The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Recap: Baby Nichole, June’s Flight Plan and the Waterfords’ Fall

With The Handmaid's Tale season 4 on Hulu next week, here's what you need to remember from season 3. Major spoilers

The Handmaid's Tale Season 3 Episode 6 Household
Photo: Hulu

Warning: contains major spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale seasons 1-3.

After the misery of season two, which slouched from one cruelty to the next, The Handmaid’s Tale season three owed viewers some victory. Broadly, that’s what it delivered. We saw Fred and Serena’s marriage implode, June make new alliances in the Lawrence house, and cracks begin to appear in Gilead. 

First, the regime lost baby Nichole and Emily over the Canadian border, and then it lost the Waterfords – now both under arrest and facing trial for their actions. Finally, Gilead suffered the loss of its most precious asset: children. June and her collaborators risked their lives to rescue 86 children and infants, carrying out a plan to successfully spirit them away on a plane to Canada. 

With season four approaching, here’s a recap of what changed in season three, and where everybody was left…

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June Osborne, From Survivor to Badass

The Handmaid's Tale Season 3 Episode 13

If seasons one and two were all about June becoming a survivor of Gilead, enduring its brutality but not breaking, season three was all about her burning it down. A radicalised June transformed from survivor to resistance fighter, sacrificing people and to some extent, her compassion in service of that goal. 

The last we saw June in the season three finale, she was being carried away by the Handmaid resistance after getting shot. Her plan had worked – a network of Marthas and Handmaids had smuggled the stolen children of Gilead to Commander Lawrence’s house. From there, they’d hiked to an airport and got the children onto a plane, creating a diversion so it could take off. 

It was a hard won victory. At the start of season three, June’s focus was on her and Luke’s stolen daughter Hannah, now Agnes Mackenzie. Hannah was the reason June didn’t escape to Canada with Emily and Baby Nichole in the season two finale; this time, she vowed not to leave Gilead without her. June visited Hannah at her home, and later tried to see her at her heavily guarded school, as a result of which Hannah’s much-loved Martha was hanged and the Mackenzie family left the district for an unknown location. 

Distraught at losing the chance to reunite with Hannah, June attacked Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) – the pregnant Handmaid who’d informed on her aborted Hannah visit to Aunt Lydia – and encouraged her friends to alienate and bully her. Cruelly, June told Lydia that Ofmathew had confessed to feeling ambivalent about her third Gilead pregnancy, an unthinkable crime in this world. Ofmatthew eventually snapped, stealing a Guardian’s gun and attempting to shoot Lydia, but was shot by a Guardian and went into a coma as the doctors tried to save her unborn baby. Forced to pray at Ofmatthew’s bedside until the baby was delivered as punishment, June went through her own rebirth of sorts. After Janine caught her trying to disconnect Ofmatthew’s ventilator and told her she was being selfish, June understood the error of her ways. Separated from her own daughters, she promised the unconscious Ofmatthew that she would help Gilead’s other children, and hatched a plan.

The Handmaids Tale Commander Lawrence season 3

To pull it off, she needed the assistance of Commander Lawrence, the head of June’s new household after the Waterford house burned down, and the man who had helped Emily escape after she attacked Aunt Lydia in the season two finale. Lawrence was an economist whose ideas were used in the creation of Gilead, but who was trapped inside the regime, which he covertly opposed. He secretly refused to carry out the monthly Ceremony in which Commanders and their wives raped Handmaids, and pretended not to notice his staff running Mayday operations from his home. If he and his much-loved and mentally unstable wife Eleanor ever escaped Gilead, he would be imprisoned for war crimes, keeping them in place.

An increasingly ruthless June manipulated Eleanor into helping with her unsuccessful visit to Hannah’s school. Eleanor was put under more pressure when Fred Waterford, in an act of characteristic cruelty, forced the Lawrences to rape June as part of the ‘Ceremony’ to prove their loyalty to Gilead. It was after the rape that a sickened Lawrence agreed to help June’s plan by providing a truck to transport the kids to the airport.  Afterwards, when June walked in on a dying Eleanor who’d taken a deliberate overdose, she chose not to resuscitate her and watched her die. June saw Eleanor as a liability who would put the rescue plan in danger, and so she sacrificed her for the greater good. 

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June’s ruthlessness in season three culminated in the murder of Commander Winslow at Jezebels. June had made Commander Lawrence take her to the illegal brothel used by Gilead’s Commanders, so that she could arrange the plane to rescue the children through a contact who worked behind the bar. Seeing June there, Commander Winslow attempted to rape her in his hotel room, but June fought back and killed him. The other women at Jezebels disposed of his body and Winslow was officially recorded as missing. 

