By Tara Fitzpatrick
(This article contains spoilers)
Few television dramas, however unpredictable, have struck a chord in quite the same way as The Handmaid’s Tale. Led by Elizabeth Moss, it has made the same, if not a greater, cultural impression in one series as Breaking Bad made in six.
Leaving aside the parallels between the theocratic, brutal state of Gilead and the events of our current times (we’ll come back to that later), The Handmaid’s Tale has offered a glimpse of a world many women, and men, may have thought unimaginable yet portrays it with such sinister realism that it seems terrifyingly plausible.
The final instalment, aired on Channel Four on Sunday night, was an explosive, almost-perfect way to wrap the 10-episode-long programme. June (Moss’s character, referred to as Offred) is pregnant. A status which spares her from the wrath of cold-hearted Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) yet also gives her a peculiar status of power in a society where women are valued only for their reproductive organs. “You think I prayed for this?” June asks when told by Serena that “God has answered our prayers”. After years of suppressing her true feelings, June gives Serena a fleeting insight into how she really sees things. This comes to an inevitable climax as June is given a glimpse, through the window of a locked car, at her daughter Hannah. In the heart-breaking scene, Serena denies June any contact with Hannah resulting in a torrent of long-overdue emotional outbursts.
One of the most powerful scenes comes when June along with fellow handmaids are forced into a circle in order to stone to death Janine who, having made an unsuccessful suicide attempt, is now being punished for child abuse. Defying the commands of the sadistic Aunt Lidia (played with marvellous credence by Ann Dowd), one by one the handmaids drop their stones to the ground with an attitude of collective rebellion. “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to become an army,” states June proudly.
Meanwhile, Moria has made it to Canada where she receives support and aid from a refugee centre before being reunited with Luke. Her bewildered expression as she is met with the basic kindness of the volunteers exemplifies the true horror of what she has endured. Signs on the walls declaring “I support Refugees” feel all too familiar.
The final episode ends with June being led into the back of a security van, presumably to receive punishment for her behaviour at the stoning. This is where things are slightly different from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 text. Where Atwood implies a subsequent downfall of the religious state, the TV adaptation leaves itself open to a second series. This is a good idea, despite what diehards of the book may say (who are also, to my mind, wrong to decry people discovering the TV series before reading the book – it is surely only a good thing that so many people have engaged with a feminist dystopian regardless of the medium). The beautiful, cinematic storytelling merits continuation in and of itself, but the society of Gilead, and the views and values which shape it, deserve greater exploration.
In the same week as transgender Americans are denied the right to serve in the military; as refugees continue to risk their life to cross the Mediterranean; as women’s’ bodies are thrown around parliaments like political football, The Handmaid’s Tale might be the most poignant and topical thing you’ll see this year.