This Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 review contains no spoilers.
In season 3, The Handmaid’s Tale takes on a topic many of us wish we could crack: how to get women in power to work in solidarity with those with less, to take on men who oppress them all. There are cracks in Gilead’s armor and it’s in trouble when the women work together. But things fall apart disastrously as soon as that solidarity buckles in favor of individual interests. Christopher Meloni’s High Commander Winslow is an intriguing new character we haven’t seen much of yet and Bradley Whitford returns to shed more light on his murky Commander Lawrence, but more importantly, Kristen Gutoskie’s Beth is back, making the most of her larger role as Lawrence’s Martha.
While some fans understandably struggled with June’s decision to stay behind last season and send Nichole to Canada with Emily, that choice has seismic story ramifications that are entirely for the better. For one, it shifts more of the show’s attention toward Canada without feeling like we’ve abandoned the need to follow Gilead entirely. Canada is used to much greater effect this time around, making Gilead feel more effectively like part of the global community and grounding the story in the interpersonal reality of what is ultimately just a few people, in spite of that geopolitical gravitas, similar to the (very true story) of the book and movie In the Time of the Butterflies.
June’s decision to stay alters the political math of the Waterford household indelibly, in ways even she couldn’t have imagined. Watching that chessboard get completely redrawn is fascinating stuff and leads to some genuinely earned moments that previously seemed impossible. Heeding one of the biggest complaints about the series, outright displays of horror are drastically scaled back, in favor of having the confidence in the world it has built and the stories it has to tell.
Gone from our screens (for now) are the salvagings, the ceremony, and group faux-hangings. Instead of imagining new iterations of gender-based nightmares, this season relies on setting the characters we know loose and allowing the person-to-person emotional reality of Gilead to speak for itself. Somehow June and Aunt Lydia crying together through a new part of the Handmaid uniform (and what it means that they’re both crying) is more affecting than if, say, Guardians had tazed June into submission and strapped it on her.
One of the show’s greatest strengths is its willingness to set characters aside for however long the narrative demands. I’m grateful every time I see Rita or Nick on my screen, but realistically, as the world expands and progresses, it only makes sense in certain circumstances. Handmaid’s Tale is unafraid of letting them languish for episodes at a time, bringing them back when they are needed. But no one waits in the wings in Gilead – it seems to be a time of great transition for the country, and everyone is progressing in some way or another, meaning reunions don’t pick up where characters left off, but in wholly knew places, often on uncertain ground. For a show that leans into its ponderousness, this kind of dynamism helps set the tone for a dizzying new pace in Gilead.
This season expands further beyond the Gilead we knew than ever before. This means more time in Canada and the rest of Gilead. In June’s immediate environs, we get another look at the seedy underbelly outside the picture-perfect city, where Marthas and econowives live and things aren’t so shiny. Much was made of seeing the cast in DC, and the images there are striking to say the least. My one audible gasp so far this season came from an augmented monument (probably not the one you think), but DC is about more than just the visual. It’s hierarchy, it’s the future of Gilead, it’s everything the commanders are aiming for and everything the handmaids fear.
It must be said that this is still one of the most stunningly beautiful shows on television. From the costumes and set design to the direction – everything from those close-up shots to rigorous tableaus to scene setting shots far more interesting than necessary – Handmaid’s Tale is gorgeous to look at. Directors Mike Barker, Amma Assante, and Dearbhla Walsh did a fantastic job with the episodes critics were provided. It’s a frequent reminded that these fascists invest a lot of time in appearances, because they know they’re on a global stage – something that does not escape June’s notice.
More than one episode ends with a sort of “ra-ra June is going burn this mother to the ground” look to camera and musical cue, but it never seems to quite fit with what comes next. Several episodes also start with voiceover to that effect, usually her most GIFable, sardonic quotes, in notable contrast to both the empathy she has come to view some people’s actions in Gilead and her silence throughout the rest of the episode. It’s a bit odd, this seeming need to bridge the Handmaid’s Tale of misandry cross stitch with the actual complicated feelings of the character.
It’s too bad, because the book mined these feelings so well – Sometimes Offred saw Serena’s plight with empathy, and other times she could only taste bile for the woman who humiliated her, was party to her monthly rape, and kept her as an indentured servant in her home. Having complex feelings toward the Waterfords is realistic and human – why have one portion of the show negate that so incongruously? At only one point does she acknowledge the complexity of her feelings in her voiceover. It creates a feeling that the voiceover and the intros/outros exist almost separately from the rich character-driven emotional intensity that’s taking place in the rest of the show.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 dials down the horror show and focuses on the emotional reality of its characters, even if not all are exactly who they seem to be. Gilead still has more to show us.