The Handmaid’s Tale’s finale thought it stuck the landing. OITNB’s actually did.


If you didn’t think The Handmaid’s Tale’s “The Word” was a cop-out before, you definitely will after seeing OITNB’s “Be Free.”

Confession: As I watched “Be Free,” the season 6 finale of Orange Is the New Black, I experienced a horrible feeling of dread. Not just because I was worried something would go wrong for Piper, Blanca, and/or Sophia as they prepared for their early releases, or that Taystee would be found guilty at her murder trial. (I was concerned about them, and rightfully so. But we’ll get to that.) No, I was anxious because I was afraid Piper would sabotage her own prison release in order to stay with Alex, her wife and fellow inmate.

That’s a weird worry, right? I mean, Piper has a support system outside Litchfield and has fantasized about getting out from the moment she first arrived. Plus, she and Alex knew they were in for a long separation sooner or later. Yeah, my anxiety was pretty pointless — and I blame that on The Handmaid’s Tale.

In case you missed it, the Handmaid‘s season 2 finale, “The Word,” saw its protagonist, June, receiving and rejecting a chance to escape Gilead, the misogynist theocracy that was once the United States. June had tried to get out of Gilead at least three other times during the series, but when freedom was finally within reach, she just couldn’t take it. Or rather, she wouldn’t take it.

To answer the question you’re about to ask: Yes, June did choose to stay in a place where she was alternatively used as a sex slave, broodmare and punching bag. And, yes, she did needlessly endanger the lives of the women who selflessly figured out a way to get her and her baby out.

I was pretty angry over “The Word’s” ending — and I wasn’t alone — but the sheer stupidity of June’s decision didn’t truly dawn on me until I saw “Be Free.”

For all their similarities (i.e. privileged, white, didn’t appreciate their good fortune until it was taken away), Piper is actually savvier than June. She repeatedly puts her foot in her mouth and has a tendency of making her life harder than it needs to be, but she’s with it enough to know loneliness outside Litchfield beats true love inside. It’s really no contest.

June should also know this. To be fair, her older daughter, Hannah, is still trapped in Gilead, and June wants to rescue her. If she was forced to choose between getting herself out and getting Hannah out, I would have completely understood June’s decision to stay. I also understand her guilt over the prospect of leaving Hannah while she claims her freedom.

But June being imprisoned in Gilead doesn’t help Hannah at all. If there was any way June could make that nightmare of a regime more bearable for her daughter, she would’ve done it by now. Now, if June manages to get to Canada, she just might have the power and resources to find a way to save Hannah. Choosing to suffer in Gilead makes no sense for June as a character; it only preserves The Handmaid’s Tale‘s central concept.

OITNB realizes that releasing a main character from a hellish situation not only offers catharsis, it also opens up a bevy of other potential stories. Next season we’ll be able to see Piper try to rebuild her life post-incarceration, write her book or work to improve prison conditions as an activist.

If Handmaid’s Tale hadn’t bungled its ending, we could’ve looked forward to seeing June reunite with Luke and Moira, attempt to make her marriage work after her affair with Nick and, yes, try to take down Gilead from the outside. That’s much more enticing than another season of the status quo.

Overall, the problem comes down to The Handmaid’s Tale and June mistakenly believing she is somehow being noble for staying in Gilead instead of seeking asylum in Canada. Actually, June is being the most insufferable type of martyr: someone who takes pride in martyring themselves.

When you think about all Moira and Emily had to go through to leave Gilead, Eden’s execution and everything Janine and Rita will continue to endure, June’s decision can only be read as a blatant insult. It’s the equivalent of Piper punching a guard in order to torpedo her release, while Taystee returns to prison with her guilty verdict, Blanca’s sent to an immigration holding center, and Sophia finally hugs her wife as a free woman. In other words, it’s infuriating, misguided and foolish.

Ultimately, OITNB succeeded where The Handmaid’s Tale failed because it was willing to take a narrative risk and did so without betraying its overall themes. Piper and Sophia got lucky; Taystee and Blanca did not. That’s the way it goes at Litchfield.

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Handmaid’s could’ve pulled off the same balancing act, but was too afraid to try. The June of every episode leading up to “The Word” would have jumped at the very chance of freedom. And the show could’ve given her that freedom and continued on. There’s still plenty of story to tell about the other residents of Gilead in addition to June’s life as a refugee. Instead, the show pulled a very disappointing bait-and-switch.

In “Be Free” Sophia, quoting James Baldwin, said, “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.” Using Baldwin’s line of thinking, the respective OITNB and Handmaid’s Tale finales proved very illuminating: Piper is as free as a bird, and June is trapped like a rat.