And, we’re back. Another season of The Handmaid’s Tale, where the conditions of life for June (Elisabeth Moss) and co. continue to be so gruesome that they’re almost predictable. Season three raises an interesting challenge to the audience: What happens when we become bored by Gilead? When we know its manipulations inside and out? Is The Handmaid’s Tale supposed to ratchet up the horrors so we continue to be entertained?
As uncomfortable as it is, the answer is yes. It’s just going to get worse. Otherwise, why would we keep watching?
By the end of the episode, it becomes clear that June — who has chosen to stay in Gilead instead of escaping to Canada with fellow handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel) — has another adversary in Gilead. But unlike the unyielding authoritarian state, this adversary is completely unpredictable and irrational. He’s an individual human.
The last season of The Handmaid’s Tale ended with an oft-debated, polarising decision. Was June wise to stay and try to rescue her older daughter, Hannah? Was she justified? We’ve debated the finale ad nauseum — now it’s time to deal with the consequences. The season kicks off immediately with June on that abandoned stretch of road. June, forever our guide through the travails of Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale could be retitled Elisabeth Moss Makes Faces, and it would be an equally accurate descriptor. Let’s be real: I tune in to The Handmaid’s Tale not because Gilead is interesting, but because June is an interesting guide through it.
So, I’ve come around. It makes sense, narratively, for June to have made this drastic and selfish decision. Her baby with Nick (Max Minghella) is on the way to Canada so she can have a better life — and so The Handmaid’s Tale can keep going for another season. As she tells Nick, she knows she’s going to die in that Gilead. Yet as she says it, she stares at the graffiti on the wall: “Nolite Bastardes Carborundorum.”
June won’t let the bastards go down without a fight. Season three, of course, will depict that fight.
Though there’s one fight June might have to give up. After the van drives away, June heads straight to Mackenzies’ house to pick up Hannah (Jordana Bankole) and get out with Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), who promised to help. But she’s intercepted by Hannah’s adoptive mom (Amy Landecker), who feels equally attached to the admittedly adorable kid. The mothers breach Gileadean class lines to have a heartbreaking conversation about the one topic they know best: Hannah’s loves, Hannah’s habits. In their minds, both have equal claims to the word “mother.”
This nuanced scene hits on exactly what makes Gilead’s societal structure so thorny. Women — all women, from the handmaids on the bottom of the totem pole to the Wives at the top — pay the price. There are too many women who want to be mothers, and not enough chances. So they fight over who gets the experience of motherhood. Later on this episode, June has a similar interaction with Serena, as they fight over the fate of baby Nicole — a baby they both claim is theirs. There isn’t enough love to go around in Gilead.
And love has just about evaporated from the Waterford household, once again in turmoil thanks to their rebellious handmaid. Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) is scrambling to invent a story that will spare them all from the Wall. Fred’s plan shows how he, too, puts his individual needs over the needs of the state — he’s a hypocrite like June, Serena, and the rest of ‘em, only he has more power. He decides to blame the entire scheme on Emily, claiming she stole baby Nicole and ran away. Let’s see how that far-fetched story holds up, especially when it’s told by the Waterford family. How many times has their handmaid ran away, again? How many disciplinary sessions? Fred's credibility is dwindling.
Plus, Fred’s wife is out of control, too. It’s about time. Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), once so committed to the Gilead cause, has gone full Rebel. Losing a finger as punishment for fighting for literacy will do that to you (just ask Jaime Lannister). Fred promises that he and the nine-fingered Serena can “go back to the way things were.” Smartly, she does not believe him. He is not allowed back in the inner sanctum of her heart.
No, new Serena is fully detached from any semblance of loyalty to the system, to her former relationships. She doesn’t want her husband to call himself her “master.” She lights cigarettes, then she later lights the house on fire. When the camera zooms in on her face, she’s framed like a superhero in her origin story. Though one rebellion does not a superwoman make. Let’s not let Serena off the hook now, or ever – even if the whole “burning down the cursed marital bed” is a pretty badass move. Serena did, indeed, help create the system that imprisoned her.
Brief aside: How does June constantly stay so calm, even in the middle of a burning house? If she bottled up that composure, I would purchase it at a premium. Maybe she’s calm because she knows she’s leaving the Waterfords. After the Waterford house burns down, June goes to the Rachel and Leah Center centre for her requisite torture, because is it an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale without torture?). Then, she’s shipped to her new post in an isolated house. She’s been separated from Nick. She’s alone now.
From the scratchy, wry tone of his voice, we know immediately the identity of June’s new commander: It’s Commander Lawrence. He’s the only character who, like June, seems to be constantly suppressing a smirk. They respond to the absurdity of their situation with incredulous humour.
What does this posting mean going forward? Commander Lawrence helped Emily escape. Does this mean June has a chance of getting out? Will she be forced to go through with the Ceremony? Will she be able to read some of his books? Or is she in a new den of unpredictable horrors?
Even if June is stuck, at least someone got out of Gilead this episode. Emily makes it to Canada. Potentially, she’ll be reunited with her wife and son. Though I hope she doesn’t wither from radiation from the Colonies too quickly. Come on, Handmaid’s. Throw us a ray of happiness.
The Handmaid's Tale airs on Channel 4 on Sunday at 4pm