The Handmaid’s Tale season finale finally let Marthas shine


Marthas get their due in The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 finale, illuminating another side of the strengths in women’s roles at last.

While many focus on The Handmaid’s Tale‘s depictions of oppression, there are a multitude of strengths and bright moments within. The final episode of season 2, “The Word,” highlights traditional power of women in every “feminine” role. While the primary focus has been on the strength of mothers so far, we finally get to see an expanded view of single women.

As we have seen in the show so far, the power of a mother is her ability to endure. The power of a wife is that she may confront a man. However, the power of the single, childless woman is unevenly split between Aunts and Marthas.

While Aunts are held in esteem, Marthas are quite marginalized. Earlier in the season, a Guardian shoots a Martha in the street, for no reason, and with no justice. They are overlooked, beige, and boring. During this episode when they were missing, the characters in their households and we the viewers barely took notice.

In a way that is completely abrupt and doesn’t quite make sense, Rita interrupts June and Holly’s precious time to tell her to grab her shoes and flee. “How?” asks June, presumably echoing the viewer. “The Marthas,” Rita tells her. The shot then pans out over the city to show multiple contained fires.

So, I lied. This fire isn’t sudden or random as it first seems once the pieces start coming together. Rita is devastated by Eden’s death, and she acknowledges that she should have tried to help. Earlier in the episode, when Marthas go mysteriously missing, it’s for a purpose. In a mirror to all the Marthas on the show, they have a role: A major place in the resistance.

The Marthas, perhaps because they are single and childless, are able to organize in a way that no one else has successfully before. They don’t just blow up one meeting like Ofglen the lone wolf, and they don’t fail like the wives, and they don’t give up like Mayday. This plan had to have taken time, love, cultivation, and above all, selflessness. Next season will tell how many escaped thanks to their efforts.

The Aunts are also single and childless, but even if they weren’t pious Gilead crusaders, they are still tasked with making babies. They are not as anonymous or discreet as Marthas, though they enjoy much more authority and power than most women in Gilead. Aunt Lydia is easily my favorite villain (how many villains can give out a genuine hug?). It’s indulgent to imagine her assault changes her for the better instead of the worse and leads her to .

What defines a woman? For Commanders it is the duties of mother and wife, with those unfortunate not to be either relegated to taking care of the rest. Motherhood, or womanhood, is less tangible than that. All women participate in this strength too.

Think of other large institutions that value gender roles. How many Catholic children out there have been taught by a nun, whether it was in school, in CCD, or through some volunteer project?  In the Jewish Orthodox community, child-rearing is highly valued, but this doesn’t give childless women a meaningless life — but a fruitful one of community service. One can express their strength through celibacy as the famous Virgin Queen Elizabeth had.

Yes, in a literal way, we see Marthas doing a lot of the child-rearing for high-ranking families. But in the spirit of sisterhood, these women scatter random acts of kindness across Gilead, whether it’s a small lie told on behalf of a Handmaid or just extra care given to children. They finally shine in this episode as the rumors of their secret network get confirmed.

Though they try, men cannot run the world without women. Now they cannot trust those who cook the very food they eat. They are sustained by these women, and that sustenance may have the ability to starve them out. Seeing them allied with men like Nick and Commander Lawrence only gives them more power. Let’s not forget how brilliant they can be, as the former USA’s “best neonatologist” is among their ranks.

As Liberian activist credited with ending a civil war, Leymah Gbowee, said,

"Men often have values and principles, but politics tends to override them. When you believe firmly in things, you can achieve changes. Politics isn’t a popularity contest; it’s about achieving lasting changes. That’s what women are good at."

We see a chain of women boldly leading June to safety. In a scene that pays homage to the Underground Railroad, the Marthas one by one guide the pair out of the city, around the fires. This chain is the lasting change that can only be achieved when one woman picks up where another has left off. The end goal: our future and legacy. This is emphasized with a baby girl getting out of Gilead. Getting out of Gilead isn’t just a marathon, ladies: it’s a relay race.

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We know Gilead crumbles eventually, because at the end of Margaret Atwood’s book, we see two professors discussing Offred’s story. It is so clear that this could not have happened without the women of Gilead, and the women most poised to do that, those without the red target of being handmaiden or scrutiny of being a wife or the piety of being an Aunt, are the Marthas.