This Wednesday, Hulu’s acclaimed and bleak Handmaid’s Tale is coming back to your screens. And if you’re just looking at the source material — Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel — it’s an open question where it goes next.
Last season’s finale, “Night,” ends exactly where Atwood’s novel does. (Aside from the epilogue. We’ll get into that below.) Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is locked into the back of the van, and that van belongs either to the Eye, the police force of Offred’s dystopian totalitarian state, or to rebel forces in disguise. As Moss recites the last words of Atwood’s novel in voiceover, the camera pushes in on her face, and we’re left guessing: Is Offred about to be led to unimaginable torment? Or is she getting her chance for freedom?
That’s where Atwood chooses to leave readers dangling, and where the Hulu show will pick up in the new season. The show already forged its way through most of Atwood’s novel in its first 10 episodes, so it’s safe to say that the new season will focus on expanding the world of the novel and digging into its unexplored corners.
But there are two major pieces of Atwood’s material that the TV show has yet to explore. Here’s what’s left of the book for The Handmaid’s Tale to work with.
We still haven’t seen Offred’s mother
On the Hulu show, Offred’s mother has yet to make an appearance, but in the book, she’s a major part of Offred’s backstory.
Book-Offred’s mother is a second-wave feminist who took Offred to marches and protests as a child. Offred, a child of the post-feminist ’80s, finds her mother’s radicalism silly and faintly embarrassing — until she finds herself living in the misogynist dystopia of Gilead. In the “present day” of the narrative, she repeatedly has conversations with her mother in her head.
She’s fairly certain her mother was sent to the so-called Colonies to clean up nuclear waste in what was essentially a death sentence, which is Gilead’s preferred means for dealing with radicals, but she can’t be certain.
Showrunner Bruce Miller has already announced that he’s cast Cherry Jones as Offred’s mother Holly, and IMDB has Jones appearing in the fourth episode of season two, so it looks like season two will start digging into Holly’s story in earnest. What we don’t know is whether we’ll be seeing her solely in flashbacks into Offred’s past or whether we’ll also catch a glimpse of her in the present, in the Colonies or elsewhere.
There’s still the problem of the epilogue to deal with
Atwood’s novel doesn’t end where Offred’s story does. After Offred’s last chapter, the reader is transported to a conference of “Gileadean Studies” in 2195 and presented with a transcript of remarks from a male scholar of Gilead.
Offred’s tale, we learn, was in fact spoken by Offred, recorded on a collection of cassette tapes. What we just read was an edited transcription of the tapes created by this scholar, and he is now placing Offred’s story into “historical context” for us. Said context mostly consists of light mocking of Offred’s repeated rapes and warnings to the audience not to judge her rapists too harshly. It’s a chilling coda to the novel, one that reminds us that the history of women is generally written by men.
This frame story has yet to appear as part of the Hulu show, but the show has left enough wiggle room that it could conceivably come into play in the future. Offred’s voiceover generally plays like inner monologue, but in theory, it could also be her recorded thoughts spoken into a recorder. And just before her voiceover begins in the first episode, there’s an audible click. It could just be part of the sound mix, but it could also be the sound of a tape deck beginning to record.
Working the Conference in Gileadean Studies into the show would be tricky: The show has already developed a dependable rhythm of moving between past and present, and delving into the conference would mean adding a third timeline to the language of the show. But the epilogue is the richest vein of Atwood’s novel that remains untapped, and it’s arguably essential to a full understanding of the book. If the TV show is looking for new book lore to delve into, the epilogue is the place to go.