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Let’s chat The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 finale, episode 3.13 – “Mayday”. Further proof that well written symmetry can gloss over logic inconsistencies any day of the week.
Wait, Fred doesn’t suck?
This season of The Handmaid’s Tale has been . . . frustrating. Between the first frame and the final frame of the season are moments that shock, awe, befuddle, disappoint, and frankly, don’t even make sense. In fact, I would argue season three of THT could be regarded as the “White Claw” of TV.
Yep. You read that right.
White Claws are awesome and I don’t care who judges me for it. But, as much as I love them, they’re kind of terrible at the same time.
Someone much funnier than I said on Twitter somewhere that White Claws are like “drinking T.V. static while someone screams the name of a fruit from another room.” Aside from how hilariously accurate that description is, it is oddly prescriptive of the season of television I just watched. Seriously, think about it – THT season three is basically like watching TV static while someone plays seasons 1 and 2 really loud in another room. You’re welcome, world.
Season three, and it’s finale in particular, are awesome and I don’t care who judges me for it. But, as much as I love them, they’re kind of terrible at the same time.
Following the template of the season, The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Finale, “Mayday” is wildly frustrating and oddly satisfying at the same time.
Watching Serena be arrested for her crimes was a moment the narrative has been building towards for quite some time and it did not fail my expectations by any stretch. The odd catharsis I experienced while watching the plane door open to reveal 52 children from Gilead was also unexpected and quite satisfying. Even witnessing a fleeting moment of joy and compassion between Luke and Rita is a moment I didn’t know I needed to have in my life.
Then again, I didn’t feel any tension throughout the episode. As it was with the entire season, the whole outcome felt inevitable. It felt like the characters were chess pieces that were being moved on the board instead of people who were making decisions with actual consequences.
Sure, June’s plans were put into place (she finally made one which was refreshing), and then circumstances changed so she had to pivot on most of the plans. But, at no point did I feel like the Guardian at the plane was going to get in the way of saving the children. Nor was I ever under the impression that June was going to shoot the little girl and Martha who almost put the whole rescue operation in jeopardy. She may have let Eleanor die, but June killing a kid or a Martha would have been FULL anti-hero and I don’t think Bruce Miller is prepared to go down that route quite yet.
I’ve waited a little while to write this review simply because I wanted to sit with the ending and see if my frustrations were baseless. Did it really matter that June didn’t go full anti-hero? Did it matter that they didn’t kill June off at the end of the episode? Better yet, did it really matter that the kids were actually saved and released into the free land of Canada? Upon further reflection, my answer is still resounding “yes.”
Where are the guts? Where are the big brass balls which produced that incredible scene of Ofglen being driven off in a van while her lover is executed by hanging, which also happens to be framed by the van’s back window? Where is that vision? Where is that artistry? Now, don’t read what I’m not writing. I do not want The Handmaid’s Tale to be an endless slog of misery. But I do want it to live up to the high standards and “in-universe” logic it set for itself in those earlier seasons.
The writers have whistled past the logic graveyard on many instances within this show a lot.
For example, I still can’t see past the fact that June doesn’t get punished for her stalking and treatment of Hannah’s/ Agnes’ new family. Instead it’s the family who has to move away from where they live to escape June, and the Martha is put up on the wall – it’s baffling. But, as we discussed last episode, I suppose that is the magic of narrativium. These events and issues occur because the plot, or narrative, demands they happen.
We also discussed last episode that when you have to tell someone you’re the boss, then you ain’t the boss.
June literally tells Commander Lawrence that she is the boss this episode.
I’ve made the comparison between June and Walter White on Breaking Bad a few times in this blog series and I still firmly believe that the comparison is apropos.
Both shows track the lives of two ordinary people who change in drastic ways while facing life changing circumstances. They evolve to become better, and worse, versions of themselves for the sake of survival, but also because that act of survival is what drives them in evil and unexpected ways.
There is one big difference between The Handmaid’s Tale and Breaking Bad – THT constantly has to TELL you that June is badass and is the boss. Whereas Breaking Bad just let Walter’s actions do the talking. See for yourself.
Are you telling me that you can’t just feel who is in charge here:
And, yet, in The Handmaid’s Tale, we get this:
Yes, it is well shot and certainly well acted by both Whitford and especially Moss, but we are being TOLD yet again that June is the boss.
OK, June stands up and the camera angle suggests that she is on the same plane, if not higher, than Lawrence and she even tells his what to do after he’s made his “decision”. It’s a visual representation of June, and her cause, finally transforming into a tactile movement with an actual plan which can overthrow the patriarchy of Gilead. Awesome. But, again, we’re still being told.
Does this moment feel earned? Or, was it just inevitable? That’s the real issue.
All this aside however, I actually quite enjoyed the episode. You are probably not receiving that kind of reflection from me at the moment, but I promise it’s true. It’s true because there is one saving grace to the finale: symmetry.
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The symmetry of this episode makes not only this episode, but this entire season, worth the journey.
I can look past all the micro issues with this episode – logic, narrative, and easily passed roadblocks — when I take step back and look at “Mayday” through a much larger macro lens.
