The Handmaid's Tale season 3 review: Blessed be the show that knows when to quit
The second season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale ended on a familiar image: June’s face, in extreme closeup, her eyes burning with anger, pain, and fierce determination as they bore into the camera. Five hours into season 3, another episode echoes that ending. The camera swoops in from above and pulls tight on June (Elisabeth Moss) — still in Gilead, still at war with Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) — as she seethes with rage and vows, once again, not to let the bastards grind her down.
If the season 2 finale left you screaming at your screen — For God’s sake, June, why aren’t you getting on the damn truck outta Gilead with Emily (Alexis Bledel) and baby Nichole? — season 3 (premiering June 5 on Hulu) won’t do much to restore your confidence in that decision. Based on the first six episodes, June and the show she anchors are stuck in a grim cycle of combative misery, working ever harder for a future that gets further and further out of reach.
After staying in Gilead — with the goal of somehow reuniting with her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) — June is installed as a handmaid in the house of the weird and reclusive Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford). As for her wartime lover, Nick (Max Minghella), he’s rising through the ranks and — like some viewers — more than a little frustrated that his baby’s mama is still hanging around. “There won’t be another chance, you know that?” he barks. “You’re never getting out — you’re going to f—ing die here.”
In the wake of Nichole’s “kidnapping,” meanwhile, things are tense between Commander Waterford and Serena Joy. June sees this as an opportunity: With Serena down one finger and more than a little faith in her husband, might she be ripe for recruitment into Gilead’s nascent, female-led resistance? “We can help each other,” whispers June, urgent and persuasive. “You’re scared? Use it.”
Serena Joy, villain or savior? It’s a dance that’s been going on for two full seasons, and by the midpoint of season 3, I was angry with myself for daring to imagine that the writers were any closer to offering us a resolution. I’m starting to get the same wishy-washy vibe from Whitford’s Lawrence, who the show presents alternately as a sinister genius with benevolent undertones and a sinister genius with even more sinister undertones.
Having exhausted Margaret Atwood’s source material by its 10th episode, The Handmaid’s Tale went off book with confidence in season 2, broadening its depiction of Gilead’s toxic empire and deepening its study of civic responsibility in the midst of a revolution. If it weren’t for June’s disappointing decision in the finale… well, it’s pointless to indulge in what-ifs. The writers chose to keep June in her prison, and now they seem to have run out of new things to say about her life there. Season 3 hits a series of familiar notes: In addition to the Serena Question, we’re treated to variations on the sad saga of Janine the unstable handmaid (poignantly played by Madeline Brewer); the duality of Aunt Lydia, mother figure and truncheon-wielding monster (what will it take for the writers to give the brilliant Ann Dowd a backstory episode already?); and the near-fetishization of Gilead’s brutal efforts to silence women, literally and figuratively.
When season 3 does venture into unfamiliar areas, it retreats quickly. Without spoiling what happens to Emily (Alexis Bledel) after she and Nichole board the escape van, I’ll say her struggle opens up some fascinating new story line possibilities — but our time with her is discouragingly brief. In episode 2, June gains the trust of a group of Marthas who bring her deeper into the resistance’s underground network, a plot that soon gets back-burnered for more Waterford-related drama. Even the show’s visual and narrative flourishes are starting to feel like stylistic tics: The extreme close-ups, June’s profane voice-over prayers (“This is the valley of death, and there’s a f—ton of evil to fear”), the use of slow-motion to signal that what we’re seeing is an Important Moment.
“If I’m going to survive this, I’ll need allies,” June informs us. “Allies with power.” Oh girl, are you just realizing this now? In one of the season’s many incongruous music cues (another Handmaid’s special), U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” thunders in the background as the frame fills with June’s face, ferocious and fraught. How long, how long must we sing this song? How long? How loooooong? At this point, Bono, I’m afraid to ask. B
The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 premieres Wednesday, June 5 on Hulu.