The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale ended on a low note when compared to the strength of the preceding episodes. Through flashbacks and the development of Emily’s (Alexis Bledel) character, we saw more of the oppressiveness behind Gilead, and the series explored themes of strength in unity, feminism, and motherhood in greater detail than in Season 1.
But the final episode of Season 2 seemed to put The Handmaid’s Tale at a standstill. June’s (Elisabeth Moss) decision to remain in Gilead when provided the opportunity to escape was controversial, although June had good reason for her decision. For the first time, audiences started to wonder if the series would start treading water and shy away from plot progression for the benefit of having additional seasons.
The start of the third season did little to pacify these concerns. The season’s story arc is slow to start and the narrative progresses more so in the final three episodes than in the first ten. There’s also a number of closing shots throughout the season showing June glaring at the camera, unfortunately, symbolic of the fact that very little has changed regarding June’s imprisonment within Gilead. Nonetheless, the final episodes of the third season leave open the potential for the next season to put the right foot forward and build upon the stories of the Handmaids and of Canada and Gilead.
Successfully bringing Nichole to Canada, Emily begins her new life apart from Gilead. Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) had been deceived and to reinforce his standing as the patriarch of his household and maintain his pride, he convinces high-ranked Commanders to launch a video campaign and negotiations in an attempt to force Canada to return Nichole. Despite helping Nichole escape so that she would not be raised within the oppressive Gilead, Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) is regretful and misses the idea of being a mother. Like in Season 2, the question of Serena’s morality is mulled over with the conclusion of the season offering a finer glimpse of where Serena’s allegiance lies.
What Season 3 also offers is our first look at Washington, D.C., the capitol of Gilead. June travels with the Waterfords to D.C as Fred meets with the Commanders supporting his efforts to to have Nichole returned to Gilead. What June sees in DC is an even more disturbing suppression of women than what June has experienced in Gilead.
Still, as June expressed at the close of Season 2, she endeavors to take an active stand against Gilead from within and rescue her first daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake). When June is assigned to be a handmaid at Commander Lawrence’s (Bradley Whitford) household, the commander who helped organize the escape of Emily and Nichole, June is enabled to resist Gilead through using the influence that Lawrence wields. She starts working with the Marthas who operate a resistance network from within Lawrence’s own household. The mystery behind Lawrence’s character is unraveled in this season, and June herself is forced to share his ambiguous moral ground when Lawrence provides her with opportunities such as choosing a few women to become Marthas (the rest are to become Handmaids).
For all the development of June’s character, a number of season regulars feel static or see their role within The Handmaid’s Tale reduced. The most notable- and disappointing- example of this is Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). Absolutely terrifying in Seasons 1 & 2, Aunt Lydia is relegated to only a minor character this season. Her mystique is also lessened to an extent by the inclusion of a flashback scene of her life before Gilead. While I was very much looking forward to seeing how Aunt Lydia came to be the character she is within Gilead, the inclusion of the flashback seems unnecessary to the season and even misplaced within the series as a whole. While Aunt Lydia was a character to be feared in prior seasons, other characters- such as the newly introduced High Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni) and OfMatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop)- appear to be more sinister.
And over the course of the season, talk of ongoing warfare in Chicago provides a simmering tension that never actually boils. No battle scenes occur and this lack of fulfilled expectation is emblematic of Season 3 as a whole. At the moment, The Handmaid’s Tale seems content with progressing at a crawl rather than making leaps and bounds. For all its flaws, the season will keep audiences content in the direction the show is taking, enabling the fourth season to have the same great potential as Seasons 1 & 2. Given that The Handmaid’s Tale is one of today’s more important shows and Hulu’s streaming flagship, we can be reasonably confident that the series will continue to have a bright future in the years to come.