Updated July 12
The Handmaid's Tale, Episode 213: "The Word"
Original airdate: July 11, 2018 on Hulu
Spoiler warning: This page contains descriptions of events in this and previous episodes.
Hulu's biggest hit to date wrapped up its sophomore season on Wednesday—not so coincidentally, a day before the Emmy nominations are announced—with an episode directed by Mike Barker. (The Handmaid's Tale won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series last year, becoming the first streaming series to do so.) The series has been renewed for a third season, to stream in 2019.
Reviewers, however, do not appear to be in a rush to give any awards to the season 2 finale. Below, we survey the range of responses to the episode from professional critics, followed by some comments about the second season in its entirety. (Click on any publication name to read the full review.) Note that while we have grouped the reviews into rough categories beginning with the most positive, scores are displayed only in those cases where a reviewer has specifically indicated a score. Those scores have been converted to a 0-100 scale when necessary for purposes of comparison.
Extremely positive reviews
And in the final moments of this finale, one possibility became clear: Maybe this series is about to become what it was always meant to be. And if that’s the case, what is was always meant to be is gratifying, thrilling, and just a little bit stupid.
The finale -- punctuated by June's decision to return, and invigorated by the addition of Bradley Whitford's character, Commander Lawrence -- again leaves plenty of possibilities, capping a second season that in most ways managed to be more intense, disturbing and generally impressive than the first. Along with that praise, however, comes a modest disclaimer -- namely, however resilient Gilead's tyrannized denizens might be, it's difficult to imagine how much more of that even viewers as filled with admiration as this one can comfortably, as well as plausibly, take.
As an eventful and thrilling climax to an eventful and thrilling season, ["The Word"] delivered, but it has set the show on a potentially disappointing trajectory for season 3.
Los Angeles Times
Her choice to stay may not constitute a happy ending — is that even possible in “Handmaid’s Tale”? -- but it sets up a potentially compelling Season 3.
I still found most of this season exhausting, both because of the show’s execution and, I’ll admit, the real world closing in around the edges of my screen. So I was surprised that I liked the finale as much as I did — until that punishingly dark final act. ... I don’t know what that final shot is about; I don’t need June Osborn, Handmaid Avenger. But it’ll be incredibly disappointing if she ends up right back at the Waterfords. How many times she (and we) can live through that same loop?
Yes, it’s disappointing that June chooses to stay in Gilead. I yelled, out loud, at my screen, “What the hell is wrong with you?” when she handed the baby, now to be called Nicole, to Emily, and slammed the door on her own escape. I suspect that the move will lose Handmaid’s Tale some viewers — people who see escape as June’s goal. But that misunderstands who she is. June is a rescuer, a woman who holds the hand of her oppressor to console her, who would sacrifice her life for the potential chance to save her child from suffering.
Consequence of Sound
Like the season as a whole, “The Word” struggles with pacing issues and takes just a little too much glee from throwing its characters into traumatic situations.
Was this an action-packed cavalcade of sublime twists, or was it one massive cop-out that shows the drawbacks of the show’s stubborn reliance on having June remain its primary character? Can it be both? Yes, it can be — and the finale was.
It's at times both a frustrating and gratifying way to end a downer of a season that couldn't quite match up to the heights of the first. Moving beyond Margaret Atwood's novel as source material, "Handmaid's" has floundered a bit, trying to tell a story about June that moves forward, yet doesn't take her too far.
“Handmaid’s,” in my view, improved a great deal in its second season, but still has certain vexing core qualities, like its lack of a handle on basically any of its characters. It’s a show that’s very good, but one that, up through its season finale, I wanted to be so much better. ... Having left the novel’s plot behind, the show was free to work as it liked—and up until this finale, it seemed far more like a genre-TV offering with nutty twists than, well, a Margaret Atwood adaptation about theocracy. Am I just a crank for feeling some gravity has been lost?
And that’s a dangerous position to leave your show in on a cliffhanger — asking the audience to have faith that you have a solution to this beyond, “Well, if she’s not alive, then there’s no story, right?” I hate to gripe about this, because for the most part “The Word” does some interesting things in closing off the story of the first two seasons of the show. ... But right now, because we can see so little — and because the cliffhanger mirrors season one’s just a little bit — it’s hard not to be a little frustrated.
To allow June to operate outside of Gilead for awhile, and mount a campaign to save her older daughter, would be a far more interesting dynamic than to continue to examine every miserable corner of Gilead for another season (or many more seasons to come). ... How much more can we watch Elisabeth Moss suffer onscreen? (Even though she is exceptionally good at it).
The Hollywood Reporter
I don't think the Handmaid's Tale finale did anything so bad the show can't fix or correct it in starting the third season. It just happened that the episode was an ungainly mixture of fan service and fan alienation. ... And yet, I can't say that my most pervasive response to the finale was annoyance, since my general pervasive response to the show on a weekly basis tends to boil down to variations on, "Man, Elisabeth Moss is good."
