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The Handmaid's Tale - The Word - Review - "Emmy Ready - Why This Show Should Win A Bunch!"

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The Emmy Awards are upon us, and I’ve saved this review of the final episode of The Handmaid’s Tale to remind us of why the entire cast deserves to win! I loved Sandra Oh in Killing Eve, but Elisabeth Moss (June/Offred) still has my vote. Thandie Newton was great in Westworld, but we have three outstanding entries in Supporting Actress. Alexis Bledel (Emily) and Ann Dowd (Aunt Lydia) were spectacular this season, yet I have to give the nod to Yvonne Strahovski (Serena Joy). In fact, all three are particularly compelling in this final episode, but Strahovski’s character underwent the most startling character arc this season in my opinion. So read on as I wax poetic about the stunning season finale…

“The Word” was written by Bruce Miller and brilliantly directed by Mike Barker. This show really is the entire package for me. From the detail paid to musical choices to the use of colour to the beautiful cinematography that reinforces the outstanding performances week in and week out.

The episode opens with Eden’s clothes blowing in the wind on the clothes line as Rita (Amanda Brugel) and June take them off and fold them. In a voiceover, we hear “this is all she leaves behind. There won’t be a marker anywhere. All we leave behind is the uniform: Wife, handmaid, Martha, mother, daughter, girlfriend, Queen, bitch, criminal, sinner, heretic, prisoner.” I loved the way the dialogue acknowledges the roles forced about the women of Gilead and then expands to the other roles forced upon women. One of the central themes of this episode is women breaking out of those roles and defying them.

Rita and June pack up Eden’s things to give back to her family. Everyone is clearly still reeling from the last episode’s events. Rita is consumed with guilt, telling Eden that “she was a child. I treated her like shit.” June points out that she slept with Eden’s husband – but at least not while they were married! Rita insists that she should have done more to help her. June finds a box with a teddy bear – a poignant reminder that she was a child – but she also finds a Bible that’s been written all over.

June goes to Serena with the Bible. There’s clearly been a shift in their relationship brought on by the baby. June is polite to Serena and shows her the Bible and all the notes. Serena simply remarks that it looks like Eden was hiding a multitude of sins. When June presses her on what sins – after all the two of them were just involved in reading, writing, and editing Fred’s (Joseph Fiennes) correspondence – Serena shifts to “she wasn’t strong enough” – placing the blame on the victim. June points out that Eden was only 15. Serena insists that she should have been smarter – but who would have taught her how to be smarter? Smarter not to do it in the first place or smarter not to get caught?

June points out that Eden was looking for guidance – as she had done from June, Rita, and Serena in how to act and be a good wife and mother. June’s real concern, of course, is for the baby. Who will educate her on how to be smart? Who will keep her safe? Serena insists that the baby will be brought up properly – implying that Eden wasn’t. Serena insists that the baby will know the word of God, but June wants to know how if she’s not even allowed to read it! At that point, Serena loses her temper and tells June to get out. She isn’t really angry with June, however. Serena realizes that this is a failing of Gilead. Serena finally realizes that her great experiment – that she devised and agreed to in order to get a baby – is the biggest threat to that baby’s life. She knows that June is right. She can’t keep the baby safe.

Eden’s father (David Tompa) comes to collect her things and apologizes to Nick (Max Mingella) and Fred. I loved the way this scene was blocked – Fred standing and Serena sitting in the subjugated position. Mr Spencer tells them that he’s ashamed. Serena tries to offer him comfort, telling him that Eden had a kind heart. Rita can’t even watch and her guilt drives her out of the room. Fred asks after Spencer’s other daughter and brutally tells him to make sure that she learns from Eden’s mistakes. Spencer tries to defend himself and his family – he has to be terrified that Commander Waterford will find them complicit and further punish his own family. He reveals that he was the one who called the authorities and turned the young lovers in as soon as they showed up. How nice. Eden goes home, where you would assume you would be safe and welcomed – and is turned in. June is so appalled that she blurts out, in outrage, “YOU turned her in?”

The others leave, and we watch another brilliant performance from Moss as June seethes. As Fred passes her, she asks him, “What are you going to do when they come for your daughter?” Men clearly can’t be trusted. June knows that Fred won’t protect the baby. Fred shuts the door calmly, but then turns back to June and tells her to mind her tongue before viciously hitting her. June immediately punches him right back! Was anybody not cheering (and terrified) at this point?!? Fred then grabs her by the face and forces her down on the couch. He finally reveals the depths of his misogyny as he says to her “you are the misery of all men, all of you” and leaves.

