The season two finale of The Handmaid's Tale is the poignant culmination of a brilliant season — an emotional rollercoaster of an episode that showcases the strength, resilience, and determination of motherhood.
It's also easily the most divisive episode in an already divisive season. Unfortunately, most of the analysis around this episode has focused on the wrong thing. It's one thing to be disappointed by the ending. I sure was! But to declare that June's decision to remain in Gilead was "inexplicable" or "mystifying" — as many critics have — is to fundamentally misinterpret the narrative and emotional arc this season has been building.
From June's pregnancy with Hannah to Moira's journey as a surrogate to June's complicated relationship with her mother, this season's flashbacks examined the ins and outs of motherhood through a multidimensional, multigenerational lens. The takeaway? Being a mother has always been complicated. This was true in the United States on the eve of the coup by the Sons of Jacob — and it's even more true in Gilead, where any minor transgression in defiance of the brutal theocratic order can have life or death repercussions.
As a handmaid, June is no stranger to the brutality of Gilead. In addition to repetitive rape, handmaids are regularly subjected to disturbing emotional abuse, mutilation of their bodies, and even death.
However, for most of the series up until very recently, the threat of physical violence hasn't seemed to trickle down to Gilead's most vulnerable subjects: the children. This is because children are the regime's most valuable asset. While Gilead's leaders say birthing as many children as possible is a moral imperative in the face of the severe decline in fertility rates worldwide, it's clear that this is about more than just guaranteeing the survival of the human race. Children have become a rare and incredibly lucrative commodity. If Mexico's willingness to become trade partners with Gilead despite its moral reservations about doing business with a brutal totalitarian regime is any indication, Gilead's children may be an export too good for the rest of the world to pass up.
By the time of her first failed attempt to escape at the beginning of the season, June seems to accept the fact that she will have to leave Gilead without her daughter, Hannah (who was ripped away from her at the start of the series, and whose whereabouts were unknown to her at the time) to save the life of her unborn baby. She can justify this only because she believes Hannah will be safe — at least physically — until she or some other liberating force can come back to rescue her.
Later in the season, a still-pregnant June attempts another futile escape — this time after her emotionally-raw reunion with Hannah. Seeing Hannah again complicates things; how could it not, after a tearful Hannah asked her mommy why she never came back for her, which must have hurt more than any of the physical torture June has endured? But despite all this, June again makes the decision to try to leave.
So, what changed? Why was this time different? Why, after all of her previous attempts to flee Gilead, did June decide to stay?
Certainly seeing Hannah again fundamentally changed things. But one less obvious, equally important development crystalized June's decision.
In the penultimate episode of the season, shortly after June and her newborn daughter are returned to the Waterfords, Nick's wife, Eden, the other child of the house, disappears. More accurately, Eden runs away with a Guardian. Since this is Gilead, both lovers are executed for their "sins." While this is incredibly disturbing in and of itself, what finally makes everything click for June is the realization that this child died because her father — a self-proclaimed pious man of God — reported her to the authorities, knowing the consequences.
It's not just that Eden's father couldn't protect his child from the horrors of Gilead. He wouldn't. If this man — who seemed much closer to an actual human being than just about any of the other men we've met in Gilead — won't protect his child, there is no way June can fall back on her earlier hope that Hannah's youth would protect her from physical violence.
Armed with this knowledge, June's decision to stay in Gilead was the only decision that makes sense. She did what she did, because mothers protect their children at any cost. In June's case, this wasn't necessarily the rational choice — certainly there is a strong argument to be made that she might have a better chance of saving Hannah from outside Gilead. But it's the primal choice of a mother who is up against a wall (thankfully, not that wall ... yet!) and has no other options.
And it's also the right choice. Both of her daughters are in danger. But there is hope that Nicole will escape. June decides to take the calculated risk that Nicole's de facto caretaker, Emily (a fierce mother herself), and the Underground Femaleroad will lead her to safety. In contrast, Hannah is in both immediate and perpetual danger in Gilead without any hope of getting out.
To be baffled by June's decision is to misunderstand the point of this season. In Gilead, motherhood is the ultimate gift. But it's also the ultimate responsibility.