Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team gathered to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writers Constance Grady and Caroline Framke discuss the season finale, “Night,” and the first season in full.
Caroline Framke: Over 10 episodes, The Handmaid’s Tale has done its utmost to be a study of power: how to attain it, how to keep it, how it can lead to widespread corruption that seeps into every splintering crack. Like Margaret Atwood’s original novel, the series has been a study in how finding a will and a way to be defiant under oppressive rule can be all the oppressed have — and how the reality of having to be a hero can be both harder and easier than you ever imagined. It can be as hard as trying to smuggle a package out of an underground brothel, or as easy as looking at a stone you were supposed to throw at someone’s skull and just dropping it onto the frozen ground.
But outside of those grander themes, The Handmaid’s Tale is also just about a mother being desperate to find the daughter who was taken from her, and the hell she endures in the aftermath of that heartbreaking event.
The Handmaid’s Tale has an awful lot of tricky elements to balance, and the strain of that task showed in the middle of its first season as flashbacks and tangents focusing on people other than the actual Handmaids overshadowed most everything else. But “Night” is a really good season finale, if only because it manages to tie together so many of the season’s most pressing conflicts and themes and the characters they center on: June’s fear versus her determination, Serena Joy’s impotent fury, the Commander’s willful oblivion. The season’s final scene is almost exactly like the book’s, with June being taken away in an Eye van. The biggest difference, though, is a crucial one: A test confirms that June is pregnant.
Between that, Moira’s escape to Canada, Serena trying to keep her Handmaid in line by almost literally dangling June’s daughter in front of her as collateral, and the Handmaids’ refusal to stone Janine to death, there’s a lot to talk about. How did you both like the finale? Was it a satisfying end to the season and/or a decent setup for season two?
Constance Grady: For me, this was the most successful ending — and the most successful use of ironic pop music — that the show has managed since its stunning first three episodes. The final shot of June's serene face in the Eye van struck exactly the right note of ambiguity: She is either about to be punished horrifically for her crimes or to escape because Nick is secretly an undercover member of the Resistance (and let's face it, that's the most likely outcome), but either way, she has decided she will not be ground down. And in Gilead, that is a radical act.
When The Handmaid's Tale first introduced the idea that there could be something subversive and powerful about being a Handmaid, back in episode four with that triumphant power walk, it did so clumsily. June's exultant, "We're Handmaids. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches" — after she convinces the Commander to let her leave the house — felt at best unearned and at worst malignant. It felt like part of the same ideology that suggests that soft power, which is the ability to influence those who actually have power to act on your behalf, is secretly preferable to hard power, which is the ability to actually act on your own behalf. Who needs the right to vote if you can convince your husband to vote the way you want him to, right? Who needs to be legally considered a person if you can manipulate your owner into overruling his wife and letting you walk outside?
But in "Night," The Handmaid’s Tale works its way back around to finding an emotionally true way of thinking about the power of the Handmaids as a caste. It's a power that lies less in the ability of the Handmaids to manipulate their way to survival, and more in their ability to find solidarity with one another, to stand together and resist.
Of course, June is most likely going to miss facing the full consequences of that resistance, because she is probably on her way to Canada. So next season, I hope the series somehow finds a way to show us what happens to the other Handmaids who followed her lead.
Caroline: I was really encouraged by the way the stoning ended up unfolding (which is not a sentence I ever saw myself writing). Both on the show and outside of it, via statements from its creative team, Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has gone out of its way to emphasize women’s culpability in their own subjugation, addressing the lengths some people will go to to maintain their own power by pitting women against each other (such as with the Commander’s wives often being more ruthless with the Handmaids than their husbands).
Like you said, Constance, the Handmaids’ refusal to stone one of their own shows how powerful unity can be. This may be an outcome Aunt Lydia and the others in charge of Gilead once feared, but as we saw in a flashback to June’s first day as a Handmaid, those in power also assumed they could shock and beat the fight out of the Handmaids. Whatever happens to the Handmaids next — and as Lydia says, “There will be consequences” — they’ve at least proved their oppressors wrong.
