‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season Finale: Offred Goes Off-Book

Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo TV

By the end of the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale — the tenth episode is streaming now on Hulu — the producers have reached the end of the Margaret Atwood book that provides the series’ source material. This adds an extra layer of suspense: The season ends with a plot cliffhanger, but we also have reason to be concerned about whether The Handmaid’s Tale can continue to be as good as it’s been when it strikes out on its new, Atwood-less path. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE SEASON FINALE OF THE HANDMAID’S TALE.

The final hour crammed in a lot of plot. Offred (Elisabeth Moss) felt the wrath of Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) when the latter discovered the former’s dalliance with Fred (Joseph Fiennes). (Well, this was a most ill-concealed affair — did Serena Joy never hear those two clicking Scrabble tiles in his office late at night?) Offred is pregnant… by, it seems likely, Nick (Max Minghella). Offred finally saw her long-lost daughter, Hannah — visited by Serena Joy, with Offred kept locked in a car, screaming in agony at the continued separation. And we saw that the all-important package contained a sheaf of letters from women attesting to their cruel punishment by the authorities. (I’m a little puzzled as to that package’s importance: Doesn’t the rest of the world already know what crimes against humanity are being committed in Gilead? If not, why is Canada running the typically Canadian greatest immigrant-welcoming program ever?)

Offred’s increasingly bold, rebellious nature came to the fore when she leads the rest of the handmaids in refusing to participate in a ritual stoning. We knew this kind of thing was going to happen because early in the episode, Offred’s voice-over made a tough assertion: “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” And later, Offred leads the handmaids in a defiant strut whose framing and pacing reminded me an awful lot of Moss as Peggy in Mad Men, striding down the ad agency hall with a cigarette butt in her clenched jaw.

All of this was meant to be a positive rouser for the audience, since we’ve suffered along with Offred during her ceaseless punishments and setbacks. It was effective mostly because Moss is so good at communicating Offred’s awareness that things will never be truly better until this whole system is torn down. There are times when The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV series, works against some of the most dramatic moments of The Handmaid’s Tale, the book. One of Offred’s final lines here — “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing” — is taken directly from Atwood’s novel, but its pleasing ambiguity has been wiped away here: We know this has got to be a “new beginning” for Offred, because there’s no way the TV show will go into a second season without Offred and her newfound resistance movement, right?

Handmaid’s started off wonderfully, but bogged down a bit around the midway point. For a 10-episode season, there was a lot of repetition in those Scrabble games Offred had with Fred, and their various assignations both inside and outside the house tended to go over the same ground. The show’s seventh episode, “The Other Side,” was intended to fill us in on what was going on with husband Luke after he was separated from his wife and child, but the hour was pretty much a snooze — there was no suspense in his escapes from the authorities, and his safe haven in Canada, while comforting to him in its lack of danger, was tedious for viewers for the exact same reason. In general, The Handmaid’s Tale would do well to avoid the currently fashionable trend to devote most of an episode to a single character — what I’ve come to think of as the Orange Is the New Black storytelling style — and give us hours that juggle proper subplots.

The show’s challenge, obviously, is to proceed from this point on with the same calm, controlled tone Atwood maintained in her novel while writing about wildly upsetting subjects. Avoiding melodrama will be key; the series is lucky that Moss, one of the least florid of performers, continues to lead the way.

The Handmaid’s Tale is streaming on Hulu.

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