Season 2 of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Ends With a Heart-Wrenching Sacrifice

The emotionally-charged second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” has come to an end with June (Elisabeth Moss) facing with something of a “Sophie’s Choice.” Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the Hulu series that was first premiered over two years ago before the election of the current president, has become eerily timely, most poignantly in the episode “The Last Ceremony,” in which June has a heartbreaking reunion with Hannah (Jordana Blake), the daughter that was forcibly taken from her when she attempted to cross the border into Canada. It is June’s love for both Hannah and her newborn daughter, Holly (named Nicole by the Waterfords), that leads to her making a shocking sacrifice in the final moments of the season finale, “The Word.”

The first scenes of “The Word” deal with the aftermath of last episode’s horrifying event, the execution of Eden (Sydney Sweeney), perhaps the show’s purest character, the pious 15-year-old farm girl given in marriage to reluctant Waterford guardian Nick (Max Minghella). Eden and her lover, guardian Isaac (Rohan Mead), paid dearly for youthful indiscretion, and now June and Waterford martha Rita (Amanda Brugel) are remorseful for not showing the teen more kindness, June feeling particularly guilt-ridden due to her ongoing affair with Nick. Amongst Eden’s possessions, she finds a Bible containing handwritten notes, proving that the seemingly simple girl broke the law banning women from reading and writing in an effort to better understand the word of God. June shows this to Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), who acts appalled at Eden’s “multitude of sins,” but June, whose relationship with Mrs. Waterford has much evolved this season, sees through her act and appeals to their shared love of their daughter, warning her of the dangers that await a young girl in Gilead.

Arguably the most compelling character on this season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Serena has come a long way from the icy woman June first met. Once a conservative writer and speaker whose fame eclipsed that of her husband (Joseph Fiennes), she has been confined to the domestic sphere in Gilead. Any disdain and resentment she feels for June, we’ve learned, has stemmed from her jealousy of the latter’s fertility. In a rare moment of fury in “The Last Ceremony,” she lashes out at Fred, reminding him that she has given up everything for a chance at motherhood. Indeed, her humanity has been tapped into this season through her genuine love for children. This is first shown in “Women’s Work,” when she dares to go behind her husband’s back for the first time by procuring a female pediatrician to examine an infant on the brink of death. For this, Fred administers a series of lashings, a punishment, as brutal as it was to witness, pales in comparison to the mutilations inflicted upon handmaids Janine (Madeline Brewer), the birth mother of the aforementioned infant, and Emily (Alexis Bledel).

Emboldened by June’s words, her love for Holly/Nicole, and support from other high-ranking wives, Serena uses her privilege to plead with her husband and the other commanders to amend the law banning females from reading, if only so the daughters of Gilead would be equipped to study Scripture. In an even bolder move, she herself reads a passage from Eden’s Bible. For this, Fred, a man who is repeatedly shown to value appearances above his wife and anything else, allows his Serena’s finger to be hacked off, the penalty for a woman reading, proving that she is no more protected than the likes of June and Rita. Making this even more painful for Serena is the fact that she played a key role in the creation of this theocracy a government that first shut her out, and has now persecuted her.

Emily, meanwhile, continues her tenure as handmaid to the eccentric Professor Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), one of the most important men in Gilead. Emily, who has been directly responsible for at least one death, tucks in her dress a knife before her scheduled first ceremony with Lawrence. However, in a twist, he refuses to take his “right.” The next day, when Aunt Lydia (the brilliant Ann Dowd) pays a visit, she becomes the one in which Emily plunges the knife. While it doesn’t look good for Aunt Lydia as she lies bleeding at the bottom of a staircase, it seems unlikely that such a riveting character would be killed off.

Disgusted by what Fred has allowed to be done to Serena, June is unable to conceal her contempt for the man, even after he proposes that she stay longer in his household, an arrangement that would allow her to remain close to her baby. He even tempts her with more visits with Hannah, the unspoken agreement being that she would have to put up with his abusive behavior. To this, she tells him to go fuck himself, proving that fire and determination inside of her can never be extinguished.

That night, a mysterious fire allows Rita, Nick and a network of marthas to facilitate June’s escape with the baby. In a heart-wrenching moment, Serena, now humble and broken, almost stops them, but is persuaded to let go of the child she has longed for for so many years, after June pleads to give her a better life, outside of the Gilead regime. June makes her escape and just when it looks like she is almost in the clear, she pulls out a picture of Hannah, knowing that by escaping with one child, she is leaving another one behind, perhaps forever. A car arrives at the tunnel where she awaits. As June approaches she is shocked to find Emily, and come face to face with the man orchestrating her escape, none other than than Professor Lawrence. With a newfound hope of saving Hannah, June makes a heartbreaking sacrifice, handing over her baby to Emily, ultimately giving up her freedom and her baby for the sake of her older daughter. In what is to be interpreted as a tribute to Serena, she tells Emily to call the girl Nicole.

With June left alone in the dark of the night without her baby, it remains to be seen what will becomes of her in season three when she returns alone to the Waterfords. The fate of Aunt Lydia also hangs in the balance, as does that of Nick, who blocked Fred from going after June and the baby. Fred is aware that Nick is the biological father of the child, but has so far done nothing, most likely because of the shame that would be brought upon him if it gets out that he is sterile and another man impregnated his handmaid under his roof, but the tension between the two may have finally reached a boiling point.

After such an emotionally exhausting season full of nightmarish scenes of death and rape, there is still hope that things can get better for June, the other Handmaids, Marthas, and all women of Gilead, in the episodes to come, although it’s difficult to envision “The Handmaid’s Tale” without the suffering. As long as injustices continue in the real world, this series and others will surely continue to hold a mirror to society.

The Handmaid’s Tale” season two finale of aired July 11 on Hulu.