However, we're going to have to agree to disagree on the music, because man, did this episode's song choices bring me out of the episode. Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" — a powerful song when used right — just about killed the momentum of the Handmaids leaving the stoning, and Tom Petty's "American Girl" was timed so bluntly at the end that it left me frustrated and rolling my eyes.
But I know Todd feels differently. So Todd, won't you please tell us why these music choices were great and the finale was great and stop hating good TV, Caroline, god?
Todd VanDerWerff: "Feeling Good" I can defend less strenuously. I tend to think about music on TV not as how the showrunner wants us to feel, but as how it feels to be inside the character's head at that moment. So I bought June being jubilant in that moment. Her life doesn't leave much room for such emotion, and this is a big win for her. I've also always found that song a little sadder and more desperate than most people do, I think. Nina Simone's voice is so world-weary that it's not hard to find those hints here and there.
But "American Girl" I thought was pretty much perfect. Talk about a song that’s laden with melancholy but hides it via seemingly enthralling melody! And I thought it worked well here, in particular, because director Kari Skogland staged the scene so that as the doors of the Eye van close, cutting us off from seeing June, Elisabeth Moss gradually turns to look directly at camera. But you can barely see it, because the light is being removed from the shot. It does what I want a TV season's final shot to do, in summarizing essentially the entire season to this point, and I don't think it would’ve worked if the music didn't seem so effusive.
That said, I thought "Night" was pretty close to the best finale this season could have had. I might quibble with a few decisions here and there, but I have no outright complaints. The episode isn’t at the level of The Handmaid’s Tale's pilot or that devastating third episode, but it's right up there. Between it and the ninth episode, I imagine there will be a few sighs of relief among those of us who bet on the show, then worried slightly as various midseason missteps seemed to portend worse things to come.
Indeed, I can't count all the times this finale walks right up to the edge of doing something disastrous, then backs away. The package June secreted away in her bedroom, for instance, simply turns out to be a huge bundle of letters that Handmaids have written to tell their stories, rather than a bomb or something. Choosing the emotional beat over the action beat at this point in the show's run is the smart move, and it gives the non-stoning additional heft. (Similarly, Moira and Luke reuniting in Canada benefits from being played in a more muted fashion than you might expect.) This approach doesn’t apply to every storyline — we saw Warren get his hand cut off! — but it applies to most.
Or maybe I just loved that “Night” put June right back at the center, and Moss's tremendous performance with it. Watching her dissolve at the sight of Hannah in one of those tiny pink robes was almost too much to bear. Something that's so close is still so far out of reach, indeed.
Constance: I agree that the last shot of “Night” is just about perfect, and part of what makes it work so well is the way it plays off a shot of June that we see halfway through the episode: She's walking down a staircase, and the camera lingers for just a beat too long on her stomach, cropping her head out of the frame. Gilead wants to turn her into nothing but a pregnant womb with no identity of her own, and June keeps fighting to assert herself, to bring her identity and her face back into focus — and at the end of the episode, she's finally able to do so.
This episode made me think about showrunner Bruce Miller's recent remark that the most intimate relationship in The Handmaid's Tale is the relationship between June and Offred, between June's desire to escape Gilead and assert her own personhood and Offred's desire to comply and stay safe. Because totalitarian states destroy trust, the only "person" June can trust to be completely open with her is herself — and ultimately, her struggle isn't with Gilead in the form of the Commander or Serena Joy, but with Gilead in the form of her own fear.
That idea puts June's regular stream of inspirational speeches and voiceovers into some context, in that the show seems to be thinking about them as a series of episodes in her fight with herself, but I still think a lot of them were too clunky to be as dramatically effective as they were intended to be. That said, when June dropped the stone in "Night," it felt earned: She was choosing to direct her anger toward Gilead, instead of letting Gilead redirect her anger onto a probably blameless target the way she did during the Salvaging all the way back in episode one, and we could see the emotional impetus for it.
Todd: I should say here that my assumption is that June will be back in the Waterford household next season, reporting on Waterford to the Eyes. Her pregnancy is too good of a screenwriting "ticking clock" for the show to put her in another location. So take all of the below with a grain of salt if she does end up in Canada.
