My bestie of a million years—a brilliant, skeptical scientist not given to sentimentality or easy suspension of disbelief—was having trouble committing to plans over a recent weekend. “I want to see you,” she said, “but there’s a problem. I was up until 3:00 binge-watching Season Two of The Handmaid’s Tale, and… I don’t know how to say this, I am tempted to blow you off, because I’m not done yet.”
Obviously, I more than understand that conundrum, and I hastened to explain that I myself was pretending I didn’t owe my editor an essay and re-watching Season Three of Sherlock, because the first time I saw it I didn’t know who Derren Brown was. (Oops.) “Come over and we’ll watch the rest of it; I want to see how you react to the finale.”
“Why, what happens?”
The Handmaid’s Tale has enjoyed an above-average amount of debate and behind-the-scenes theorizing here at Paste, and there are many reasons for that. It has hardcore fans, grudging admirers and a couple of staffers who have struggled with full-blown irritation at the narrative choices while acknowledging the overall quality of the production. The Season Two finale generated a great deal of water-cooler talk, and multiple articles attempting to render a verdict on whether it “worked.” (Consensus: Artistically, some true high points. Narratively, some huge question marks.)
I had the chance to ask creator Bruce Miller about some of those question marks recently, and he was admirably tight-lipped in response to the kooky fan theories I floated about Season Three. (Drat.) I wondered what it was like to take off from the moorings of the book and glide out into a world of speculation as the second season did. I could imagine it being liberating or unnerving or, likely, both.
“I don’t think I did leave behind the source text in Season Two,” Miller said. “The events that we portrayed in Season One were often slightly (or hugely) different than the same incidences in the book, and we made up a lot of new stuff too in Season One. We moved into Season Two tethered to Margaret Atwood’s world and that is what really keeps us on a solid foundation.”
As a literary writer myself, I was surprised by that answer. I was thinking of “leaving behind the source text” pretty literally: The first season ends basically where the novel ends. Everything that happens in Season Two is an extrapolation. But it was illuminating that Miller immediately went to the notion of thematic and artistic-sensibility fidelity—of course, that’s an equally important way of looking at an adaptation, and of course he’s quite correct. The Handmaid’s Tale absolutely do stay in the world Miller and company have created, and it’s certainly moored in Atwood’s original vision while also being toyed with to have a certain resonance in the present. At all of those levels, I think it’s a stellar adaptation. Characters who were stylized two-dimensional beings in the novel explode into living, breathing, conflicted humans in the TV show. In the novel, characters like Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) are, as seen through Offred’s (Elisabeth Moss) eyes, unlovable, to say the least. On screen, they vibrate with conflicts and desires and complicated backstories. (“No one is a villain in their own story,” as Miller points out.)
With regard to the Season Two finale, I wanted to know how he felt about the (in my view, daunting) task of writing his principal characters out of a seriously tight corner.
“We left off in a very difficult spot—people risked their lives and livelihoods and literally set Gilead on fire to get Offred out. As things stand, not only Offred, but Nick [Max Minghella], Rita [Amanda Brugel], Serena, Commander Lawrence [Bradley Whitford] and several other people are looking at a hangman’s noose for what just happened. How will she re-insert herself; how can she?”
“Unfortunately, being confronted by a difficult season finale as you begin writing a new season is a place that all TV writers find themselves,” Miller continued. “It’s hard—but it is what we are good at.”
“Offred’s decision to hand that baby to a wildly destabilized fellow Handmaid was arguably a defiance of her character,” I said.
“I expected and have enjoyed the debate surrounding June’s decisions,” Miller responded. “In my opinion, it would have been just as contentious if she had left her daughter behind and left Gilead. There were no good choices.”
True enough: There weren’t any good choices. And, of course, those weren’t the only two options. She could have followed through and left. She could have decided to stay and try and help both her children from inside. At that point, she certainly has no clean choices. June Osborne has two lives now; one she chose and one she was abducted into. She has two daughters, with two different fathers, both of whom she seems to love. There are people in Gilead she wants to protect and people in Gilead she’d probably like to see go down in flames. Is there any level at which she can accomplish more by sending the baby to Canada and going back alone?
For my money, no. But I have no idea what’s going to happen next season (other than having it on good authority that, as you probably suspected, Aunt Lydia survives the attack by Alexis Bledel’s Emily). What I do know is that the series and its source text are titled The Handmaid’s Tale, not The Handmaids’ Tales or Gilead. It’s Offred’s story, and that means she has to stay in it, that without her the story kind of ends. Which is a constraint that requires Offred to remain in her universe, which is Gilead, which means we know every time she almost escapes (four times in two seasons?) she will not succeed. So the amazingly filmed sequence where she escapes via an “underground railroad” of rebellious Marthas feels… well, like a beautiful sequence with a super predictable ending. By the same token, Gilead’s not falling any time soon—at least not while new seasons are being green-lit. No regime, no story. Or, at least, not at all the same story. I think it’s safe to say the Commanders will still be in command in Season Three.
So, meanwhile, my friend and I got to the end of the finale, at which point she said “What?” in an unusually high-pitched voice, and I said “Right, exactly.”
“How are they going to get out of that?” she asked.
I said I’d tried to get the showrunner to tip his hat. “I assume Commander Lawrence is going to be the main thing standing between Offred and a stoning… and I’m hoping he’s going to find an unlikely accomplice who grows hothouse flowers and secretly detests knitting. I personally don’t think Hannah is the only reason Offred goes back; her chances of surviving long enough to be a parent to either of her daughters are way better in Canada. I think she partly goes back for Serena.”
“What did Bruce Miller say to that?”
“He said ‘Interesting theory.’”
“Well,” my friend said, “Offred’s been trying to get out for… years, right? It seems like she can do far more good from Canada. She could meet up with Luke and Moira and save the baby and maybe rescue Hannah. Inside, she’s powerless. So it makes no sense at all. I wonder what his plan is?”
“The characters are so interesting, though. And the uniforms are to die for.”
“I love that voiceover line where she says Gilead shouldn’t have given them uniforms if they didn’t want them to become an army.”
So, the debate rages on: What rabbit’s going to get pulled out of what hat next season? What is certain is the script landed in a hell of a tight spot last season, and it will take a contortionist of Bruce Miller’s caliber to get out of there. I know there are a lot of people around my water cooler who can’t wait to see how they do it. In the meantime, The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two, in all its gloriously color-saturated, metaphorically rife, brutal but beautiful, politically uncomfortable and narratively tightrope-y glory, is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on December 4. Aunt Lydia survives, Serena is now missing a finger and a baby, Commander Lawrence might or might not be In Deep Shit, and June Osborne is walking back into the flames.
Season Two of The Handmaid’s Tale is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.