the finale and some viewers hating it (though I'm sure that's probably the case as well). I'm speaking purely in terms of my own personal reaction.

Was the second season finale of Handmaid's Tale a solidly harrowing episode, punctuated by a few very bad decisions generated out of ill-earned narrative expediency? Or was the second season finale of Handmaid's Tale pretty awful, yet still spiked with just enough of what is so glorious about the show to make me a conflicted apologist?

It's possible the answer to both questions is "Yes." It's also possible that as often occurs when a great show stumbles a little, the sense of betrayal is enough to poison the water well beyond the actual scale of the misstep.

I don't think the Handmaid's Tale finale did anything so bad the show can't fix or correct it in starting the third season. It just happened that the episode was an ungainly mixture of fan service and fan alienation. In criticizing the finale, one surely needs to start at the very end and with skepticism about June's (Elisabeth Moss) decision.

Maybe in that respect, we need to look at the overall shape of the season in which June was offered not one, not two, but three opportunities to escape, each with varying levels of practicality. She basically stumbled back into captivity through poor decisions early in the season. That thing where she self-delivered her own baby probably hampered her second go at freedom at midseason. In each case, the window of potential freedom was a little less open. The first time she was away for months, and her escape had an organized network behind it and still fell short. The second time, she was away for a day or two, and probably had limited options since she had a newborn baby and also because Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) knew at least vaguely where she had been if not where she could potential go. The third escape, in the finale, had the organization of the Marthas behind it, and so even if she'd only been out of the house for minutes, we had reason to believe or hope this one might work. Yes, the show just kept toying with us this season, but maybe we believed this time that wouldn't happen?

Instead, with the option of joining Emily (Alexis Bledel) in a trip across the border, she was lured to remain in Gilead by a flashback to singing with her first daughter. The decision we're led to believe she was making was one of revolutionary fervor and not self-preservation, so as she flipped her red hood up like a badass and June set her jaw at its most determined and the soundtrack blasted "Burning Down the House," I guess we were supposed to cheer? The only way June's choice could have been more blatant and bellicose is if, as she turned away from freedom and went back to Gilead, she'd also pulled out a shotgun and racked it authoritatively.

Yet how many viewers cheered and how many were stuck one move behind when June rejected her own liberation and, after suffering from separation anxiety from one daughter for two seasons, decided double the separation anxiety was double the fun and passed baby Nicole off to Emily. Instead of a life of safety with one daughter, while presumably being able to work in Canada to build up the underground and work to get her other daughter returned, June opted for a life of peril with no daughters, a third failure to escape in one season. I'm not sure any amount of foundation-laying could have made me buy that June would have done this. And it wasn't like we see the clear alternative June is moving toward in the Gilead Underground. She's rejected freedom to be an outlaw and she's also given up her only plausible piece of leverage. If she's found, having permanently stolen a commander's baby, there will be no excuse for not putting her to death immediately. The entire system hinges on handmaids not stealing their family's kids. An example will have to be made of her, with zero tolerance. Presumably the writers know that and they know we know that and that's an insurance policy against backsliding. Still, I wish the choice had made more sense.

I don't doubt that Terminator June would be satisfying on some level, but it's satisfying on a more base level than Handmaid's Tale has previously led us to believe we want or deserve.

The finale suffered from a lot of large jumps in logic, or at least plot leaps that we were expected to accept. How did Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) go from seeing the Bible left by the late Eden to personal doubt to mobilizing/converting every available Commander's Wife to getting an audience with the Council to being a pro-literacy firebrand in three scenes? Have all the wives always been prepared for a small revolt at a moment's notice? Can just any wife get a hearing in front of the Council? Did Serena Joy, for some reason, still believe that as Commander Waterford's wife she wouldn't face the established penalty for reading? The season's whiplash approach to Serena Joy has been fascinating and I think her act of defiance and the loss of her pinky and the willingness to surrender the baby to June were the show finally deciding to mark Serena Joy firmly in the "good guys" category despite everything she's done previously. But who believes Serena would have let June leave with the baby if she'd known June was just going to pass the kid along to an emotionally unstable terrorist with at least three or four different flavors of PTSD?