But I loved the way "Night" framed June's pregnancy as something that finally weaponized her, in a way. She doesn't want this pregnancy in the slightest. But if she was already unlikely to lose her life for stepping out of line as a fertile woman, there's much more she can get away with now that she's pregnant, and some part of her must know this. For nine months, she has an added layer of protection that will let her, say, scream curse words at Serena or try to pit the Commander and his wife against each other.
Now, it's not like June is going to suddenly become a revolutionary. The conflict inside her is still there, and Gilead almost assuredly has thought of ways to subjugate pregnant women, despite their value to the country's overall fertility project. June's life won’t stop being an unending nightmare. But the first half of this episode is just a long series of shoes dropping, and June's dropping a lot of them. Pregnancy hasn't given her anything even close to freedom, but it has given her the opportunity to be a little more reckless. I'm excited to see that side of the character.
Caroline: June’s pregnancy is one of the most shocking things to come out of this season, but in retrospect, I really should’ve seen it coming. If The Handmaid’s Tale is to live beyond the scope of its source material, it was only a matter of time before a pregnancy re-complicated things. This development puts a huge rift in June’s world. But we looked on as she desperately, ferociously snarled at Serena that Serena is an “evil bitch” and a “motherfucking cunt” while they drove away from Hannah; June knows she can be bolder now that she’s fulfilled the one duty Gilead believes in the most.
“Night” also contextualizes the fact that June’s biggest, boldest action to date happens after finding out she’s pregnant, after spitting fire at Serena and getting nothing but ice in return. Even though it’s incredibly brave to drop the stone, June knows she can do it and walk away, even if there are other consequences. The fact that the rest of the Handmaids immediately follow suit is what makes the moment extraordinary.
It also brings the subtext of the Handmaids’ collective horror — previously traded through quick glances from behind their bonnet wings — into stark text that’s impossible to ignore. It’s the kind of action that, like Constance said, might have felt cheap or unearned earlier on in the season, but 10 episodes later, we not only know the weight of this action but feel it.
I think that’s partly why I wasn’t quite as moved by the final sequence as either of you were. The moments leading up to June making her slightly smirky way down the Waterfords’ staircase and the credits smashing to “American Girl” were saturated with voiceover, verbatim from the book, telling us exactly what we’d already understood from June’s face before, during, and after the stoning. It was an unnecessary recap that, for me, undercut the power of the moments themselves — a deflating balloon instead of the piercing burst it could’ve been.
Constance: That final voiceover is absolutely overly literal, but I was honestly a little relieved to hear it. It's just about word for word the last few lines of the book, before the epilogue, in which Offred heads off to her final ambiguous fate, and I think part of the reason the final sequence works so well for me is that it’s devoted to hitting the creepy, anxious release of tension that makes the end of Atwood's book so moving. We've talked a lot in these recap discussions about how much The Handmaid’s Tale has struggled to make its end-of-episode catharsis tonally consistent with the claustrophobia of the rest of the show’s universe, but that kind of release — which is also somehow a little oppressive — is exactly the kind of emotional register Atwood excels at capturing.
Would it have been more artistically compelling if the show had found a way to hit those notes without having Moss recite Atwood's exact words at the same time that we saw them dramatized? Yeah, probably. But to be honest, I don't entirely trust this show to get there on its own. I'm okay with it keeping the Atwood training wheels on when the song it's playing (to mix my metaphors wildly) is this impressive.
Caroline: I can accept that! And I can also agree with Todd that “Night” is by and large the best finale this season could have had. It centers June and the Handmaids in a way the middle of the season largely forgot to do. As those letters in June’s bundle reminded June of the fact that she and her fellow Handmaids were and are people — each starring in their own Handmaid’s Tale — it felt like the show was remembering the same. If season one was all about deconstructing how power shifts and steals agency and pushes people to their moral edges, I hope season two’s story finds a way to give power back to those who need it most.
The entire first season of The Handmaid’s Tale is now available to stream on Hulu.