When historians look back, they can often pinpoint a turning point, a single moment in time that turned the tide and signaled the downfall of a nation, or the rise of something new. That moment has happened for Gilead on "The Handmaid's Tale."
The Commanders in their arrogance were not fully aware of it, but certainly their wives were after watching the horrific murder of Eden and her Guardian lover simply for being in love. This is a society for which there is no place for love. This is a world on the brink of extinction due to dangerously low fertility rates. Children were the dream of Gilead. The promise of Gilead.
Gilead murdered its own dream. Shattered its own promise.
Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) said everything with her look of shock and horror as the young lovers were pushed into a former public swimming pool that now serves only to execute those who do not bow down to their lords and saviors, the Commanders of Gilead. Finally, here it was laid bare. Here was the world she had allowed be built for her selfish desire to be a mother.
But now she sees what motherhood in Gilead is. She'd already suffered what being a wife in this patriarchal society is, though there would be more humiliations and abuses to come. Now that she has achieved her heart's desire and become a mother, her eyes begin to open to the world she is raising her new daughter in and it is a cruel world that does not value life at all, and certainly not a female life.
"You Are the Misery of All Men"
Fred (Joseph Fiennes) summed it up best with a single phrase uttered to June (Elisabeth Moss) after she dared raise a hand to him. Now, she only smacked him in response to him smacking her, but it was a smack we'd been waiting 23 episodes to see, and it was a thing of beauty. "I think I broke my hand," she told Rita later. We're sure she thought it was worth it.
But Fred exposed the truth of Gilead when he spat at her, "You are the misery of all men. All of you." Just like that, it was all laid bare for June to see. Sexist didn't begin to cover it. Fred had put himself and the men of Gilead so high above women that they were barely seen as more than property, something to f--k, to use, abuse and disregard. Had he always been such a monster, even before the United States fell, or was it power, and all the perversions that came with it, that pushed him to this extreme?
In that moment, June saw that Gilead was not a place that could be fixed, Fred was not someone who could be reasoned with. Fred congratulated Eden's father for turning his own daughter in to be executed, and the father was grateful. Women are nothing to these people. There's no reasoning with institutionalized dehumanization.
Despite the friction (at best) between them, June struck a chord with Serena when she challenged her about this world Serena would be bringing their baby up in. Sure, Serena shouted at her and ultimately told her to go away, but June's words resonated. "How are you going to keep her safe? What are you going to do?" June asked her. "Are you going to lock her up in here like an orchid?"
When Serena tried to lean back on the Word of God for guidance, saying that it would guide their daughter, too, June shot back, "She cannot read his Word!"
Serena had the luck of living a life before Gilead. Her baby will have no such luck, and so will never be allowed to read the Bible or anything, as it is forbidden. History has shown that an illiterate society is far easier to subjugate and control. Especially if your laws are guided by a higher order, and you are the only one who can read His scripture. How easy it is to tweak a line here or draft a whole new doctrine there.
And so, Serena felt the cruelty of Gilead first hand when she led a contingency of wives to the Commander's Council to propose an amendment that would allow women to read the Bible, to teach their daughters to read the Bible. To drive her point home, she began to read herself from the secret Bible that Eden carried. As many wives fled -- they did not share her courage -- Serena was hopeful that this society built on God's message would embrace the spreading of His word.
How wrong she was, for that's not the world she's living in. This isn't God's nation, it is the Commanders' nation. For her audacity, Fred had her arrested and her smallest finger cut off. Some bastardization of the Old Testament surely used to justify such cruelty, even if he had to twist the Words to get there.
"We Can Get You Out"
We're still not sure exactly what was happening on the night of the fire, but it was the night that changed everything for her. First, Rita (Amanda Brugel) approached her out of nowhere and told her, "We can get you out!" She was talking about the Marthas, who were using the cover of darkness and the chaos of the fire to shuttle her from one Martha to the next across town.
It was a powerful sequence, as different faces smiled at June and her baby as they fled through the streets. It was tense and stressful, as we've seen so many near-escapes already on this show. Honestly, we were telling ourselves that if this was another fake-out followed by a reset to the status quo, we were about ready to walk. Luckily, this sequence set the stage for a very different "Handmaid's Tale" next season.
