Of all the harrowing, distressing and downright terrifying moments that we’ve witnessed during the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, the creators waited until the finale to give us the worst of them. And, no, it’s not the sight of a man having his hand surgically removed as punishment for his evil deeds of lust and coveting another woman. It was the sight of Offred (Elisabeth Moss) casting her eyes on her daughter for the first time since they were separated. At that moment, she’s stuck in the back of a car, locked in by Mrs. Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski). Offred’s joy turns to agony as she tries desperately to break out, or at the very least be heard by her little girl. No such luck. She is truly trapped.
That’s likely not the scene the creators of the series want to be the big moment of the Season One finale. The idea, it would seem, was for us to focus instead on Offred’s big moment during The Salvaging, when she dramatically—and in slow motion, natch—drops the stone with which she’s meant to be hurting Ofdaniel (Madeline Brewer). Or the proud march down the streets (again in slo-mo) by the Handmaids to the tune of a Nina Simone song. They looked great, but they smacked of a kind of desperation that befalls many prestige TV series: They’re curdled with the kind of hubris and vanity that many shows give over to, which savvy viewers can spot a mile away.
What I won’t forget is Offred screaming her heart out at the locked doors and thick glass of the car. Or, face pressed close against the glass barrier keeping her and the driver’s seat separated, spewing the kind of righteous anger and nasty insults that she never would have dared before. That’s the face of every parent trying to understand why NBC would give a platform to a conspiracy theorist toad like Alex Jones… on Father’s Day. Don’t you dare to get between a mother and her child. Hell awaits.
The rest of the hour sticks to a simple but potent theme: reminding us just how much power the women in Gilead still have. Sometimes they use it for nefarious means, like Mrs. Waterford torturing Offred with a glimpse of her child or Commander Warren’s wife demanding the steepest punishment possible for his crimes. Mostly, though, the women in this show are realizing how they can wield an upper hand, even when they’re taking blows to the face.
That is brutally clear in the wake of the other big moment in the series finale, when Offred is revealed to be pregnant. For the next nine months or more, she’s going to be handled with kid gloves and treated like a queen. While that means she’ll likely be shoved off to another home once the baby is old enough, Offred will have the upper hand for some time. How she uses those small measures of control and reverence remains to be seen, especially in the wake of Mrs. Waterford’s insistence that if Offred does anything to hurt the unborn child, her daughter will pay the price, and of the episode-closing scene in which she’s sent off to be punished for the incident at The Salvaging.
If we’re really looking for one moment to stand above the rest in this episode, there’s a small scene towards the end of the hour that will undoubtedly ripple through the rest of the next season. On her way to an uncertain fate, Offred reveals to Rita (Amanda Brugel) where to find the cache of notes and letters, written by dozens of Handmaids and Marthas, in which they beg for help or some proof that their children are okay. With whatever modicum of power she’s going to have to work with, Offred is going to work to plant the seeds of a revolution. It may not be enough to topple the entire awful republic, but it could be the perfect example that the other women in Gilead can use as a model for their own resistance.
Hopefully, TV execs can also look to this series as a model for how to work with even the most bleak source material and make something powerful and beautiful and political out of it. We didn’t need a monster in the White House to remind us how bad things could potentially get. We’re already seeing signs of that in various other distressing events every day. The Handmaid’s Tale could have been made in the middle of Obama’s eight years in office and it would still feel prescient and reflective of the worst of us. Hulu didn’t necessarily take some huge gamble funding this show, but they knew enough to stay out of the way and let the creators tell it in a way that left a pronounced impression on anyone that spent time with it. We are all reaping the benefits of that kind of creative daring. Bring on Season Two.
Read Paste’s complete coverage of The Handmaid’s Tale Season One here.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.