Rita brings ice up to June’s room for her face, and the two laugh over it. Nick shows up as Rita is leaving, and she tells him, “Your girlfriend is a badass!” I love how the three of them have bonded, but even more, I love how June has become a leader and an inspiration for all of them, including Serena.

June tells Nick that it’s ok, and takes him to the baby’s room. I loved this scene. Rita gives the baby to June when she comes in and leaves the two together – the real family. As she closes the door, I loved the smile that plays across Rita’s face as she watches June hand the baby to Nick. June says to Nick, “look what we made” and introduces Holly to her Daddy. June then kisses Nick and tells him that she loves him. Nick is finally able to receive the comfort that she wanted to give him in the last episode.

The next day, June, Janine (Madeline Brewer), and Emily walk along the river, past the hanging corpses of Eden and Isaac. As always, Janine wants to put a romantic spin on it, and wonders if they are together in heaven. June points out that they should be together here. There’s a little comic relief as Janine wonders why June always has to focus on the bad stuff. She asks if June ever hears her complain – and points to her missing eye. June continues with the horrific death, however – they drowned them in a swimming pool. And Janine insists that they died for love.

June tells the two about the Bible. Janine is impressed – “Wow. Brave” – and June agrees that Eden, in the end, really was. Emily is concerned that her first ceremony is to be that night, and she tells June that she keeps dreaming about her son, Oliver. June remembers that his birthday is soon and suggests that they can bake a cake. Emily doesn’t really comment, but says she’s glad that she got to come back and got to see June again. It’s clear that Emily has something planned.

Meanwhile, Serena ends up with a very unexpected ally in Naomi Putnam (Ever Carradine). The wives are all over at Naomi’s, and Serena and Naomi are cooing over their babies. Naomi remarks that they have so much to look forward to with their girls, and Serena asks her if she ever worries about their futures. Because really, what future does any woman have in Gilead?? The two are wonderful as they circle each other, feeling each other out without giving away their true feelings until they are sure of the other. Naomi says she trusts in Gilead, but Serena presses that they want a life of purpose for girls AND boys. It’s clear that they are on the same page, and the two have already begun to figure out who among the wives will join them.

That night, Emily comes down for the ceremony. We hear music blaring in the background – “Itchycoo Park” by Small Faces. It’s another one of those wonderful ironic moments as the chorus blares out “It’s all too beautiful” and it’s anything but that for Emily. Emily peeks into the room for the ceremony and then goes to the kitchen and gets a knife before returning and assuming the submissive kneeling position on a pillow.

Joseph (Bradley Whitford) blusters in looking for Cora (Victoria Fodor). He wonders if she’s gone out and declares it’s impossible to motivate employees when he can’t leverage salaries. Whitford is a delight, and I’m really hoping that they find a way to keep him for season 3. He clearly has a lot of problems with how Gilead runs. When he finally notices Emily, he asks her what she’s doing and tells her that he’s not doing that with her. He tells her to get up and go to her room. It’s not a rejection of her but of the practice itself.

Serena appears before the Gilead council, and one of the other Commanders sarcastically asks Fred if he forgot his lunch. The point is clear. A woman’s place is in the home – and a man should be able to control his wife. Serena, however, is unfazed. She thanks them for allowing her to speak – and of course, it was her speeches that really got the ball rolling on the subjugation of women in Gilead. She reminds them of their own rules, rules she helped to craft. A member in good standing can propose and amendment to their constitution. She tells them “We would like to propose such an amendment.” The council wonders who “we” refers to and suddenly all the wives are there and all the Commanders seem to have lost control – for the moment.

Serena tells the Council that the holy scripture is a miracle, and that they believe both sons and daughters should be taught to read it. Fred is clearly not happy. He tells Serena thank you and that they’ll consider it… but Serena isn’t done yet. Serena is suddenly unwrapping Eden’s Bible – Naomi tries to stop her. The other wives are only willing to go so far. Serena ignores them and begins to read: “In the beginning was the word…” Many of the wives start to leave. Perhaps she thought that she was merely reminding them that she can read – and helped to build Gilead. She is a loyal, pious subject of Gilead… but now she’s broken the law and caused Fred to lose face in front of the other Commanders.

Outside the Council chamber, Naomi tells her that she shouldn’t have done it. Serena quotes to her “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” Naomi thinks she’s quoting the Bible, but she’s actually quoting William Basil, a Canadian minister – which is a nice layer on two fronts. It’s again a throwback to Canadian author Margaret Atwood, but it also alludes to where so many of the refugees have fled.

