It’s been a polarising season for a show that was once considered to be telly’s greatest offering, but The Handmaids’ Tale manages to get back on track for its season finale, which is, yes, problematic, but also utterly spectacular.
The aptly titled ‘Mayday’ centres on June (Elisabeth Moss) and her fellow handmaids and Marthas, as they carry out their plan to extract all of the children from Gilead. It’s an incredibly tense and, in many ways, beautiful episode — although it gets off to a problematic start, when one of the Marthas arrives at Lawrence’s (Bradley Whitford) house too early — with her commander’s child in tow.
With the amount of preparation and care that went into planning the mission, I found this rather contrived — as this Martha serves little purpose to the narrative other than to cause immense problems, which means that she’s nothing more than a plot device — and not a very good one at that. I mean, the extraction was to be carried out at nightfall, so why would the woman have turned up in broad daylight — several hours before the plane was ready to take off?
I guess you could make an argument for tensions being high, and therefore she wasn’t thinking straight and that’s fair enough, but if her decision to turn up far too early wasn’t bad enough, then her sudden desire to return home with the child — and tell her commander the truth and beg for forgiveness — really takes the biscuit. Forced conflict at its finest. Knowing that she cannot let this woman scupper her chances at getting the kids out of Gilead, June reaches for her gun. However, she’s unable to fire it at the woman — and ends up pointing the gun temporarily at the child. Another attempt at highlighting June’s fall from grace I suspect, but I’m not really sure it worked.
The most frustrating thing about this sub-arc is that June more or less allowed for the Martha to leave. Both she and her allies had multiple opportunities to overpower the woman — or perhaps tie her up — and yet they did nothing. What’s more, June being unable to pull the trigger is problematic in itself — and rather inconsistent — given that she allowed for her pal Eleanor (Julie Dretzin) to die in order to ensure the plan wasn’t put at risk — even though Eleanor never posed that much of a risk in the first place. Yet we’re expected to believe that she couldn’t shoot the woman who actually did pose a risk to her plan?
The missing girl, of course, results in the police searching Gilead in the hopes of finding her, and Lawrence calls off the plan as a result. However, June refuses to back down and delivers a rather contrived monologue about how he’s no longer the one with all the power. I get what the writers were trying to achieve with this speech, but given everything that’s transpired not only over the course of this episode but also throughout the entire season, it just didn’t work — especially when you consider that June’s carelessness is largely responsible for much of the obstacles she’s faced as of late.
Alterations are made to the plan to accommodate the police search, and thus the handmaids and Marthas agree to get the children out via the woods, so — as the children arrive — Rita (Amanda Brugel) and June head out to signpost the route to the airstrip.
The pay-off in Lawrence’s arc is one of the most rewarding things about this finale, and the scene in which June and her fellow handmaids arrive back to find Lawrence reading to the children is a real tear-jerker. The biggest reveal here is that there’s way more than 52 children — meaning that word of the escape plan had spread in the best way possible.
In this moment, the inconsistencies in June’s characterisation didn’t seem to matter all that much to me, because she had done this, and we — as viewers — are incredibly proud of her for it. A truly awe-inspiring moment.
Our protagonist bids farewell to Lawrence — whom she addresses as Joseph, and he returns the favour by calling her by her name. As in her real name — a rarity in Gilead, and a show of respect on Lawrence’s part for all that June had accomplished, in spite of how the odds were against her.
There’s a real sense of urgency as the handmaids and Marthas discreetly take the children through the woods — although it was perhaps executed a little too perfectly to be believable. Some form of conflict or obstacle would’ve been appreciated here. I mean, considering the whole plan was about the children, they barely featured in their own escape. Not one of them even remotely resisted — which, of course, isn’t believable as — in spite of the plan being for their own good — they’ve just been pulled away from the people they believe to be their parents. Moreover, many of them will have never known a world prior to Gilead, so some naturally would’ve resisted going with the handmaids.
More conflict arises when there are guards patrolling the airstrip — right in front of the aeroplane. You can’t help but feel for June and all her Mayday allies — not to mention the children. So close to freedom. In typical June fashion, our protagonist realises that it’s up to her to see that the kids get safely onto the plane, and thus she heads towards the guards. It’s a beautifully written scene — and Moss delivers some of her finest work as June deliberates over the best course of action, all the while pondering if this will be her last stand. Exceptionally executed.
