tv review

In The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3, Gilead’s Still Gonna Gilead

Photo: Elly Dassas/Hulu

At the end of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, June (Elisabeth Moss) appeared to be finally on the cusp of escaping Gilead. She was about to climb into the back of a truck alongside Emily (Alexis Bledel) and ride, under cover of night, into the safe confines of Canada, with the baby who is biologically hers in her arms. Instead she handed off that baby to Emily and opted to stay in the place that used to be America.

In my review of that finale, I expressed concern that keeping June in Gilead could cause the series to stagnate and potentially get stuck in the same dystopian rut that made The Walking Dead, from my point of view, unwatchable after its initial two or three seasons. After seeing the first six episodes of season three, which debuts Wednesday on Hulu, that concern seems founded, but only in part.

There is definitely a sense of the familiar in this season of The Handmaid’s Tale. Women continue to be silenced, in ways that are mind-boggling in their inhumanity. June is now assigned to another commander — that would be Bradley Whitford’s enigmatic Joseph Lawrence, the same man who helped Emily escape — but she’s still constantly butting heads with him. Her previous commanders, Fred and Serena Waterford (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski), are not out of her life, either. With the public narrative about baby Nichole being spun by the couple as a kidnapping — in truth, Serena gave the child to June with the full knowledge that the two of them would escape — there is still a great deal of drama centering on who should get to call the shots about that child’s future. Plus, everyone still says, “Blessed be the fruit” and “May the lord open” to each other with a frequency that is its own form of oppressive torture.

But this iteration of The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t nearly as unrelenting in its bleakness as season two was, partly because its canvas has spread out a bit. June is still, without question, the epicenter of the series. But in the initial episodes of season three, we spend a fair amount of time with Serena, who decamps to her mother’s palatial seaside estate to get some time away from the husband who is indirectly yet also directly responsible for her losing a finger. More happily, we also follow what happens to Emily and baby Nichole after they are granted asylum in Canada. Emily, for example, is given immediate access to proper health care and told by a doctor that her cholesterol is a little high. It’s the smallest, most banal detail, yet, like so much in this show, it speaks volumes about how much normalcy had been stripped away from her in Gilead.

Basically there’s still enough going on in The Handmaid’s Tale to keep it reasonably compelling, even though it’s harder to ignore the sound of the ticking clock that strongly suggests this narrative needs to turn harder in some new directions, and soon. Since there are 13 episodes in this season and critics have only seen not quite half of them, perhaps those new directions will come in the season’s later episodes. But that hope also speaks to another issue with The Handmaid’s Tale, namely that it would benefit from some concision. Knowing that this was a ten-episode season might reduce my impatience with the more drawn-out moments, not to mention force showrunner Bruce Miller and his fellow writers to get from point A to point B with more urgency.

It’s impossible to watch The Handmaid’s Tale and not reflect on current politics, but in season three, that’s not for the reasons you might think. While the flurry of abortion bans making their way through various state legislatures has made it seem like our society is only a “Praise be” or two away from turning into Gilead right now, these episodes tap more directly into the ongoing conversation about how to most effectively upend an unethical government. Is the best course to resist as loudly and long as it takes, or to come up with a more clandestine but effective scheme?

June wrestles with similar questions as she tries to determine how to get what she wants, which is a way out for herself and Hannah. “If I’m going to survive this,” she says via voice-over in the third episode, “I’ll need allies. Allies with power.” Every interaction she has with Serena, Fred, Joseph, or Joseph’s wife, Eleanor (Julie Dretzin), comes with the subtext of strategy. The purposeful glimmer in June’s eye and the determined smirk that she can’t seem to banish from her face betrays her contention that if she just plays her cards right, she can rig this already insanely rigged system to work, just once, in her favor.

By the way, playing her cards right means that June is constantly lingering just outside of doorways in Commander Lawrence’s house in order to pick up on some potentially useful intel, a move that reminded me of Saturday Night Live’s phenomenal fake Spike TV promo for Downton Abbey. (“Like eavesdropping? Then this show is for you.”)

June still believes Serena may be willing to help her and that seems like a real possibility … maybe. To an even greater extent than last season, Serena stands out as the most complicated character in the show. On one hand, she is an independent thinker who doesn’t fully condone the way that this Nathaniel Hawthorne–ian society treats its women, but she’s also a prototypical conservative white woman who is reticent to rock a boat that, for the most part, has been keeping her floating along just fine, thank you. As Serena struggles with the loss of Nichole, a marriage she may no longer want, and a lack of emotional support from anyone with her true interests at heart, Strahovski gives an even deeper, more vulnerable performance than she did in season two. She extracts empathy from the audience even though empathizing with this woman goes against every shred of better judgment the audience may have.

The Handmaid’s Tale excels in other ways too. The direction remains impressive, mixing a sense of the epic with the ultraintimate. In “Household,” the sixth episode, director Dearbhla Walsh captures the chilling breadth of a scene on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where a sea of bonneted, red-clad handmaids bow their heads in a moment of national prayer while the Washington Monument, rebuilt in the shape of a sky-high white cross instead of the world’s tallest pencil, looms over them as a symbol both phallic and religious. (Of the six episodes offered in advance, three were directed by women: Walsh helmed one, and Belle filmmaker Amma Asante directed two.) In the fifth episode, “Unknown Caller,” Colin Watkinson captures a tableau of the Waterfords, speaking out about their missing daughter, and June, then zooms to a tighter and tighter frame of June’s outraged face, which is as close as a face can get to bursting into flames. As always, The Handmaid’s Tale captures both the scope and the minutiae of a culture overrun by patriarchal overreach.

The series has been criticized for adapting a white form of feminism that isn’t terribly intersectional, and that criticism isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Moira (Samira Wiley), June’s best friend and support system in Canada for her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle), isn’t given a whole lot to do, at least not in the first chunk of the season. June’s new handmaid walking companion, Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop), is also African-American, but she’s such a personification of rule-following at first that it’s hard to get a handle on who she is, really. There are hints toward the end of this initial batch of episodes, though, that there may be more to her than meets the (under his) eye. Overall, though, the fact that this is supposed to be the modern era but America still looks so majority white is something the show hasn’t adequately addressed.

So yes, The Handmaid’s Tale has flaws, and your tolerance of those flaws may vary, both personally and from episode to episode. But as aware as I am of those flaws, I still can’t look away. Not yet, not when these characters, and by extension, those of us watching, are still so desperate to taste some form of justice.

In The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3, Gilead’s Still Gonna Gilead