As much as I love Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale in its own right, no one can deny that the Hulu series based on it has been able to do much more to expand on the lives of other characters in this horrible dystopia. For one thing, Handmaid's Tale shows more of the Marthas, particularly Rita, as much more than infertile house servants.
On the surface, Marthas are a downtrodden lot — not powerful enough to be Wives or Lydias, not fertile or young enough to be Econowives. The name "Martha" comes from the bible, after one of Jesus' friends who is a pragmatic and focused on domestic concerns; hence the Marthas' role as housekeepers in Gilead. While it's not the most glamorous job, they seem to be grateful not to have to be Handmaids, who are systematically raped by their employers and forced to give up their babies. Still, the Marthas' existence forces us to play that what-if game in our heads as we watch or read: Which fate would we prefer, were this world to become a reality?
In the book, Rita isn't all that pleased with how things have turned out in Gilead, but she doesn't get to act on that discontent. At first, that seemed to be her fate in the show, too, as actress Amanda Brugel was restricted to a few short words with June (Elisabeth Moss) and some disapproving frowns. All we knew about her was that she had a son who died fighting in the resistance. But Brugel knew there was more to her than that — she had even written her college entrance exam on the character.
"I’m hoping next season we’re going to find out a lot more about her," Brugel told Vulture about Rita. "I have my ideas about who I think she is, though. She was a lawyer or someone extremely successful. She’s quite savvy, strong, and manipulative. She’s someone who’s familiar with the human condition and who knows how to play her cards right. If she didn’t hide all this, she’d probably be sent to the Colonies — a woman that successful and that bright would automatically be a threat to the men."
While in season 1 we could tell that Rita had some sympathy for June's plight, she also seemed to prioritise looking out for herself. By season two, when June returns from her failed escape, we learn that Rita took one big risk: She saved the letters June had gathered from the other Handmaids.
Still, we remained in the dark about the fact that the Marthas had formed their own resistance network.
"The Martha network is essentially the Underground Railroad — and this is not their first rodeo," Brugel explained to Vulture. "Which is why, at the beginning of the episode, you see how distraught and upset Rita was about [Nick’s wife] Eden. That was Rita’s admitting that she has power to get them out. She realised she couldn’t let another woman fall."
We're dying to see more of how that network functions. Who set all those fires? How did they move so quickly? But our introduction to it in the season finale was beautiful: As June escaped with baby Holly, she meets Marthas one by one. They look her in the eye and offer reassurance as they run with her across fields and through fences. The way each connects to her for those brief moments seems to be a kind of comment on female power. We are fire and bombs, and we are also a hand reaching out in the dark.
A huge question remains after that scene: If they have such a network, why don't the Marthas just escape? We hope there's more to them than this instinct of self-sacrifice. Brugel isn't in the trailer for season 3 (she shows up in a few promotional stills though), but June herself is dressed in the pale green uniform of the Marthas, walking alongside others in one scene. Whatever the Marthas are up to next, it's sure to be huge for season three.
The Handmaid's Tale season three starts on Channel 4 on Sunday 9th June