Season 1, Episode 10: ‘Night’
What does it mean for a woman to try to gain power in a society that thrives on her subjugation? Is the price of reclaiming one’s identity in such a dystopia worth the violent punishment that follows? How does women’s resistance take shape?
The answer varies for each character in the Season 1 finale of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” While Moira finds freedom by successfully making it to Ontario, Offred witnesses brutality at every turn. This is a harrowing hour of television. Putnam’s punishment for his transgressions with Janine is to have his arm surgically removed in a scene that’s remarkably gory. But the handmaids don’t have anesthesia or positions of power to return to, and there is something rather unsettling about the way the camera lingers on Offred’s wounds and the use of slow motion as blood spatters from the mouth of Ofglen No. 2.
Decisions over who wields violence and how it’s depicted reveal a gap between the show’s feminist aims and its lack of emotional development, which is sacrificed for the sake of its brutal portrayals of punishment. Violence could be used in this series as meaningful commentary on the ways in which women’s bodies are manipulated by men in power. Instead it feels grotesque and unnecessary. “They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” says Offred early in the episode. I’m still waiting on that army.
Offred’s voice-over creates the impression that the handmaids will now rally together and fight back more openly. At this point, what else do they have to lose? But the episode seems more interested in the torture Offred endures than in any violence she could enact herself. In flashbacks and in the present day, Offred is electrocuted, pierced through the cartilage of her ear and psychologically tortured. One of the most destabilizing moments of violence is when she walks out of her bathroom and is surprised by Serena Joy with a harsh whack to the side of her head that slams her into the door frame. Things get worse when Serena Joy forces Offred to take a test and she learns she’s pregnant.
Offred bucks against the strictures that define her life in several ways. She finds hope reading the letters of handmaids that make up the package she smuggled. She bitterly curses Serena Joy when she’s taunted by the image of Hannah but is unable to speak to her. She turns to Fred for help after Serena Joy threatens Hannah’s safety. But these moments are all fleeting. They also feel emotionally and narratively muddled. Serena Joy’s depth of savagery isn’t surprising. But it seems miscalculated. Threatening Hannah takes away Offred’s last shred of hope, which could easily tip her into more reckless behavior. And harming a child would undoubtedly lead to blowback for Serena Joy, no matter how cunningly executed. “The Handmaid’s Tale” continues to portray violence with excruciating detail but chooses not to confront its effects or consequences with much nuance (beyond how it leads many handmaids to self-harm). The way the camera lasciviously details the brutality of Gilead is often more numbing than incisive.
The most blistering scene in the finale involves Janine’s being led to the center of a circle of handmaids for a public stoning, a clear echo of a moment from the premiere. Ofglen No. 2 exhibits some uncharacteristic radicalism by refusing to participate, even as Aunt Lydia insists and a guard hits her with the butt of his gun.
But it’s Offred who is positioned as the true hero when she drops the stone, refuses to harm Janine, and inspires the other handmaids to follow suit. Like the critic Tara Ariano, I wondered why they didn’t turn those stones toward the guards. They’ll be punished terribly anyway. Why not go a step further and resist in a way that has more impact?
As Ariano writes, “I can’t help thinking a female showrunner would know better how her oppressed female characters would be straining against their slavery: by fighting the real enemy.” Instead the next scene shows the handmaids walking back home, Offred in front, as “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone plays. It’s the kind of moment of empty sisterhood and girl-power faux feminism that has continually undone other episodes in their final moments.
Offred experiences the same nebulous ending that her character in the novel does. Members of the Eye enter her room. Nick gives her comforting words, but can he really be trusted, even when considering it’s his baby she carries? Offred looks at Serena Joy and Fred with venomous defiance, though her fate remains unclear. “Whether this is my end or my beginning, I have no way of knowing,” Offred says. This frames Offred as a hero whose resistance, however fleeting, is worth it.
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