‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 2 Finale: Burning Down The House

It’s a poignant conclusion, and one that gives the season a certain symmetry: In the early episodes, Offred was so desperate to get to Canada that she forced a kind stranger to hide her in his apartment, in a selfish, ineffective move that ended up costing him his life and destroying his family. Now she seems to understand that the only life she needs to risk is her own.

The question is, what — besides a third season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” — could possibly come of Offred’s bravery? Does she really have a better chance of getting Hannah out of Gilead from the inside, where she is subject to the Waterfords’ whims? She must have plenty of confidence in the Commander’s infatuation with her (and in Serena’s allyship, which has been fickle at best) to assume that he hasn’t contacted the authorities — and that she won’t be mortally punished for smuggling a baby out of the country. Her decision may be heroic, but it’s not what I would call smart. And that’s frustrating, from a character-development perspective, because intelligence is a hallmark of the Offred we know.

Serena, who spent the season vacillating between extremes of righteousness and venality, is an even less consistent character. Two episodes after she defied her husband to save the life of baby Charlotte, she helped him rape Offred, just to expedite childbirth by a day or two. In “The Word,” Serena is a saint again. Driven by an emotional appeal from Offred, who discovered poor Eden’s annotated Bible hidden among her things, Serena gathers the other wives to plead with the Council that girls be allowed to read scripture. When she realizes the men are patronizing their spouses, Serena begins to read aloud from the Book of John.

As she knows, reading while female can result in the swift and apparently sloppy amputation of a finger. What she doesn’t seem to anticipate is her husband’s refusal to bail her out. “Rules can be bent for a high-ranking commander,” Waterford tells Offred, after floating the idea that she could stay in his home with Holly and they could “try again” to conceive. Just a few moments earlier, he had explained that he didn’t save his wife from her crude punishment because, as he put it: “We all have our roles to play. Serena needed to be reminded of hers.”

[>Read the Times TV Critic Margaret Lyons on the repetitive brutality of Season 2]

Every part of this story line is a reminder that Gilead’s patriarchs are hypocrites: Even though they made this society’s rules, the commanders only follow the ones that suit them — and they wouldn’t dream of enacting a reform that didn’t benefit them. Unfortunately, the narrative also catalyzes another wild swing of Serena’s moral pendulum. The upshot is that she has become so erratic as to feel more like a series of plot devices than a real person with comprehensible motives. Generous as it is of her to let Holly go, it’s hard to believe that her selfish, all-consuming fixation on having her very own baby got snipped off along with that finger.

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