The New York Times
The question is, what — besides a third season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” — could possibly come of Offred’s bravery? ... 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. ... All in all, “The Word” was an action-packed but not especially promising finale. It incorporated enough shocking twists to rival late-period “Scandal,” and that resemblance highlights a major problem “The Handmaid’s Tale” shares with any given Shonda Rhimes show that has jumped the shark: So many reversals of fortune can happen within a single hour that it’s possible to get to the end of a season and feel as though you’ve wound up back where you started.
The sound of the second season of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale coming to an end was the sound of a balloon, expertly inflated to the point where it seemed about to break, being let go so that it releases its tension in a long, anticlimactic raspberry. ... [The ending] doesn't play as a satisfying story beat, and it therefore plays as yet another way for this show to demonstrate that The Adventures of Sisyphus would not be a good television show. If the inescapability of Gilead is the one central truth of the show, then trying to build the central tension of the show from the possibility of rebellion and escape has been a fool's errand and a treacherous fake-out, and it's beginning to look like exactly that. ... Ultimately, the finale muddles the entire story we've heard up to this point.
Season Two’s concluding note is punishing, aggravating and, for me, series-ruining, for reasons that seem to have less to do with art than with commerce. ... [The final scene] plays as perhaps the dumbest reset button in the history of TV reset buttons, capping off a season that has already pressed said button far too often.
“The Word” is a singularly frustrating end to a season that, despite its high points, often struggled to find its purpose. The final moments of the episode have the added effect of undermining and negating much of the season’s loveliest moments. ... There’s so much about [the final] sequence that is inexplicable to the point of incoherence.
I kind of hate it. Look, I’m a human being with a pulse. Am I down for a TV show where Elisabeth Moss plays a feminist vigilante superhero who takes down a bunch of rapists? Of course I am. Do I want that show to be The Handmaid’s Tale? Emphatically not.
What about the second season as a whole?
While the reviews above are mainly (though not entirely) concerned with this week's episode, the following batch of new reviews address the entire season as a whole rather than the finale specifically.
Consequence of Sound
This feels very much like a transitional season for The Handmaid’s Tale. As it moves away from its guiding source material, the show is still figuring out how much it can expand its world without blowing up its core premise. And while that led to a frustrating “one step forward, two steps back” approach in terms of the overall narrative, the season also offered glimmers of the bigger, bolder, more confident show The Handmaid’s Tale will have to become if it really wants to run for 10 seasons.
The disappointment of June’s decision comes at the end of a generally successful sophomore season. Untethered from Margaret Atwood’s source material, Handmaid’s expanded its narrative universe with confidence. ... Even the brutality, which reached baroque levels at times, felt compelling and necessary. ... Still, some of Handmaid’s edges are beginning to fray.
Liz Shannon Miller
While this wasn’t a perfect season of television, it without a doubt proved itself to be a show with legs, one that remains exciting to track even as the unsettling darkness persists. Looking back over the course of the season, there’s not a single episode that really dragged down the story, and the last half really built up a new level of momentum.
Season two of The Handmaid's Tale has been exhausting. ... That's not to say it's been bad, but in a time when television could be a welcomed escape from the throes of an administration that feels a bit like Diet Dystopia Zero, Hulu's golden child isn't interested in letting anyone off the hook. ... Part of what makes the show so great is the same thing holding it back. With the talent of Emmy-winners Bledel and Ann Dowd on the line, it's hard to write those characters into the great beyond, but The Handmaid's Tale's refusal to kill off a major character in a time of violent political unrest makes it feel like there's not as much at stake as we initially believed.
The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale was, in almost every way, a marked improvement on the first. It was bolder in its storytelling, more incisive with its character arcs, and knitted together with stronger thematic underpinnings. ... It was also so, so, so much harder to watch, in a way that maybe sort of broke the show.
Certain elements of the season and the finale, including the ending, gave me pause about how long The Handmaid’s Tale will continue to hold an audience’s interest. Even during the second season, which I thought was well done, I didn’t always feel an urgent need to proceed to the next episode, especially during the latter half. ... I don’t want The Handmaid’s Tale to fall victim to the same problems that plague The Walking Dead, which, after a couple of seasons, became an exercise in repeating the same plotlines in only slightly different contexts.
The New York Times
Season 2 has been dutifully brutal, complete with ample torture, rapes, executions and murders. It gave in to every one of the show’s most tedious instincts, substituting slow stares and endless montage sequences for any actual development or new interiority. Every inch of existence is awful. Cookies are inedible. Oprah is in exile. We’re at the North Pole of misery and being told to walk north.
What do you think?
What did you think of the finale, and of the entire second season? Let us know in the comments section below.