Fred finally comes out and thanks the wives for coming and sends them away. Serena is still treating Fred like her partner and asks what the Council said. It’s a testament to Strahovski’s acting that I felt real sympathy for Serena here even if she was the master of her own downfall – both through her actions and through her completely misunderstanding Fred. She tells him that she did it for Nicole, to set an example for her. Fred tells her that she has – but not in the way she thinks. She thinks she’s showed Nicole how to stand up for what’s right, and Fred proves that she’s simply shown what happens when a woman tries to break out of her assigned role. Fred has Serena dragged away – and let’s them cut off one of her fingers.

Meanwhile, Aunt Lydia shows up to ask Emily about her First Ceremony. Before Emily can say anything, Aunt Lydia tells her that the Commander told her it went splendidly! He is very pleased – and consequently, so is Aunt Lydia… until Emily completely shuts down. Emily has been so abused and traumatized that she can’t recognize a friend in the Commander. Aunt Lydia loses her temper and tells Emily that she should be glad that “God offers redemption to even the most perverse.” And then Emily completely loses it and stabs Aunt Lydia and pushes her down the stairs! And then continues to kick her when she’s down.

Cora comes upon the gruesome scene and the Commander has her call for an ambulance. He grabs Emily and puts her in her room. Bledel is really wonderful in this scene. She has absolutely no dialogue but you clearly see the emotions play through her.

        She returns to her room elated to have finally inflicted some pain on the woman who has inflicted so much on her. Then she is horrified at what she has become, the violence that she is now capable of. And finally, she is afraid. What will happen now – will she end up on the wall? How will they kill her? Will she end up back in the colonies? The wall and a painful death have to be the most likely.

More horror unfolds at the Waterford house as Fred arrives home with a dazed Serena. June greets Serena at the door, but Serena just wants to know where the baby is. Fred tells June to bring Serena’s medicine upstairs.

June pauses at the door to Serena’s bedroom. Fred tells her “they” had a difficult day but everything will be well from her on. In other words, he’s put Serena in her place. He leaves Serena’s wedding ring on the table and offers to get her tea. June shuts the door after him and asks Serena what happened. Serena simply unwraps her hand and shows where her finger has been cut off. She is mutilated physically as well as intellectually now. Serena tells June that she tried. June sits beside Serena on the bed and both are reflected in the mirror. She puts her hand over Serena’s in a gesture of comfort. This is such a great shot that evokes so many other moments between these two women, but really represents a turning point. The two truly are reflections of each other now. Wives have no more autonomy than handmaids – they have no one to rely on except themselves.

June comes downstairs and is furious. Fred is trying to make tea because Rita is not there and is so useless he has to ask for June’s help. June is incredulous and says, “You let them do that to Serena?” Fred tells her, “We all have our roles to play. Serena needed to be reminded of hers.” Fred then tells June that an obedient handmaid could be allowed to stay. June reminds him that it’s not allowed – but Fred is growing bolder. He tells her that the rules can be bent for high-ranking Commanders. No doubt the torture and mutilation of his own wife has increased his standing. He tries to bribe June with being able to stay with her baby. They could try for a boy this time. It could be fun… June is utterly disgusted and tells Fred to “go fuck” himself. But then he plays his ace – maybe he would be able to arrange more visits with Hannah. He knows June’s biggest weakness.

That night Joseph comes for Emily who is sitting in the dark, waiting for her fate. He muses, “what are we going to do with you?” After sticking his mad wife back in her attic, Joseph takes Emily in the car. He is clearly – and rightly so! – a bit put out with her and asks her if she’s proud of herself. Emily isn’t talking – still in shock.

        He asks her if she likes music – and again with the wonderful musical choices – he puts in Annie Lennox – and icon of female empowerment – singing “Walking on Broken Glass.” Joseph is happily singing and bopping along to the blaring music until Emily begs him to turn it off. I love this shot as once again the cinematography plays with mirrors - which are our true versions?

Back at the Waterford’s, June is nursing the baby and then burping her when she notices a huge fire across the street. Rita bursts in and tells June that “they” can get June and the baby out, but they have to go right now. It’s a group of Marthas that are orchestrating it. June grabs a sweater and her picture of Hannah. We see Nick outside directing traffic – and he’s clearly a part of the plot. Rita tells the baby, “God bless you sweet girl,” and June turns back to hug her. Nick looks up from the street and sees June in the window. He just nods at her. They’ve all come so far – Rita has found her courage, and Nick has found the truth.

