This post contains plot details from the season 2 Finale of The Handmaid’s Tale “The Word” and from Audible and Margaret Atwood’s Special Edition Audio Book of The Handmaid’s Tale.
I suspect that I was not the only person who spent last Sunday night screaming at my TV set. “Get out of there!” I yelled. “Get in the van!” I beseeched. But it was to no avail. Why oh why would the writers have Offred attempt escape three times this season and then when her escape was all but guaranteed, have her hand her baby off to Emily and disappear into the night. When the finale of season two was over, I was left with a hoarse voice, a sense of futility and a vow that I would not watch season three.
A week has passed and I have had time to: think things through, obsess over the series, read every blog post and article ever written about it and most importantly re-read the book. Or, to be more accurate, listen to the audio book Special Edition of the Handmaid’s Tale, expertly read by Clare Danes with a revised last section, revised afterword by Margaret Atwood and excellent essay by Valerie Marin. After much thought, I now feel that as much as it pains me, the creators made a choice about the last moment of the episode that is true to the integrity of the novel in many ways. In order to successfully adapt material from one form to another, writers must take into account the differences between each medium and must use the strengths and constraints of the new medium to their advantage to communicate key aspects of the story and themes and while I have criticisms of the second season, I think for the most part the creators succeeded in doing this.
In the book and for much of the series so far, Offred is portrayed not as a fearless heroine, but as an individual who sees herself as weak in many respects. In the book she describes herself as a physical coward, if tortured, she will say anything. She becomes more emboldened as the book continues but for practical reasons and for her own survival, that of Hannah and perhaps Luke as well. In the TV series, she feels extreme guilt about the driver who helps her escape. In her mind, it is because she begged him to allow her to temporarily hide in his apartment that he is executed, hung on the wall, his wife forced to become a handmaid and their child given away. Her fear and weakness caused his death. Aunt Lydia spares no words to remind her of this.
The thing is though, the second season continues where the book left off and as it is a continuation, Offred’s character arc must be further developed as we cannot continue to be interested in and to care about a character who is stagnant. Also, she is not completely without bravery. In the last section of the book we fast forward a couple of centuries and land in a post-Gileadean universe. Professor James Darcy Piexoto, Director of Twentieth and Twenty-first Century Archives at Cambridge University, has discovered her story narrated in her own voice onto a series of audiocassettes and he shares his findings and his analysis of them with his audience. The very act of having made these recordings in such a repressive environment is courageous and also somewhat hopeful as she indicates at one point. She makes it clear that one doesn’t tell their story without the hope that it will be heard one day. Therefore to me, the act of remaining in Gilead at the end of the episode is not completely illogical as she has demonstrates some courage throughout the novel and in the series we see her bravery and self sacrifice developing over the past two seasons. For example, in one of the most powerful sequences of the season, she gives birth entirely alone and then once she sees no avenue of escape, fires the gun that she has found in order to ensure the survival of her new daughter. Additionally, I don’t feel, as some do, that her only reason for staying in Gilead is Hannah although she is of course a driving factor.
One of the key elements of the book and show is the Mayday resistance. An extremely vivid example of the power and bravery of this network of women is when the Marthas, who are part of the resistance, set fire to the house across from the Waterford’s to act as a distraction and then quietly and assuredly lead Offred from house to house and then to a van that is there to take her to freedom. While I can’t know what will happen in Season 3, if, as some hints indicate, it will focus on the resistance, it makes sense for Offred to be a key participant in it now. She has tried to focus on her own safety and escape but her growing awareness of the fact that there is no safety for girls in Gilead, even for ones who are true believers as witnessed by the execution of Eden, has affected a profound change in her. Yes, her decision to remain in Gilead is in large part because of Hannah but it is also because she feels that she can make more change from the inside. There were a number of episodes this season that eerily mirrored events happening in the U.S. and while, I don’t believe that the writers are setting out to convey a message of resistance to Americans, I do think that it has perhaps seeped into the fabric of the show. As Valerie Martin puts it: “The answer to the question…of what makes an instant classic is that it’s timeliness increases with time.”
Some viewers (myself included) have wondered why the writers did not choose to continue June’s story from Canada and have another Handmaid continue the tale from inside Gilead. In re-examining the book, I was reminded of the section called “Historical Notes on the Handmaid’s Tale”. In it, as already mentioned, we have advanced two centuries. Gileadean society is long over and we are at an academic conference entitled” The Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” on June 25th 2195 at the University of Denay, Nunavut. Professor Piexoto has just presented a paper entitled “Problems of Authentication in Reference to the Handmaid’s Tale.” I remember that when I first read the book in high school, this section bothered me even more than the rest of the novel. This professor discusses how he found a series of cassettes in a taped up footlocker in what used to be Bangor Maine. In his talk, he discusses the attempts made by himself and his colleagues to determine the identity of the narrator. While he gives a voice to Offred and makes it possible for her story to be shared, he also makes light in many ways of the stripping away of the rights of women and of their kidnapping and enforced rape which was endemic to this regime. Additionally, at times, he makes Gilead sound like a fascinating and quaint place that history has taken the bite out of. Clearly, Atwood is reminding us that over and over again we fail to learn from history. Ultimately though, this section of the book reinforces that this is Offred’s story and as such the creators of the TV series need to make sure that she continues to tell it.