Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers about “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 5 finale, “Safe.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of media exposure or cultural capital, with recent turns in the battle over abortion rights generating regular references in progressive circles to the threat of America becoming Gilead, the repressive patriarchal society featured in Margaret Atwood’s novel.
The fifth season that concluded on Tuesday, however, merely reinforced that the series spun out of the book has perhaps hung on too long, and the fact that extending its run through a sixth and final season was, in hindsight, at least one too many. Appropriately, the finale wrapped up aboard a train, because while the show didn’t quite go off the rails, it at times seemed to come perilously close.
Ultimately, the last episode, “Safe,” reunited the two characters whose bond — forged in pain and hatred — completely defined Season 5. Specifically, the story kept returning to June (Elisabeth Moss) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) in the context of what they’ll do, how far they’ll go and how much torment they’ll endure for the sake of their children.
Nothing speaks to that more than June’s interactions with Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford, who has become a major asset), a sort-of reformer dangling the promise of reuniting June with her daughter in an effort to win her over. A gruesome attack on June and botched military operation to recover the lost girls, underscored that this is indeed a war, with casualties as the inevitable byproduct.
The finale also highlighted the harsh realities of life in Gilead via Janine (Madeline Brewer) and her ill-advised moment of bracing honesty with Naomi (Ever Carradine), further pointed proof to her and even Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), if any was needed, of the fragile nature of a Handmaid’s existence.
The story has become increasingly muddled, however, with the three-way political dynamic among the US, Canada and Gilead, which turned June and Serena into refugees, and June’s husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) into a prisoner of the Canadian authorities.
Before that happened, it fell to June to warn him of the danger they faced, in a line about how democracies can crumble that, as icily delivered by Moss, carried a weight clearly intended to resonate beyond this fictional world.
“America wasn’t Gilead until it was,” she said. “And then it was too f**kin’ late.”
In that moment, anyway, “The Handmaid’s Tale” offered a riveting reminder of what made the series such an Emmy-winning sensation when it began. It will take more of those kind of moments to guide the series back to anything approaching that level as the final season chugs toward its destination, which should be interesting, even if it feels a little too late.