Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale ends season 1 on a powerful, ambiguous note that is both in keeping with its source material and a promise of more to come.
When an announcement is made that a book is being adapted into a television series (an ongoing TV series, not a miniseries, mind you), the news is typically met with some deserved skepticism. After all, the appeal of these books, especially ones like Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is that they exist as a fixed story. That is, there is a complete beginning, middle, and an end, and should they end on an ambiguous note, well, that’s just part of the charm, isn’t it? And so, the notion that the story would either continue past the author’s chosen end point – uncertain though it may be – or radically decompress the story in between, on its way to arriving at the very same conclusion, becomes one that fans of both book and TV series have to wrestle with, and consider whether they really want a pitch-perfect adaptation devoted to recreating the source material in its entirety, or if there is some value in exploring an interpretation and expansion of the novel in question.
Hulu’s visually impressive and magnificently well-acted series based on Atwood’s novel and developed by showrunner Bruce Miller choses the latter. The streaming service announced as much not too far into the show’s first season, confirming season 2 was a go and that series star Elisabeth Moss was attached to the series for what could prove to be a very long time. Concerns over how the show will sustain its story of the women who suffer under the misogynist, totalitarian regime of Gilead when and if the series continues on into seasons 3 and 4, and perhaps even beyond, will likely rear their head when we’re talking about the season 2 finale. For now, though, as the series ends its first season, the concern over whether or not the series should expand into season 2 has already been answered, because The Handmaid’s Tale has already proven that it can.
It is, in a sense, not unlike how Damon Lindelof approached The Leftovers after the story of season 1 exhausted the entirety of Tom Perrotta’s novel, leaving the second season free to go anywhere it pleased and to explore and expand on the setting, characters, and themes central to the story at hand. For The Handmaid’s Tale, that means building out the world of Gilead and the experiences of handmaids like Offred (Moss), as well as supporting characters like Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovsky), the Commander (Joseph Fiennes), and their driver Nick (Max Minghella) – whose motives and true allegiances remain intriguingly hazy right up until the very end.
Throughout the first season, the series demonstrated as much by focusing on specific details of the handmaidens’ daily lives, building out the world of Gilead in a much more concrete way than in the novel, and expanding to include an episode dedicated to Offred’s husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and his flight to Canada. All of these elements are part and parcel to continuing the story and seeing how it will play out after the close up on Moss’s face in the final moments of the season goes to black, and Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’ continues the show’s invitingly incongruous music cues.
Though it’s in keeping with the source material, the series capitalizes on the ambiguity of Offred’s fate as she’s marched out of the Commander’s house, while Serena Joy looks on incredulously. It’s not only an indelible moment that comes unexpectedly fast in the season’s final hour, and one that serves as a welcome bit of frustration to a couple who’ve caused so much pain, as the laws Serena helped write that stripped her of her agency as a woman now served to obstruct the power she held over those in the color-coded caste system she took advantage of.
The ending is in keeping with the rest of the hour, which, even in its ambiguity, offers a glimmer of hope in a world seemingly devoid of any. It is also a tacit appeal to viewers to tune in for another season, promising developments that will go beyond the narrative’s politically charged misery to propose, if not hope, at least further depictions of outright defiance by Offred and the other women subjugated by the Gilead regime. Those acts, seemingly foretold when Moss says, “It’s their own fault. They should’ve never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” play out in a fulfilling moment when the handmaids refuse to participate in the execution of Janine, even as the stitched socket on her face insinuates the extreme corporeal punishment Offred and the others will almost certainly have to look forward to.
Whatever happens next won’t have been in the book, which means The Handmaid’s Tale will have to make good on the world-building and focus on individual characters that it did this season, especially with the Luke-centric episode ‘The Other Side’, and with Moria’s newfound status as a refugee in Canada. Still, it’s sometimes frustrating when a series leaves its audience so completely in the dark about what’s on the horizon. But with that uncertainty comes the promise that moving beyond the boundaries of book, to dive deeper into its themes and even its titular handmaid’s tale may actually make for a richer viewing experience, one free from the expectations that come from adapting source material.
It worked wonders for The Leftovers and Starz is seeing similar success with its expansion of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Both series have demonstrated the way in which television can succeed when creators are free to knock down an adaptation’s walls and to seek instead to build something new atop the existing framework. To its credit, The Handmaid’s Tale does that very well, ending on a powerful, ambiguous note that is both in keeping with its source material and a promise of more to come.
The Handmaid’s Tale season 1 is available in its entirety on Hulu.