'Handmaid's Tale': How the Season 3 Finale Transforms the Elisabeth Moss Drama Forever

Creator Bruce Miller explains the dark undercurrent brimming beneath the big victory.
Sophie Giraud/Hulu

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

The Handmaid's Tale ended its second season on a controversial cliff-hanger, with Elisabeth Moss' June Osborne deciding to stay behind in Gilead to search for her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), rather than escape with her infant daughter. How did that decision bear out over the course of season three? The answer will depend on the viewer, of course, but on a practical level, June's decision to stay has at the very least led to the liberation of dozens of children from Gilead.

The season three finale, "Mayday," centers on June's plan to rescue children from the totalitarian state, a high-stakes operation conducted in the dead of night. In order to fulfill the plan, June risks her own life in a confrontation with a Gilead guard. She's eventually assisted by other resistance fighters, but she still takes the brunt of the conflict on her own shoulders — including a literal bullet to the shoulder by the end of the fight, not to mention another death on her conscience in the form of the guard she shoots in the face at point-blank range. Indeed, it's not the first time she's put a gun in someone's face in this very episode; several minutes earlier, June held a gun at one of the children she planned to rescue, specifically to quiet her down and keep a lid on the operation's secrecy.

"It's an instinct that June has developed, and it's horrible," creator Bruce Miller tells The Hollywood Reporter about the harrowing scene. "She turns around with a gun and points it in the face of a little kid because the little kid's screaming. What does that say about June? A few seconds later, she says, 'My daughter's that age.' She put the gun in that kid's face and it's like, are you killing the thing you're trying to save? If you're trying to save and help all your handmaid and Martha friends, how many of them are going to end up on the wall after this? What exactly are you doing? But here, it's really about what has she done. In that moment, it's about what has she done to herself."

It's part of what fuels June to enact a sacrifice play in order to ensure an accomplished mission, and it works. The children land in Canada, all while June stays behind in Gilead, nursing a gunshot wound, carted off by her fellow handmaids in the final moments of the season. Anyone who hoped for June's escape in season three was surely disappointed, but from Miller's perspective, such a development was never even in the cards, and may not be for a while. The reason? It's the same as it ever was: "She's not going to leave without Hannah."

"I don't think she's considering leaving," says Miller. "I think June made the decision a while ago that she has a much better chance of seeing her daughter again, even if just seeing her again, being here. I think that's been proven to us. Luke (O-T Fagbenle) has had no contact with their daughter and June's had a lot of contact with their daughter. And she got to the point where she actually scared the shit out of [Hannah's Gilead parents] and they fled."

"Everything June's been told was impossible is still very possible and she's just proven that again by doing this thing that is hitting Gilead exactly where they hurt," he adds. "I don't think she has much hope that she's going to get out alive. I think she's more there to fuck up Gilead."

Mission very much accomplished in that regard, as dozens of children are now free from Gilead and safe in Canada. But how safe are they? At first blush, the finale feels like a big win for June. Second, third, fourth and further considerations reveal the layers of complexity behind the liberation, both on personal and global scales.

"I do think it's a huge, huge change," Miller says about how June's operation will impact the landscape of The Handmaid's Tale in season four, which has already been renewed. "The analog I always used when I was thinking about it was, just using [this as] an example, there have been lots of adoptions from China over the last 50 years in America. What if China came and said, 'All of those Chinese children, they're Chinese, they're not American, they were born here, they were taken, it's immoral that they were taken out?' Just in the middle of the night, someone went to all of those houses, stole 200 Chinese children and flew them back to China. 'That's where they belong.' What would happen here?"

"As far as Gilead is concerned, those children are legally under their law," he continues. "They're in someone else's family, they have parents. From their point of view, you've just taken adopted children and flown them out of the country, and some of them aren't from people out of the country. Some of them, their parents are still back in Gilead — a lot of them. So, you didn't even take them to their parents. You just took them to a random other country. So, I think that Gilead, from their point of view, under their set of codes, is going to be ready to go to war over this. I would. They were ready to go to war over the one child."

If the way they treat their citizens didn't already make it clear, Gilead's staggering military capabilities should punctuate the point: outright war with this nation is not advised.

"They have the exact same number — I believe it's 3,200 nuclear weapons — that we do," Miller says about Gilead's military. "They took over America. So every nasty helicopter, every fighter plane, they have all of it. They have the biggest military in the world, which is very, very important in all the discussions that people have about how to deal with them. They have this giant, powerful military that they can wield anywhere around the world. I think our country has eight aircraft carriers and no other country has more than two. So we're kind of leaps and bounds exponentially more powerful. I think that here, it's a moment of triumph, but I don't know what shit show it's going to lead to."

The answers to those questions are months and months away for Handmaid's Tale viewers. Even for Miller and his team, the answers are only now starting to come to light, as the writers room for the fourth season only opened this past week. Whatever comes next for June and the world she's just transformed, expect it to follow the same ethos that's guided The Handmaid's Tale through three years and counting.

"People find [the show] unpredictable," says Miller. "I don't try to make it unpredictable. In fact, I try to do the opposite: almost inevitably what you think would happen, is what happens — it's just not what would happen on television. It's what would happen in Gilead, to June."

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