Consider June’s starting point in season 3. She chooses to stay in Gilead to look for Hannah, she is subject to Commander Lawrence’s quirky life, she undergoes another ceremony and she has no real plan. By the end of this season, though. June ends up free from Lawrence and “in charge”, she rescues 52 kids, she has united Marthas and Handmaids alike, and she is willing to sacrifice herself for the cause.
Now, on paper, that is a clear arc that is worthy of our character. How we get there is for a later debate on the finer mechanics of the series, but is a clear arc nonetheless.
This kind of arc is enhanced by the symmetry on display from the beginning moments of this episode.
Bruce Miller evokes the original series opening with the aftermath of June being captured and running from the Guardians and that is absolutely by design.
As such, we are now asked to compare June from at the start of it all — someone who cowers in fear of Gilead running away from the Guardians to save her child — to the June at the end of this season — someone who stands up in defiance of Gilead, running towards the Guardians in order to save children.
Moreover, June is carted away by Guardians, in blackness, full of terror, unaware of her fate, and among other terrified women that are in the same predicament as she. Whereas at the end of this episode, she is being carried by her fellow handmaids on a makeshift stretcher while being bathed in light, satisfied with her sacrifice for the children, at peace with her choices. and among women her are equally as satisfied. This is powerful stuff.
Yet, the symmetry doesn’t end with June. Does it make total sense that June has a gun and doesn’t fire it to save her plan/handmaids/children? Not really. But, it does make thematic sense. The handmaids were once ordered by Aunt Lydia (the personification of gender traitor and Gilead in there eyes) to stone one of their own and they refused. Now they are fighting Gilead’s Guardians and they are doing it with, you guessed it, stones they are willingly hurling on the own accord.
Let’s also look at the little girl at whom June pointed the gun. She runs off the plane and, inexplicably/improbably, finds her dad immediately. This is all witnessed through the lens of Luke who is wishing for Hannah to arrive at the same time. It’s a reminder that he failed earlier, has continued to fail, and highlights the tragedy of his baby he currently has under his care. It’s a child born of rape (and eventual love) that he secretly doesn’t want but must care for at all costs.
Want to keep going? How about Serena finally getting her comeuppance and paying for the crimes she committed in Gilead?
Crimes, you ask? Yep. Speaking of Nichole, in pursuit of trying to fulfill her Gileadean(?) purpose, Serena forced Nick to rape June so Serena could finally have the baby she so desired. Which, of course, ends up being Nichole. This action was neither an order from the state, nor was it from Fred. That was Serena. So when she gives Fred up to the New American authorities for the chance to be with Nichole, isn’t it Fred who throws Serena under the bus by spilling the tea to force Serena’s arrest.
The story of her being an innocent victim being subjected to the torturous rule of Gilead is just as farcical as Fred’s expectation that he’s morally superior to New America. In fact, she’s just as evil and complicit in Gilead’s torturous rule as Fred and she finally pays for it. What’s best is that the one goal Serena wanted this entire story, Nichole, is what lands her in prison for god knows how long. To slam the final nail in the coffin, she’s arrested for her crimes right when she thinks she’s about to achieve her goal. Again, powerful stuff.
This is why the finale is so frustrating. It echos all that makes the first two seasons so great, but, in the end, we kind of end up back in the same place at the end of season 2. June is unsure of her future, we don’t know what will happen with Commander Lawrence, Hannah is still not saved, and Gilead still stands just as strong. Because as much as things change (as highlighted by the well executed symmetry), they are staying quite the same for The Handmaid’s Tale on the whole.
As I wrote earlier, if the story had guts – this episode would have resulted in far more change for our characters than we anticipated. Would it have been better if June went full anti-hero and killed the girl or Martha to save her plan? Yeah. At least June changes in a remarkable way which forces her fellow handmaids to consider June’s supposed authority.
What would have happened if they opened the door in Canada and all they found was a couple of empty boxes and a note from one of the commanders like, “we’re coming” or something to that effect. Again, is it the happy ending? Nope, but at least it changes our trajectory.
Or, lastly, what would have happened if the showrunner had the guts to actually KILL June. Instead of knowing there are no stakes because of June’s plot armor, Bruce Miller and co. could turn the show into an anthology that was inspired by June and her movement going forward. We could take up the perspective of new characters, new stories, and invest our time in actual tension because of the “newness” of it all.
To be honest, I actually thought this was where the show was headed right up until we saw that June was alive and being carried off by her sisters-in-arms. I thought they finally took off the plot-armor and put away the narrativium. In an odd sense, this episode played more as a SERIES finale as opposed to a season finale. Here’s the kicker, if “Mayday” had been the series finale, I think I would have been happier. Kids are saved, June’s fate is unknown — by the way, which is very similar to Walter White’s fate, shot and dying among what was his greatest personal achievement — the Waterfords are arrested, Luke has to take care of Nichole and live with his choices, and Gilead continues but under the shadow of a much larger movement brewing because of June’s sacrifice. Yep, I’m in.
Yet, we’re getting a fourth season, June will be alive, and the fight continues. I don’t know how much narrative juice the show has left as currently constituted, but rest assured, I’ll be here next season with you, eagerly awaiting to see what happens next.
Until next time: Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum, bitches.
Mary & Blake Certified: B
The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 3 Finale – Mayday
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