It was a beautiful thing to watch, the kindness of strangers working together for the betterment of someone they didn't even know, in many cases. Rita only pointed June in the right direction. She needed to work with Nick to keep Fred in the house to allow June the time to make her escape. It was a rotating sequence of faces and Marthas that ushered June across town, and they did so with grace, courage and most importantly, kindness.
But even before she could escape the Waterford house, Serena saw her and confronted her outside her greenhouse. "Give me my baby," she intoned, but this was a broken and scattered and confused woman. Everything was wrong in her world, but she still tried to cling to the reason she gave it all up. She tried to cling onto the baby she sold her soul for.
Gone was the strong woman, mutilated and humiliated and brutalized by Fred and Gilead. Now she truly knew that she was as much a victim as June in this world, only wearing blue rather than red. It was too high a price to pay. But maybe, just maybe, she told herself, she could still protect her baby. June saw that struggle in her eyes.
"She cannot grow up in this place. Listen to me. You know she can't," June pleaded with Serena. "I know that you love her so much. I do. I've seen it. You can do anything. Yes, you can. Please. I know how much you love her."
"Let me have her so I can say goodbye," Serena said, setting up what could have been one of the most cliche sequences in television. We half expected to groan and roll our eyes as Serena fled into the night with the child, but she didn't. To her strength and credit, she said her goodbyes and passed the baby back to June.
Two mothers risking everything for the sliver of a hope that they can make things better for their child. What could be more beautiful? What symbolizes motherhood better than that, whether you birthed the child or not.
"I'm Getting Myself in Deep Shit"
While everything was unraveling in the Waterford home, Emily was unraveling herself in the home of Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford). He rejected her at the Ceremony, telling her, "I'm not doing that with you." He remained belligerent to his Martha, and dismissive of his mentally shattered wife, but there was something mysterious in him.
And then, Emily crossed a line no one saw coming. Prior to the Ceremony, she had secured a knife from the kitchen. Everything had been so confusing and unpredictable since entering this new "assignment," she wanted to be ready for anything. But then she got sent to her room, and so she went. And so did the knife.
We may never know what was going through Emily's head as Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) told her Commander Lawrence praised their first Ceremony together. For one, she was probably wondering why he lied. For another, she probably wondered what that meant for her. And so she sat there silently, unresponsive as Aunt Lydia tried to talk to her.
And then, after Aunt Lydia turned and began to walk away, she struck. In the most shocking scene of violence yet, Emily buried her knife in Aunt Lydia's back and watcher her fall over a railing. She kicked at her and stomped on her until Lawrence's Martha came onto the scene and ushered her back to her room.
This whole sequence was performed wordlessly by Alexis Bledel and it is a masterclass in performance. If this wasn't her Emmy submission, she did herself a disservice. If it was, that gold is as good as hers. She swept through euphoria, shock, anguish, terror and resignation in a matter of moments, fully expecting execution for what she did.
Lawrence indeed yanked her out of the house and threw her into the car, taking off into the night. But he didn't take her to an execution. He took her to a bridge underpass where she saw the most unexpected faces of all. June and the baby she had named Holly. Commander Lawrence, for all he did in helping set this society up, saw the same thing that Serena did and he couldn't abide it anymore. It had all gone too far, too wrong.
Here was June's happy ending, and a surprise one for Emily as well. The truck arrived to whisk them away to freedom. But something in June couldn't accept this ending. She had been seething in a barely restrained rage for too long. Emily struck out against Aunt Lydia. June struck out against Fred. But June wasn't done. Hannah was still in this world.
And so she handed her baby up to Emily in the truck and told her, "Call her Nicole." It was the name Serena had given the child; a touching and unexpected tribute to the woman who had made the right choice in the end. It took a lot of abuse and suffering to get her to that point, but Serena arrived there. So maybe June feels the need to save her as well.
As the hour wrapped, June was seen heading alone back into Gilead. That should be a death sentence, and yet it doesn't feel that way. It feels like an exciting new chapter for a show that desperately needed a change in tone and direction. We're not sure what June can do as a lone Handmaid in a world that will be hunting her, but we're pretty sure they're not going to like finding out.
Plus, in a huge way, she's not alone. The women of Gilead, from the upper echelons of society to the bottom rungs of despair, stand with her. And at least some of the men do as well. Men who risked everything for women they didn't know, like Commander Lawrence. Men who fell in love with women they didn't know, like Nick. There is kindness in this world yet, and June isn't ready to let kindness and decency lose.