In the end, it comes down to a stone.
The second-biggest narrative question of this season was how much they could expand the novel. The biggest question was Offred. She's complex, but she cuts closer to the audience than they might like. Stunned, horrified, trying to survive: Offred's deeply sympathetic but, in the novel, deliberately inert. The struggle between anger and self-preservation is the story's central tension. She doesn't know how one gets out alive against something so swift, so complete, and so awful. "Night" forces Offred to decide: life, or the fight.
It's rough going for her, and for us. Offred's breakdown in the car is staggering, not even because of its vehemence—Serena expected that—but because Offred's agony is without concern for the consequences. Even her joining Mayday carried a sense of strategy, slapdash as it may have been. Here, her outrage consumes her and she doesn't give a shit. (Director Kari Skogland shoots the scene like a straight-up nightmare, down to loved ones who can't hear you screaming for them. This fury is meant to be unreal.)
Of course, every woman in Gilead is sharpened by the sheer pressure of anger. For some, it's a chance to inflict pain. Aunt Lydia's cattle prod, Mrs. Putnam's revenge, everything about Serena. Honestly, she's got the episode's most interesting moments. It's hard not to enjoy the incredibly loaded silence between "Praise be" and "It isn't yours." And her dynamic with Offred is intense—Serena so desperate she'll try to wring sympathy from the captive she just concussed, against Offred's addled refusal to play ball.
But some womens' anger turns into a shield. There's Rita's burst of loyalty (she doesn't even wait until the Eyes are out of the house), the women in that bundle risking death to give testimony. And there's Ofglen II, who seems to surprise herself when she refuses to stone Janine.
It's in keeping with the season that even here, Offred's an observer first. Moira awakened her outrage, Ofglen demonstrated the power of rebellion, and Janine reminded her being alive isn't the same as living. And it's only after Ofglen II is dragged away that Offred lets her stone fall to the ground. But still, she does.
The season hasn't skimped on Gilead's horrors—its warping suffocation, the parade of horrors to which you must give empty acquiescence. It's braced us for a killing blow in the name of mercy. It's almost unsettling to watch the whole thing grind to a halt instead as Handmaids, one by one, find the limits of their self-preservation. There's profound calm to it—each Handmaid apologizes to gobsmacked Aunt Lydia—but it's a death sentence. Still, they set down their weapons.
Some of this season hasn't quite worked. The Handmaid's Tale is a distinctly white, middle-class, American "What If?" which can be awkward during moments that use someone else's status quo as a horror reveal. Some of the tertiary world-building is a stretch: the dismissal of Gilead's white supremacy, Nick's backstory, Luke, the Commander. Some changes are clearly waiting for room, and some is crucial to a longer story. (You don't track Yvonne Strahovski's pressed-thin silhouette alongside Offred ten episodes for nothing; Serena's going to be Offred's mirror image, for better or for worse.)
But that circle of Handmaids, that futile refusal, strikes the tuning fork. The first season of The Handmaid's Tale showed us what women in Gilead are up against; next season, then, is about how they fight it. There's potential for this to go wrong—among other things, this season was meant to be the vision of a near miss, not a real-time reflection, which gives new weight to where they go from here. But the promise of that fight sustains Offred even as the van doors close; for her, it's enough.
We know better than to think the victory will last (she's got a multi-season contract, it'll be a while). But the season neatly caps its story—and answers that pacing question—by leaving us where the book left us: Offred in the dark, hoping. It's the same immediacy that made the early episodes hypnotic, with the direct address turned pointedly toward. Gilead is on the doorstep. What will we do?
Before We Go:
- The Emmy inevitably goes to Elisabeth Moss, whose eyes are color graded to "antifreeze," and who gets to stare down everyone by turns.
- And if other awards escape her, Ann Dowd has earned the Emmy for Best Supporting Line Delivery, with "A parade of sluts." ('Sluts' has three syllables. That's a pro.)
- I understand the emotional weight of the tableau, the visual impact for Serena of two people with a genuine connection, and how badly the story needed to rebuild trust after episode 9 and before what happens here. I still laughed as Offred and Nick obligingly held the pose in the middle of the kitchen until someone saw. (And I can't believe Nick settled on "No it's not" when Offred said the pregnancy was terrible. Come on, buddy.)
- The shot of Serena on the floor of Offred's room, arms spread like a novice nun, was more compelling than it had any right to be.
- The begrudgingly charmed "You do that so well" from the Commander would have been part of a fascinating dynamic between him and Offred if the Commander had been less cartoonishly awful. Missed opportunity.
- Moira's escape was so subdued I kept waiting for something awful to happen—which was the point. (Moira looks at the cell phone like it's going to bite her.) It's unfortunate that the people who most need to understand the visceral, wary relief of a refugee welcomed by a safe government are likely not watching.
- Despite some striking missteps, this has been a beautifully shot and acted season; I'm more curious than I expected to be about what happens next.
Follow Genevieve Valentine on Twitter .