(Note: This post contains spoilers for the Season 2 finale of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”)
“The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu has been pretty good about Margaret Atwood’s novel on which it is based, but even early on, the show was expanding beyond the scope of the book.
In Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the story stretches into all-new territory, following June (Elisabeth Moss) in the immediate aftermath of the big cliffhanger in Season 1. That cliffhanger left June’s life seemingly imperiled as she was placed in the back of a van with no explanation as to what was happening, raising the question of whether the authorities of Gilead had discovered her work with the insurgent Mayday organization.
In fact, though, June found herself safe, thanks to the fact that she was pregnant — seemingly with Nick (Max Minghella) as the father. That caused Nick to help June get away from Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), hiding her at the former offices of the Boston Herald until someone could sneak her out of the country.
June didn’t make it in her first attempt to get out of Gilead; she was captured in the last moments before an airplane would have taken her out of the totalitarian, fundamentalist country. But in the series finale, thanks to an underground network of women working in households called Marthas, June gets another chance at escape with her newborn baby.
But is June’s escape covered in the novel? The answer to that question is a resounding: no.
In fact, Atwood’s book ends, or at least June’s story does, when she steps up into that van, unsure of her fate. That’s the same scene as the Season 1 finale, and Season 2 is, more or less, delving into new territory not covered by the novel.
After the narrative portion of the book version of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in which June tells her story, the novel changes, taking readers to an academic lecture in 2195. The frame presents June’s story as a recording recovered years after the fall of Gilead, but it makes clear that her story took place in the early portion of a regime that lasted for years — and that no more of that story was ever recovered after June got into that van.
The scholar giving the lecture, Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, explains that while June’s story provides a lot of information about the inner workings of Gilead, it’s incomplete. In fact, though the show makes it clear that the handmaid Offred is named June Osbourne, her real name is never explicit in the books, and is instead left open to interpretation by the reader. Pieixoto notes that it’s extremely difficult for historians to find out what happened to a lot of people, including Offred, because the changes to their names make it impossible to track them.
So in Season 2, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is in off-book territory. While aspects of the season, like the portions that concern June’s mother, are largely adapted from material in the book, the show has expanding June’s story beyond what Atwood originally wrote. With Season 3 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” looming, fans won’t be able to look at the book to see where the story is headed next.