This post contains spoilers for The Handmaids Tale Season 2 finale.[hhmc]
After all the suffering The Handmaids Tales hero, June, has endured—and her numerous failed escape attempts—its hard to blame anyone who found Wednesdays Season 2 finale a little puzzling, or [even infuriating] (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/07/handmaids-tale-season-2-finale). Thanks to Rita and Nick, who both risked their lives and safety, June and her baby, Holly, were granted an escape from Gilead. But when it came time to board the truck to freedom, June ultimately sent her baby off to safety while she remained in the totalitarian dystopia—putting up her red handmaids hood before turning and walking back the way she came. In a typically cheeky musical cue, “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads plays over the credits.
With this ending, show-runner Bruce Miller hoped to project courage and determination—the start of a new chapter, in which June sets off to rescue her oldest daughter, Hannah, and bring down Gilead, to whatever extent she can. As far as hes concerned, its the obvious choice any parent would make, given Junes circumstances. “Since the beginning, that kid was ripped out of her arms,” Miller said in a postmortem phone call. “Its like a piece of you has been torn off, and you want that piece back.”
To Miller, Junes brutal meeting with Hannah was a pivotal moment—one that guided her choice in the finale. Previously this season, she tried to leave Gilead by boarding a plane—but not before spending a few moments painfully considering the daughter she was leaving behind. But after seeing Hannah in person—and hearing her ask why June hadnt tried harder to find her—June simply could not abandon her. Miller was convinced that because June has rescued one daughter, shes emboldened to try and rescue the other, too.
“I really try to think about these things as not, How would I make the decision sitting in a nice room in Sherman Oaks?—but standing there going, Fuck, I told Hannah I would do everything I could to see her again . . . Im about to leave her completely behind after I promised her I would do everything I could to see her again,” Miller said. “I mean, my stomach hurts just saying it now.”
Though Rita and Nick collaborated to facilitate Junes escape, she was ultimately allowed to leave with the baby thanks to an unlikely ally: Serena Joy, whose arc toward semi-enlightenment this season has been both poignantly timely and vexing. When June handed the baby to Emily in the end, she recognized Serenas sacrifice with a curious act: she instructed Emily to call the baby Nicole, the name Serena Joy had given her, instead of Holly—the one June herself had chosen.
That also might seem like a pretty baffling choice, coming after Serena Joy enslaved and mercilessly tortured June—to say nothing of the awful society she helped create as one of Gileads chief architects. Still, after careful consideration, Miller and Elisabeth Moss, who also serves as a producer on the series, both decided June would want to recognize Serena Joys selfless act. As Miller points out June doesnt tell Emily that the babys name is Nicole. She simply says, “Call her Nicole.”
Emilys own journey to that escape truck was also long and winding. Bradley Whitfords mysterious Commander Lawrence character showed up for the first time on the series just last week; as we learned, he has a dark past as one of the chief engineers behind the Colonies, where Emily was sent to wither away earlier this season. But hes also become keenly aware of the evils inherent to the society he helped create. This week, after Emily attacks Aunt Lydia, Lawrence rushes his handmaid off for a tense ride that ends with him dropping her off at the same place as June, just in time for the truck to whisk Emily away.
When asked how on earth Commander Lawrence is going to explain the disappearance of his handmaid after an attempted murder, Miller pointed out something weve come to learn about both Gilead and the real world: powerful people get away with crazy things all the time. But why did he choose to help Emily in the first place? “He really liked her, you know? She was an academic; she was a nerd like he is, and he thought she was intriguing, and also she was such a fucking puzzle. He could not figure her out—even looking right into those eyes, he couldnt figure her out.”
Lawrence will be back in Season 3, Miller confirmed, and his and Junes paths will definitely cross again. The way Miller sees him, Commander Lawrence is a tangle of dangers and contradictions. “He's not a guardian angel, and he's not a rescue plane,” Miller said. “Hes a man whos survived for a long time in Gilead, and also has a lot of complicated feelings about Gilead. Some of it he thought was a brilliant idea because it was his brilliant idea, and some of it he thinks is quite horrible and cruel and perverse.” That, presumably, will be the dynamic we get to explore more in Season 3.
Throughout the shows second season some viewers began to wonder whether it is working toward a conclusion that will somehow justify the darkness and torture it took to get there. When asked what he thinks about the discussions surrounding the shows brutality, Miller said that he, too, is sensitive to that question—both as a creator and a viewer.
When it comes to graphic and upsetting imagery and plot twists, he said, “I dont want to see anything that I dont absolutely have to see to understand the plot.” But sometimes, he added, violence is necessary—like the mock hanging at the beginning of this season, during which June and the other handmaids were made to believe they were about to be executed before being saved at the last second. Miller argued that the visual impact of that moment was vital to its effect. “If you come in and Offred and the handmaids are walking into the Red Center, they go, Wow! She almost hung us but she didnt—that really doesnt have the same effect,” Miller said. “You dont understand what they went through psychologically if theyre just talking about it in retrospect and you havent seen it.”
Miller said that such atrocities—and worse—really are happening across the globe, even as we speak. “Suck it up; this is the real world, and the real world has lots of violence in it. And just because we don't see it doesnt mean its no more violent,” he said. “Its a lot more violent than what were showing. Weve spent too much time sanitizing things, and she lives in a horrible world where lots of the indignities and violence thats perpetrated against women in our world are perpetrated against her.” We dont often see such realities reflected on screen, Miller said—“but we should.”
For viewers who are not sure they can handle watching June suffer at the hands of Gilead for another season, both Miller and writer-producer Yahlin Chang, who spoke to V.F. by phone a few weeks ago, promise that next season will see more triumphs for their heroine as she begins her fight against Gilead in earnest.
“She is diving back into Gilead because she thinks theres things she can do,” Miller said. “And I think initially, the thing she thinks she can do is just get her fucking daughter out. . . . If she could snap her fingers and get Hannah and leave, she would do it immediately. If that becomes more difficult—which, it seems to be somewhere between difficult and impossible in the real world—then I think hurting Gilead or weakening Gilead is the best way she can plow the ground for her daughter. Thats the thing she can do from the inside that she wouldnt be able to do from Canada.”
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