The season three finale of The Handmaid’s Tale is powerful and tense, but not for the reasons the show used to be powerful and tense. It’s changed from a dystopian nightmare to a revenge fantasy. This is the moment viewers have to decide if they’re going to stay and enjoy the ride, as it’s already been renewed for a fourth season, or get off the plane. There’s no going back after “Mayday.”
For the record, “Mayday” isn’t a bad episode. It’s actually pretty good, once you let go of the notion that it doesn’t make sense. I’ve already discussed the overall problems with the third season’s willful ignorance of its own rules at length, so I’m not going to repeat them all here. Suffice to say: Survival is no longer the goal, it’s the baseline. The Handmaid’s Tale really wants its characters to win, at any cost. If you’re cool with that, then you’re probably going to enjoy what happens next. If not, I don’t know what to tell you, other than “buckle up.”
It’s kind of ironic how implausible the episode is because it starts with a flashback reminding us of how things used to be (both in their world and on The Handmaid’s Tale itself). We see June (Elisabeth Moss) shortly after she was separated from her family during their attempted escape. She and a bunch of other women are being herded into trucks, presumably to be taken to Red Centers and trained as handmaids. It’s full of brutal imagery: naked women being prodded by doctors, people crying in cages, rattling chains hanging from the ceiling.
Cut to several years later, June is no longer that scared woman clinging to her chains in a cattle truck. She’s a strong woman—perhaps to a fault—fearing nothing and acting on impulse. Moss knows this as much as June does, and is acting her overconfident ass off. At one point, she tilts her head cockily to the side and admonishes Commander Lawrence for having the audacity to think he was ever in charge. It’s a powerful moment many women can identify with, as we’ve yearned to give that cocky head tilt to at least one undeservedly authoritative man in our space. But it’s not exactly warranted. Because June’s plan is terrible.
She and the others in Lawrence’s household are prepping for their final mission to help 60-plus kids escape from Gilead. They’re greasing hinges, dimming windows, filling backpacks with supplies, and loading up a bus. It looks like the plan could maybe work, but it quickly goes out the window. As anyone knows, the more people are involved in something, the more likely things are to go wrong. One stupid Martha decides to bring her charge to the house several hours early. Not just any charge: A commander’s daughter.
The Martha soon has a change of heart and flees the house, where she’ll surely be caught and interrogated, and Lawrence says they need to send the daughter back or cancel the whole mission. Her parents will launch a search party and they’ll have a hard time getting just one child out, let alone dozens. But June won’t have it. No one is getting left behind. It’s a noble gesture, but a cocky and stupid one—unless you accept the fact that this is now a fantasy, and they’ll figure out a way to make it work. Which they do.
At this point, everybody’s just winging it. Instead of hiding in a bus, they’ll take to the woods. They were planning on going at midnight, but now have to move their timeline up several hours because Guardians are right across the street, combing houses and questioning people. Amid all the heightened surveillance, several Marthas and handmaids manage to sneak past the guards to get their kids into Lawrence’s house. And then, they somehow get all the kids into the woods without anyone seeing them.
Remember how hard it was to get June and Nichole out at the end of last season? How many Marthas had to pitch in just to help one woman and her child? That felt plausible. This feels like a video game. One where everybody is playing by the same rules, even though in reality they wouldn’t be. I’m talking, of course, about the children.
The Handmaid’s Tale is largely told from the perspective of adults who were old enough to understand what life was like before the rise of Gilead. However, as explained by the commander’s daughter who June refused to send away, most of the kids don’t remember what it was like before. This is something June should know by now—when she had a private meeting with Hannah in season two, her daughter barely recognized her. Some of these kids were even born after Gilead, meaning this is the only world they’ve ever known. They love their parents, siblings, and schools. Plus, Gilead’s style of upbringing comes with a certain level of indoctrination, as we saw with Nick’s young wife last season.
If you have more than 60 kids who have been raised in the world of Gilead, indoctrinated into absolute faith and loyalty, they’re not all going to want to leave. At least one of them is going to cry about leaving their parents or scream for help from the Guardians. But none of the kids say a word. They’re apparently fine with their Marthas and handmaids taking them deep into the woods and forcing them onto an airplane to leave their homes and families forever.
I understand why it’s happening. June needs a victory, and this is an important one. It’s evocative, and it’s emotional. Who doesn’t want to help kids? I’ll admit I teared up when I saw Lawrence reading a story to dozens of children as they patiently awaited their trip. I teared up again when June and the other handmaids chose to sacrifice themselves to distract a guard so the kids could safely get on the escape plane (even though their use of rocks instead of June’s gun was incredibly stupid). And yes, I cried when the plane arrived in Canada and the commander’s daughter was greeted by her real father. But the more I thought about it, I came to realize June’s actions were kind of…questionable.
I understand these children are products of a horrible society that rapes women and gives their children away—but was sending them away to be raised by strangers in a foreign country the right thing to do? How many handmaids have now been separated from their children forever, never learning they’re an entire country away? Did June, in trying to save these kids from one form of trauma, invite them to experience a new one?
I’m not making a judgment call, I’m simply asking why these aren’t questions the show tries to answer or even bothers to ask.
All we get is one scene where June tells a little girl that she’ll be “free,” without explaining what that means—apart from saying she can wear whatever she wants, which doesn’t seem like the strongest case to make to an 8-year-old with no reference point. If this is representing that June isn’t thinking clearly, and she faces these consequences next season, I’ll be singing a different tune. Otherwise, we’re left to assume this is what everybody wants, including the children themselves. Meaning, the kids serve as little more than a plot device, mirroring what the adults and the audience believe is best.
The episode ends with June, having succeeded in getting the children on the plane and getting shot for it, finally ready to accept death. But she’s not done yet: We’ve got season four to think about. June is woken up by the other handmaids, carrying her like Jesus through the woods as she monologues a Bible verse about freeing the slaves and bringing them to a land of milk and honey. Much like the opening scene, it feels like the show is drawing parallels to American slavery and the Underground Railroad. This feels uncomfortable, not honorable, given how the story centers around a white woman who’s appropriated the years-long Mayday resistance and claimed it for herself. Then again, The Handmaid’s Tale has long been obtuse about its own racial blinders.
By the way, June is still in Gilead.
I have no idea where things can go next—actually, let me rephrase that. I shouldn’t have an idea where things can go next, but I do. June’s probably going to get away with it again. We even heard Aunt Lydia mentioning June’s new commander. Things will move forward. She’ll continue to build the resistance as Gilead likely prepares to go to war with Canada. She will not be caught. She will face no consequences, at least not any that fit the deed. She will continue to stare into the camera angrily as she prepares her next plan of getting 300 children to her colony on the moon.
This is the world The Handmaid’s Tale lives in now. It’s a fantasy. Granted, it’s a fantasy that makes you feel good, like our heroes are doing something worthwhile, but it’s a fantasy nonetheless. It’s okay to enjoy the ride because it’s hopeful instead of depressing. But it does mar the series. The fear that made it so powerful and palpable is gone, replaced by James Bond in a red cloak and wings. Blessed Be the Fight, because we already know who’s going to win.
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