The Handmaid’s Tale and the Power of a Look


She’s got the look. The look of defiance, the look of fear, the look of horror, the look of joy, the look of determination…it’s all about looks, glares and glances on The Handmaid’s Tale.

Season two of the Emmy-winning Hulu drama came to an end on Wednesday, July 11 with a game-changing finale full of some of the best acting on TV.

Warning, spoilers for the season two finale of The Handmaid’s Tale follow.

The women of The Handmaid’s Tale conveyed so much emotion with just their faces, specifically their eyes, and especially in the intense finale. In a show where the female characters have had their rights stripped away and their voices silenced, the actors exude emotions and power silent emotions and through the way they look at people. Alexis Bledel is particularly skillful at this, especially in the season two finale.

Bledel’s character, Emily, found herself in uncharted territory with a mysterious new commander played by Bradley Whitford. He had an unstable wife, a house full of eccentric art, and declined the traditional handmaid breeding ceremony. Bledel weaved the fear Emily was feeling with distrust and sorrow as Commander Lawrence asked her about her son and past deeds in episode 12. She deftly kept the character’s anger at Gilead and what has been done to her bubbling below the surface, a flicker always present in her eyes.

Perhaps one of Bledel’s greatest feats of the season was her finale scene with Ann Dowd‘s Aunt Lydia. Emily seemingly made up her mind she was going to go down fighting in that house, so when she didn’t stab her commander, she stabbed Aunt Lydia with a butter knife. She knocked her over a railing and down the stairs, kicking her as she went. The rage on her face subsided to joy, and elation. She did it, she fought back!

Then, her face quickly twitched and changed. She did it, she attacked, but didn’t kill (more on that here), a high-ranking Gilead official. All hope of ever seeing her son again was gone. It was clear on her face. The panic continued as her commander took her into the car and didn’t fade until she was with June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss) on the street. She was (probably) getting out of Gilead.

And then there’s Aunt Lydia. Despite her authoritarian mouthpiece role, Dowd is able to portray the care and affection the character has for the handmaid’s she oppresses. It’s all in the looks she gives, the concern she has on her face for Offred when discussing her baby, the joy she has when Emily’s commander lies and tells her the ceremony went well. Dowd portrays a nurturing figure, despite her villainous role to viewers.

Moss’ June struggled to hide her feelings this year. Her fear was palpable in episode 11 as she hid in the attic, pointing a shotgun at Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena (Yvonne Straovski). The anguish she felt as Eden (Sydney Sweeney) drowned before her eyes flashed across her face for an entire episode.

Plus, the way Moss looked at Strahovski’s character shifted as the season progressed. There was admiration at times, disgust, fear, hate, empathy—the whole gambit. June looked at Serena at times, basically saying “I dare you” with just her eyes. She dared her to use her power and voice to better baby Nicole’s life. Of course it didn’t work out well for Serena, she lost a finger for it. But the conflict within Serena reflected on her face, all the way up until her final season two scene. She feared for Nicole, she knew Gilead had gone too far. She was broken.

Throughout the season, Strahovski portrayed a tormented Serena Joy, a woman whose face simply twitched and you knew what she was thinking. She knew she and the other women deserved better than what Gilead was giving them, but she still believed (or believes, we’ll see in season three) in the Gilead movement.

The tagline on the season two poster of The Handmaid’s Tale was “Reclaim your name.” Defiance. And that’s exactly what each and every woman (sans Aunt Lydia) displayed at one point this year, specifically in the finale. For Amanda Brugel‘s Rita it was when she helped June escape with Nicole. For Emily it was her attack on Aunt Lydia. For Serena it was when she read the bible. For June it was the final scene after she insured Nicole was on her way out with Emily.

Now, June was prepared to turn her attention toward saving her other daughter, Hannah. The season ended with Moss’ character looking straight into the camera and raising her hood, defiant.

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