'The Handmaid's Tale' Season 3 Review: After a Slow Start, Emotional Torture Gives Way to Promising Political Thrills
Every revolution begins with a single act of defiance, but in the case of The Handmaid’s Tale season 3, it begins with several small acts of defiance that carry little narrative weight before events finally kick into gear several episodes in. But despite a slow start, The Handmaid’s Tale shows sparks of promise that could light the kindling behind a show that was starting to flame out.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a series that revels in denying its audience catharsis. Through its stunning and suspenseful first season, the Emmy-winning show made a powerful cultural impact with its unflinching depiction of a dystopic future so similar to our own present. But the divisive second season proved that this wasn’t a formula that could be maintained for long stretches of time without wearing away at its devout audience. Relentlessly soul-crushing, The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 was an exercise in wheel-spinning and frustrating half measures. While the third season doesn’t fix all the issues that the sophomore season had, its shift from bleak emotional torture to a brisk political thriller is promising.
The end of season 2 of the acclaimed Hulu series promised a revolution led by Elisabeth Moss‘ long-suffering handmaid June, who gave up her chance at escaping Gilead to presumably bring the fundamentalist regime crumbling down from the inside. But in the six episodes made available to critics, she’s only toppled a few rocks. Admittedly, Margaret Atwood‘s 1985 novel was never about staging a revolution, but about examining the quiet suffering of women bent on survival in a totalitarian state that categorizes them as sub-human. But the Hulu series has had to reconcile the book’s allegorical content with framing an actual narrative that will keep viewers watching without falling into a deep depression.
I have to admit that I balked at watching the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale, as the series felt more dishearteningly relevant than ever. Without a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, the show strays dangerously close to nihilism — not particularly something you want to see today, even in a show that acts as a cautionary tale commenting on the current state of gender politics. While I’m not sure if The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 offers that ray of hope, the first six episodes do attempt to remedy last season’s overwhelming gloom and doom.
The first episode picks up immediately after the end of season 2, when June hands her infant Nicole to Emily (Alexis Bledel) and decides to stay in Gilead for some unknown reason. But while it would be easy to assume from June’s defiant expression that she was planning to start a revolution, it’s not something quite so triumphant. Running from the escaping truck back into Gilead, June is picked up by Bradley Whitford‘s Commander Joseph Lawrence, who had orchestrated his handmaid Emily’s escape. She pleads with him to take her to her daughter Hannah, who she had briefly reunited with in the last season. Impressed by her bullishness, he takes her to the family who had taken in Hannah, now going by Agnes, but June does not get to see her daughter before she is captured and taken back to the Waterfords once again.
For the first two episodes of season 3, The Handmaid’s Tale is plagued by the frustrating wheel-spinning that characterized season 2. The show is resistant to change to the point where it strains the logic of the world, especially when it pertains to June and all her indiscretions — despite her multiple escapes, her status remains largely the same. But slowly, the series begins to move out of its torpor and evolve into a more dynamic, intriguing show. This is largely thanks to the subplots of supporting players like Bledel, looking more wan and weary with each passing minute, and Whitford, who has now been elevated to main cast member after debuting as the enigmatic Commander Lawrence last season. Whitford is commanding and compelling in every scene he appears, offering an interesting new foil to June after she is reassigned to his household. Their verbal sparring helps drive the more sluggish early episodes, even as June proves to be an increasingly frustrating protagonist.
June’s arc is revealed to be not an anarchic ploy towards freedom as it is a family affair. Single-minded in her pursuit of her daughter, June continues her infuriating games of cat-and-mouse with the Waterfords, Nick (Max Minghella), and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) that are equal turns sexual and paternal, but mostly soap opera. The complicated dynamic between June and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) continues to morph and metabolize in fascinating fashion, and Strahovski is unmissable as a woman caught between her maternal instincts and selfish needs. While Moss is reliably fantastic as June, her grief and barely repressed rage on full display in this season, I wonder if the show is suffering from always being deeply embedded in her perspective.
It’s perhaps for that reason that Bledel once again proves to be the show’s MVP. Emily’s escape to Canada and union with Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) and Moira (Samira Wiley) provides an enthralling look at what happens “after,” which Bledel carries out in a nuanced and devastating performance. Where we get a potentially too much of June, we get too little of Bledel, who knocks it out of the park in her every scene.
But thankfully, June’s story doesn’t remain stagnant. In Commander Lawrence’s household, June stumbles upon a network of Marthas that hint at a deeper resistance, and even gets to engage in her own subterfuge. But the show’s shift into the political thriller genre is slow, and these brief moves toward a revolution don’t amount to much as they get overtaken by another June-Waterford conflict — which opens the door for a surprisingly intriguing guest spot by Christpher Meloni as a high-ranking Commander. But this new clash between June and her old household suggests that the show is finally defying its own resistance to change, as June’s mistakes come home to roost.
In the first episode of season 3, there is an image of the Waterford’s house being engulfed by fire, which June urges on. “In flaming fire, thou shalt take vengeance,” June narrates with a smirk. It’s an unsubtle suggestion The Handmaid’s Tale is burning it all to the ground and starting anew. That’s not exactly what the season accomplishes, but the first half of the season does spark a renewed energy in the show — one that finally begins to move beyond the depressive rut that The Handmaid’s Tale had found itself in.
The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 debuts on Hulu on June 5, 2019.
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