SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Word,” the second season finale of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Season 2 of Hulu’s hit series “The Handmaid’s Tale” was notable for some shocking moments of violence — and the finale, titled “The Word,” delivered on those themes.
When Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) visited Emily (Alexis Bledel) after what was supposed to be her first ceremony with commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), Emily snapped — and having stolen a knife from the kitchen in preparation for the ceremony, she used it on Lydia instead.
“She’s acting out of anger — very justified anger,” says showrunner Bruce Miller. “I actually think she’s trying to get back at her, pain-wise.”
Bledel points out that Emily has been raging inside without an outlet for that rage for months.
But this attack becomes the catalyst needed to attempt to sneak Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss) out of Gilead once again.
“Lawrence knew that he had to do something with Emily. He was able to make the call to get a military truck to pick her up, and the marthas got wind that there was basically a truck going out,” says Miller. “And because they had a network in place, instead of cinnamon it’s going to be a woman and a baby.”
Although Lawrence’s work as an economist helped build Gilead, he’s been “unhappy with how things have turned out,” Miller says, because turning his papers into something “cruel and horrible, I think, was a surprise to him.”
Both Lawrence and the marthas have “dabbled in getting people out before,” Miller says. But the fact that he’s still around and their network is still surviving means those actions were used “sparingly.”
“In the book, it was they could get people out if they ever really, really, really need to — it’s a gun with one bullet, like they have one bullet every year,” Miller says of the marthas’ network of shared information. “In this case, the idea of getting a baby out, that’s why everybody is at 1000. They don’t want a little girl to grow up there, and the people that want to hurt Gilead [know] this is the way to hurt Gilead the most, and also the propaganda of getting a baby out would be spectacular. All of those forces came together to capitalize on the situation that Emily started by stabbing Lydia and getting the clock ticking.”
But Emily’s was far from the only violent act that ultimately spurred something good in “The Word.”
After the drowning execution of Nick’s wife, Eden (Sydney Sweeney), Offred/June tried to appeal to Serena’s (Yvonne Strahovski) new maternal instincts by showing her Eden’s annotated bible. Strahovski reveals to Variety that Serena was supposed to respond in an abrupt way reminiscent of “the original Serena that we’d come to know throughout season 1” that implied Eden’s fate was her fault. But the actress felt strongly that it would be wrong to have her be so cold after how she had just been shown to be “softer around the edges and vulnerable” in the second half of the season.
“I felt like I, as Serena, had found more empathy,” says Strahovski. “Even though maybe I wasn’t showing it completely to Offred I just felt like I couldn’t exactly say horrible things about her in that moment. I wanted it to be softer — or more logical.”
Serena did yell at Offred/June to get out of the orchid nursery after she reminded her that their daughter could suffer similar fate, given that women are not a protected class in Gilead. But then she rallied many other wives to go in front of the commanders’ council and ask that their sons and daughters be allowed to learn to read.
“I wanted this to be kind of peak Serena — the most politically convincing, the most savvy, the most organizing,” explains Miller. “She knows how to [go] to the men without annoying them too much.”
But then Serena took it a step farther when she began to read from the bible.
“They’re not breaking any rules until she reads. She’s not saying, ‘Rebel,’ she’s not saying, ‘Go against Gilead,’ she’s not saying any of that,” Miller says. “But then she went too far, which one could argue is June’s influence on her.”
Strahovski feels that Serena decided to take the risk and read because she’s “so willing to put her child first.”
“In that moment, it’s the ultimate sacrifice she can make for her daughter — trying to make a better future for her,” she explains.
The move backfired on her, when her husband Fred (Joseph Fiennes) had her finger cut off. Miller chose not to show that moment on-screen, in part because of how many times prior the show had explored similar acts of brutality, but also because he thought it would be more impactful for the audience to find out along with Offred/June.