Fred notices all the commotion and asks Rita what’s going on. She very brusquely tells him she doesn’t know. Fred becomes suspicious and goes upstairs. He sees that the baby is gone and runs to June’s room. She’s left a huge message scratched into the wall: Don’t let the bastards get you down. Of course. The rebellion is out of the closet now. When Fred tries to leave to go after her, Nick won’t let him leave, telling him it’s too dangerous – but Nick’s hand on his gun is the real threat to Fred. And I have to wonder what the ramifications for Nick are going to be next season.

Of course Serena sees June as she tries to sneak off the property and tries to stop her. Strahovski deserves that Emmy for so many scenes, but this one is truly a standout. We see the war going on inside of Serena – what she’s sacrificed and the true joy she’s known from having the baby. But the baby has also changed her fundamentally and opened her eyes to what she has done to all the women around her – including the baby. Would she have changed as much if she’d had a boy?

June tells Serena what she already knows. She can’t let Nicole/Holly grow up in Gilead. June knows how much Serena loves the baby – enough to set her free to protect her. Serena asks to say goodbye and June gives the baby to her. Serena tells the baby, “May the Lord bless and keep you” – she hasn’t lost her own faith. As June takes the baby back, she says, “Blessings on you, Serena,” and I love how this show can use the same line to mean completely different things. In this case, it’s a marker of how far June and Serena have come. They’ve become allies from enemies, and June truly means it.

June is handed from Martha to Martha as she makes her escape – and it feels eerily like her other escapes. We get a beautiful slow motion shot of June crossing the road with the fire burning behind her – and June has truly lit a fire under the women of Gilead. She’s changed how Serena sees it, and she’s mobilized the Marthas now in addition to having inspired the handmaids last season. What will the ramifications be next season given how this season began?

We see June waiting in the reeds – this is perhaps a rather heavy call out to Moses having been discovered in the reeds. June pulls out the photo of Hannah and shows it to Holly. She tells her it’s her sister and maybe she’ll see her one day. Then June steels herself and says more definitively that Holly will meet her one day – she’s not giving up on getting Hannah out. She tucks the picture into the blanket.

We see a car pull into the tunnel in front of June and flash its lights. Commander Lawrence wishes Emily “Godspeed” – so he may be a hippy, but he clearly also believes in Serena’s God – it’s a nice parallel. Emily rushes to June wanting to know what’s happening. She’s too traumatized to even hope that she’s actually getting out. Commander Lawrence interjects that he’s getting himself into deep shit, but June tells Emily that she’s getting out.

Commander Lawrence tells Emily to have a nice life – and not get caught! And then adds “Stay away from drugs!” which is rather hilarious and breaks the tension somewhat. Of course, drugs seems like such a mundane threat in the face of what Gilead has done to society. Emily begs June to hurry as June hesitates. June slowly walks to the waiting truck, and you just knew at that moment that she was re-considering. Thinking again about leaving Hannah behind – something she promised that she would never do.

June slowly hands the baby to Emily. I’ve discussed the importance of naming many times in my reviews. Here June tells Emily to call the baby Nicole – to honor Serena and the sacrifice that she made. She also tells Emily to tell the baby that she loves her. Then June tells the truck to drive away. Emily is shocked – too shocked to really do anything. June watches as the truck drives away. We get another one of those brilliant close ups of Moss’s face. June is devastated to say goodbye to her baby. There’s no guarantee that even if she ever gets out that she’ll ever be able to find them again.

Then we see June pull up her good and she slowly looks up. Now we see that familiar look of determination on her face. June turns back the way she came as Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” comes up. Oh yes. June has more work to do within Gilead. I loved how this song fit perfectly with the fire that was set to get them out of Gilead – and that slow motion sequence of June running past the fire – and now running right back into it.

This was an amazing episode to end a stunning second season. If anyone thought that the show would run out of steam because we’d pretty much covered the book in season one, they were clearly proven wrong. This show deserves the Emmy for best drama based on the acting, writing, and direction, but also the very important themes it explores about female empowerment. Of course, I do have a very, very soft spot in my heart for Game of Thrones – a show that can boast the same pedigree – and I’ll admit that I won’t be sad if that show – and only that show – beats The Handmaid’s Tale. What did you think of the episode? The season? Who are you rooting for at tonight’s Emmy’s? Let me know in the comments below!

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