Poor Emily. I can tell you the plot points that can be used to explain her attempt to kill Ann Dowd's Lydia. We saw her get the knife as she prepared to the ritualized rape of "the ceremony" (accompanied disturbingly by "Itchycoo Park" on the soundtrack). We saw her confusion and relief when Commander Joseph "Whoa!" Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) eschewed the ceremony. And Lydia's "It's like I cut out your tongue" jab was about as harsh as it gets, really not the sort of thing you want to say to a woman whose genitals you mutilated. The question of how you get from those steps to Emily stabbing Lydia and then to Commander Lawrence deciding not only to protect her and then to activate the Martha network to get her out of the country and for that process to lead her to the same convoy as June and all of that? I'm just of the opinion that Emily needs freedom and years of therapy before I'd be prepared to just hand her my baby and say, "Take care of her!" There are dots that could have been connected that the show skipped in the name of action and suspense beats. When Handmaid's Tale decides to be a thriller, that's the least effective and least substantive version of the show.

And that's all before we get into other concerns I had with the finale like not understanding why it was suddenly so easy for June to keep having unsupervised access to her daughter, why there were no ramifications to her hauling off and slapping Waterford, whether or not I'm supposed to be bothered by how quickly June and Nick (Max Minghella) got to be all lovey-dovey after Nick was just in Canada and met June's husband. And speaking of that, there's the frustration that the Canadian part of the story (which just so happens to have all of the show's people of color) was left behind in the homestretch of the season.

The issues that the season wanted to explore, particularly the all-too-timely hook of forced separation of children, were left marginalized in favor of a questionably earned finale adrenaline rush. And yet, I can't say that my most pervasive response to the finale was annoyance, since my general pervasive response to the show on a weekly basis tends to boil down to variations on, "Man, Elisabeth Moss is good."

Moss won nearly every award last year — the TCA Award going to Carrie Coon was a rare defeat — and as good as those trophies credit her with being, I think she's even better than that. Multiple episodes this season put June in total isolation and left Moss to carry dialogue-free scenes on her own and those were my favorite episodes of the season. The show asks so much of Moss, from countless shades of torment to the heartbreaking normalcy of the flashbacks to the responsibility to generate humor out of misery, and yet I've never gotten the feeling that she was repeating herself. Every beat she plays is both organic to June as a character and new to the situation. So this finale offered the unleashed rage when June finally slaps Waterford, the frustrated and thwarted hope when she presents Serena Joy with Eden's Bible and assumes incorrectly that Serena Joy will see it the same way she does, the amazement as she realizes (at the same time the audience is probably realizing) how awesome Rita (Amanda Brugel) has perhaps always been. Even as conflicted as I was by June's climactic choice at the end, the exhausted, torn-to-pieces, vanity-free pugnaciousness of Terminator June was astounding. After Mad Men, The West Wing, Top of the Lake and two seasons of Handmaid's Tale, it's absurd to think Moss could be underrated and yet no episode went by this season that didn't leave me impressed in a new way.

The season's other breakout for me was Strahovski. Serena Joy has been a consistently tough character, because she has done so many bad things and been such a vocal and public supporter of so much of what is monstrous of Gilead and yet the show has been trying so hard to make us empathize or even sympathize with her. Strahovski has never made Serena Joy appear too soft or too gentle or too understanding and yet she has displayed a Moss-esque gift for letting a full character arc play out across her face without the need for simplifying dialogue. Emmy nominations will be announced Thursday morning and if Strahovski isn't recognized, I'm prepared to be outraged.

As supporting Handmaid's Tale actors go, I'd put Strahovski as the season's standout by a wide margin, though I wouldn't be upset with Emmy love for last year's guest actress winner Bledel, who is yet another actress who thrives the less series creator Bruce Miller gives her to say. The slow push-in on Emily as she awaits the ceremony after Commander Lawrence enters the study was sublime, and then Bledel was even better as she sat in the backseat of Commander Lawrence's car forced to listen to Annie Lennox's deceptively upbeat "Broken Glass" completely in the dark on her fate. It's a remarkable thing that my notes no longer refer to her as "Rory Gilmore." (I suspect Dowd is still more likely to be nominated than either Strahovski or Bledel, and as good as she was this season, I think she just had much less to do than the other two co-stars. I'm also already terrified about the contortions the show is going to go through to bring Lydia back.)

And that's not even getting into the frame-by-frame majesty of what remains TV's most beautifully photographed show. Eden's Night of the Hunter-inspired drowning in the penultimate episode still haunts me. I still sit jaw agape pondering the shafts of light and the mirrored reflections and the shifting color schemes.

These aren't pleasures I'm willing to ignore just because the Handmaid's Tale finale ended dumb. I'm not prepared to negate all of this season's great episodes, harrowing moments and vital commentary. I can be impressed and frustrated, eagerly awaiting more and yet wary.