The moment was a true turning point for Serena, says Strahovski. “I always thought that moment post-beating was the ultimate loss and devastation of their relationship, but ultimately this ends up trumping that, and it’s sort of the catalyst that ends up pushing her toward that final decision at the end,” she says. “It’s building up to her realizing, what is Gilead? Where is my daughter living? How is she going to grow up? Are they going to chop off her finger as well? What else are they going to chop off? It’s all of those things rolled up into one, which is incredibly confronting and numbing in the moment.”
That’s why, instead of stopping Offred/June from escaping with the baby, she instead chose to let them go.
“This whole time she’s been going on about the greater good and her sacrifice in Gilead, but actually, what is the greater good for the sake of this child?” Strahovski points out. “That’s a very awful, tough lesson that she learns at the end of the season.”
Offred/June then had her own moment of selflessness when she handed the baby off to Emily and opted not to escape with them on the truck — thinking of her other daughter, Hannah.
“In the end Serena made the best decision for her kid, which was to let her go, and June did, too,” says Miller. “June is thinking about seeing Serena doing this amazing thing as a mother, and can’t leave [Hannah ] behind.”
So where does “The Handmaid’s Tale” go from here? While the show is and will always be Offred/June’s story, Miller says there are a few other key elements in play for the third season — including Aunt Lydia and Emily.
“Emily’s not a trained killer!” he points out. “[Lydia] doesn’t die because of what happened to her. They called an ambulance right away, and they have excellent medical care there.”
As for Emily, Miller says he wants to see how it settles on her that in the same night she thought she was going to die in a really horrible, painful way she then is set free — with a baby to care for. “She’s traveling to a place where the child has no adoptive parents and no biological parents — she has no ties to her at all in the new place,” he says. “It takes a very big village to raise a child.”
This will open the world further in Canada, where Moira (Samira Wiley) and Luke (O-T Fagbenle) are trying to build new lives. “How are they going to interact with a baby that’s June’s? Is Luke going to be involved in that, is he not going to be involved in that, how does he feel about all of that?” says Miller. “We have a great and interesting collection of people we just started to explore.”
And back in Gilead, we’ll learn more about Lawrence, who “just did something huge and dangerous — in front of June, who’s looking for allies,” Miller notes. “I think his story is just beginning.”
Whitford feels that seeing Lawrence’s true colors revealed at the end of the second season offers hope going forward.
“With what’s happened recently politically, my thing is despair is not an option. And we have been very lucky in this assumption that we live in a world and a country of ever expanding freedom, and I think we’re a little spoiled and when we face an obstacle and developments like losing supreme court seats that will probably overturn women’s access to healthcare, giving up hope is not an option,” he says. “One of the best things to me was in this brutal world there is still hope. We’re all upset now [but] the heroes of the civil rights movement were facing a lot worse and they stood up to it. It’s an insult to the lives they gave and the work they did for us to despair. There’s been a lot of darkness in [the] show…but there are people who are not accepting it, which is good.”
And then there’s Fred and Serena, who have ridden tough storms together before, but would be on opposite sides if he were to learn what she did.
“She’s so messed up, and she’s certainly shown in the past she lashes out because of her misery and her pain, so who knows if that’s still going to happen even after she made such a selfless action of giving away the baby,” Strahovski says.
But perhaps most important is the resistance movement itself. Between the bombing in the middle of the second season and the successful escape at the end, “Mayday as an operation had a much more successful season” this year, Miller says. But which strategy is the best for the burgeoning movement?
“Getting people out is much more rewarding on a personal level, but is it more effective in terms of weakening Gilead?” Miller says. “The French resistance went through this over and over — do we risk ourselves and attack, or do we take a low profile and get people out? It’s hard to keep your head down and work diligently to create small victories.”
Overall, Miller notes that season 3 of “The Handmaid’s Tale will be about “fighting back,” which Moss is personally excited to experience.
“I hope she’s going to go back and f— some s— up,” she says. “I think it’s time. I think she’s had enough, I’ve had enough, we’ve all had enough.”