In what’s undoubtedly the greatest moment in the episode, all of the handmaids and Marthas — including Janine (Madeline Brewer) — return to June’s side, as they refuse to let her do this on her own. Spectacular scenes ensue as June and her friends pick up rocks and fire them at the two unsuspecting guardians — in a scene reminiscent of their first season stoning. The difference here — however — is that the power really is in the handmaids’ hands this time. They’re not being forced to do anything against their will, but rather they’re choosing to act as one in order to save the children. And it works too, as Rita discreetly guides the kids towards the aeroplane.
With one of the guardians still shooting, June takes it upon herself to step into the spotlight, resulting in the guard following her through the woods. It’s another tense, and incredibly high-stakes sequence, and you can’t help but feel your heart in your mouth the whole way through — especially when the guard succeeds in shooting our protagonist. In spite of her injury, June manages to get the upper hand when she unveils her gun and shoots the adversary. Another brilliant scene — although I can’t help but question why she waited until after she’d been shot to use the gun? She had ample opportunity to fire whilst the other handmaids were throwing the stones, for one. Nonetheless, June smiles through the pain as the plane takes flies overhead — realising she’d succeeded. The children are free. No, you’re crying.
Meanwhile, in Canada, Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), Moira (Samira Wiley) and Emily (Alexis Bledel) tend to all of the kids once the aeroplane arrives. It’s quite possibly the most emotional scene in Handmaid’s history, as Luke stares at the children exiting the aircraft, hoping — praying — that Hannah is among them. I’m sure I’m not the only one who teared up as Rita — who was evidently overcome with emotion — places her hand on the floor to take a moment to come to terms with not only the magnitude of what she’s done, but also to come to terms with the fact that she’s finally free. Her heartfelt reunion with Emily is nothing short of incredible — as is Rita meeting Luke for the first time. This is the payoff that we’ve been waiting for, and it absolutely lived up to expectation. This right here — this scene — this is what Handmaid’s does best. Sublime.
The other narrative which featured in ‘Mayday’ was that of Serena’s (Yvonne Strahovski) downfall. The Waterford mistress was shaping up to be quite the model citizen — and Mr. Tuello (Sam Jaeger) was even prepared to grant her permission to leave the compound and live her life freely. I probably wasn’t alone in thinking, ‘huh?’. I mean, considering everything that Serena’s done, there’s no way she’d get off that lightly, right? Well — in typical Handmaid’s fashion — a last minute twist ensured that she received her just deserts, as Fred (Joseph Fiennes)— unable to let his wife away with her betrayal — gave Tuello information that would incriminate her. There’s something oddly satisfying in knowing that — in spite of them once having been inseparable — these two ended up being instrumental in one another’s downfall. Mind you, Serena’s repentance would certainly be an arc worth exploring in the future — but for now, it’s nice to see that she didn’t get away scot free after everything she put June through.
The final shot of the handmaids returning to the forest carry June to safety is a little problematic in that — first of all — why did it take them until the next morning to rescue their friend? What’s more, why didn’t any of the handmaids get on the plane? Surely there will be repercussions for what June did, and — if the past seasons have taught us anything — all the handmaids will no doubt be punished as a result, so I would’ve imagined that some of them would’ve seized the opportunity to escape?
Having said that, if the scene’s sole purpose was simply to foreshadow what comes next, then it successfully does so, as the biblical imagery in June being carried away by her fellow handmaids would seem to suggest that she’s now the messiah-type figure we all assumed she would become — therefore, the next chapter of this story could well see her attempt to take Gilead down once and for all.
A fourth season is currently a necessity, as knowledge of Hannah’s whereabouts will no doubt be what June pursues next. Mind you, had the third season not taken that odd narrative deviation which saw June recklessly lose her chance to rescue her daughter with that ridiculous school visit, then perhaps Hannah would’ve been on the plane, and we could’ve ended the series right here?
Nonetheless, ‘Mayday’ finishes out a problematic season in an incredibly enjoyable fashion, and — after everything that’s transpired during said season — that’s good enough for me.
By Stephen Patterson