If nothing in the Season 2 finale of “The Handmaid’s Tale” had indicated where the Hulu show was headed for Season 3, then puzzled viewers could have simply turned to the music that played as the end credits rolled -- the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.”
The incendiary song, like several key scenes throughout the tense 60-minute drama, appeared to point in one direction: payback. Red capes are off. The resistance has begun.
That’s what viewers are left hoping, at least, by the close of Wednesday’s suspenseful and moving episode, “The Word,” in which there were several revelations about the future of Offred (Elisabeth Moss), her fellow Handmaids, Aunt Lydia (Anne Dowd) and the authoritarian regime of Gilead.
Their separate narrative arcs all tie in with the finale’s main thread of Gilead’s oppressed finally pushing back against their oppressors. And thankfully so. Season 2 of the series was particularly successful in mining the fear and paranoia of an America on the brink of irrevocable change. State-sponsored attacks on personal freedoms, religious intolerance, women’s reproductive rights, a government hobbled to dangerous leadership by a lockstep mentality of its own making. Watching Season 2 often required a series of deep breaths -- and deep pours.
But the show, which takes place after a second American civil war, was always worth the dark ride. It explored dystopia and the abject fears within those foreboding big houses with commanding performances, smart dialogue and a cinematic attention to detail.
The Season 2 finale doesn’t repeat the blood pressure-raising trauma of last season’s closer, when Offred was caught just as her escape plane was taxiing down the runway toward the freedom of Canada.
“The Word” is just as suspenseful, but it offers a possibility for Offred (a.k.a. June in her past life) beyond the expected outcomes of punishment and bondage. Offred escapes from Commander Fred Waterford’s (Joseph Fiennes) household again, this time with her baby daughter, Holly, whom she promised to protect from Gilead. She’s intercepted by a defeated, haggard Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), a.k.a. Mrs. Waterford, who’s also a victim of Gilead’s militarized patriarchy. Her own husband was part of a government ruling in favor of cutting off her pinky finger when she challenged Gilead law by suggesting women be allowed to read the Bible for themselves.
For a moment during Serena’s confrontation with escapee Offred, she’s stuck between keeping the baby she’s always wanted or letting the handmaid take the infant, therefore ensuring Holly won’t suffer the same fate as the oppressed women of Gilead.
It’s one of the strongest moments in an episode full of twists and turns, where all roads appear to lead toward trouble for Gilead and the control it has over its terrified population.
Emily (Alexis Bledel) finally pushes back on Aunt Lydia -- quite literally — when she shoves the sadistic enforcer down a flight of stairs. And we should mention she also stabbed Lydia, which was wonderfully satisfying to see after all the abuse Auntie heaped upon “her girls” over two seasons.
Is Lydia dead? We’ll see.
Nick (Max Minghella ) also challenges his tormentor, Fred, when he holds the Commander at gunpoint to stop him from chasing after Offred. It looks as if he and Martha, a.k.a. Rita (Amanda Brugel), organized the underground railroad operation that gets Offred to the edge of town.
Below a deserted underpass, she waits for her ride to freedom. A van pulls up, and to her surprise, Emily – who was a devoted mother in her previous life -- is also escaping. It’s then that Offred makes what initially seems to be a crushing choice. We’ve been rooting for her escape and just as she’s on the verge of climbing in the van … and bringing exhausted viewers with her to a lighter place, she hands the baby to Emily, who she knows will take care of her, and stays in Gilead to find her other daughter, Hannah.
So close, yet so far from freedom. But would she have ever been free with the knowledge her daughter was growing up in Gilead? Her choice to stay may not constitute a happy ending — is that even possible in “Handmaid’s Tale”? -- but it sets up a potentially compelling Season 3.
It’s a bittersweet finale to a dark drama that’s always moving but rarely sweet. Get ready for a fiery Season 3, where Offred and company are poised to burn down the house – and Gilead.