Season 3 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale continues to stretch Margaret Atwood’s original concept into a serialized story of oppression, and in doing so underscores the limits of the story Atwood originally told. The series garnered numerous awards in 2017 for its depiction of a United States transformed by pernicious religious ideologies and a corrupt government seeking to oppress women and instate a destructive patriarchal rule. As it arrived months after the 2016 presidential election, the series felt particularly of a moment, a fact that it and many others capitalized on, as the red robes and white bonnets worn by the handmaids of the fictional Gilead became a symbol of protest across the nation. Unfortunately, those symbols and the story’s conceit continue to feel particularly trenchant in 2019 after several states recently passed absurdly restrictive abortion legislation.
So, while the series will no doubt find itself once again an unsettling mirror to which parts of the country are held up, and the series remains as adept at following through on its premise as ever, the first few hours of season 3 suggest a time has come for The Handmaid’s Tale to begin wrapping things up.
Season 2 ended with the baffling decision by June (Elisabeth Moss) to stay in Gilead but allow her newborn daughter (fathered by Joseph Fiennes’ Fred Waterfor) to escape to Canada with Emily (Alexis Bledel). Though it could be explained by the fact that her other daughter was still in Gilead, and that June sure to find a place in the growing resistance movement, the choice felt most obviously like the series justifying the decision for a third season (and possibly beyond). And it did so by turning in on itself again, as it did at the beginning of season 2 when June had ostensibly escaped the first time, only to be remanded into the custody of the Waterfords for the duration of her pregnancy. And while series creator Bruce Miller and his writers’ room delivered some potent episodes that included an exploration of Serena Joy’s (Yvonne Strahovski) past and her culpability in cultivating the ideologies on which Gilead was founded, too much of the story began to feel like recursive miseries paid unto the women in the story to underline a point the audience already knew very well.
To its credit, the season 3 premiere, ‘Night’ — as well as the two other episodes offered by Hulu on the same day — make a concerted effort to shift the series away from the masochistic misery porn it is sometimes prone to becoming. That means affording June a few victories and instilling a sense of hope — however small — into the proceedings. What’s surprising is the ease with which the series makes the shift, first making it possible for June to sneak back into Gilead unseen and unpunished, before showing her do the same to the home of the woman (played by Amy Landecker) now raising her first-born child.
June’s ability to move around is, like her opting to stay in Gilead, largely a function of The Handmaid’s Tale finding a way to continue past an obvious end point. But it also grants the series an opportunity to explore what it might look like if someone such as June were to find herself in a position to instill change. What that change will look like is uncertain from the first few hours, but it will make use of Bradley Whitford’s heretofore mysterious Commander Joseph Lawrence, who seems to be in as rebellious a state of mind as June, something Moss confirms with her uncanny ability to convey a wide range of human emotions by barely altering her facial expression.
As the series moves toward an investigation of the supposed resistance working behind the scenes in Gilead, it poses a number of questions regarding the main players in the story at hand. In particular, Fred and Serena Joy. To date, Strahovski has been tasked with handling some of the series’ toughest material, being an unrepentant villain who nevertheless may elicit some sympathy as her character butts up against the worst aspects of ideology she not only helped to build, but also helped propagate, and benefitted from. In ‘Night,’ Serena is afforded a chance to rail against Gilead in a destructive manner. This is perhaps the most surprising turn of any character in the series to date, and it hints at just how prominent the cracks in Gilead’s principles are, potentially setting the stage for its downfall.
Despite offering the bare minimum of hope, the narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale feels as though it’s running on fumes. Part of that is due to the finite nature of the source material (sequel book notwithstanding), and how the series doesn’t seem to have much to say beyond its depiction of the various miseries inflicted upon the women stuck living in Gliead. Perhaps the series will find new life in the destruction of the oppressive regime and its systems. If that is the case, The Handmaid’s Tale would do well to get there sooner rather than later.
The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 premieres Wednesday, June 5 on Hulu.