From survivor to freedom fighter to murderer to… what will June be in season four? By the looks of this trailer, next on the list could be war hero. 

Baby Nichole, Serena and Fred Waterford: Loss, Lies and Betrayal

The Handmaid's Tale season 3 Serena and Nichole

At the start of season three, Serena Waterford looked like a candidate for becoming a double agent in the fight against Gilead. The Sons of Jacob had maimed and humiliated her – cutting off her finger as punishment when she petitioned for Gilead’s girls to be taught to read the bible. She’d seen Eden, the teenaged ‘bride’ forced upon Nick, drowned for falling in love with another teenager when her husband, rightly, refused to touch her. And in the season two finale, she agreed that Baby Nichole would have a better life in Canada, so allowed June to take her away. Nichole’s escape was reframed as a kidnap by ‘unstable’ Handmaid Emily, and Serena’s involvement was covered up.

After losing Nichole and her finger, Serena set fire to the Waterford house in a suicide attempt she survived after June led her out of the flames. Separated from Fred, she also tried to drown herself in the ocean while staying with her mother, who told her she was nothing without a husband. When she agreed to reunite with Fred, who needed her as social capital, there was hope that she was about to use her insider position to help to bring Gilead down. 

She did no such thing, because unlike June – who realised that she had a responsibility to all children, not just her own – Serena could only think about Nichole and herself. Betraying June, she agreed to an international campaign for Baby Nichole’s return, including televised appeals and a prayer event in Washington DC prayer (where Handmaids’ mouths were sewn shut with metal rings). The Sons of Jacob, led by Commander Winslow (whom June murdered in Jezebels, see above) wanted Nichole returned to set a legal precedent that would see all the other escapees sent back to Gilead to be punished for their crimes. 

The Handmaid's Tale Season 3 Episode 12 Sacrifice

After Luke and Nichole were spotted at a televised anti-Gilead protest in Canada, June was forced to arrange a meeting between Serena, Luke and the baby. Serena travelled to Canada for the visit, where Mark Tuello once again tried to get her to defect, and slipped a satellite phone into her luggage. Wanting Nichole back, Serena made a secret deal with Tuello, tricking Fred into driving over the Canadian border where he was arrested for his Gilead crimes, in exchange for a new life in Canada, with access to Nichole. However, that plan backfired when Fred told Tuello of Serena’s crimes, namely, forcing June and Nick to try to conceive in season one. Serena and Fred both ended the season under arrest and facing trial.

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Aunt Lydia‘s Past Revealed

The Handmaids Tale season 3 Aunt Lydia flashback

Lydia vacillated in season three, between her usual brutal self and unexpected flashes of warmth to her ‘girls’. Being stabbed and pushed down the stairs by Emily in the season two finale made her unpredictable and violent. She tasered June for trying to help her, and viciously beat Janine when she asked the Putnams if she could return to their household to make baby Angela a sibling. She forced June and Ofmatthew to take part in humiliating rites and for June to help to execute Frances, the Mackenzie household’s Martha who’d helped June to secretly visit Hannah. Lydia also facilitated Fred Waterford and Commander Winslow’s plan to force Commander Lawrence to rape June in a ‘Ceremony’ by witnessing it. 

But then, when she chaperoned June on the Waterford’s trip to Washington DC, Lydia admitted that she didn’t agree with the capital’s new method of sewing shut Handmaid’s mouths. She also presented Janine with an eyepatch to cover her mutilated eye socket, hinting at (deeply) hidden kindness and maternal feelings for Janine.

In a pre-Gilead flashback episode, we learned that Lydia was once a schoolteacher who befriended a young single mother who encouraged her to dress up and date a widower. When he turned down Lydia’s sexual advances on their date, she felt such shame that she turned it outwards and betrayed her friend by calling social services and having her son taken into care, citing her as an unfit mother – an easy thing to do in the very early days of Gilead’s growing rhetoric about the divinely appointed responsibilities of motherhood.  

The Nick Blaine Enigma

The Handmaid's Tale season 3 Nick

Of all the transformations in season three, Nick’s was perhaps the greatest in that he went from driver to Commander to military leader extraordinaire. After the state murder of his ‘wife’ Eden and the destruction of the Waterford home, Max Minghella‘s character was deployed as a soldier outside the district, on the front line. He met up with June in Washington DC, where she tried to make a deal with the Swiss to keep Nichole in Canada, using Nick as leverage. The Swiss informed her that Nick wasn’t just a lowly driver, but had been an instrumental part of Gilead’s coup and occupation of American soil, so the deal was off. After the season aired, actor Dominic Minghella confirmed that he’d filmed scenes which weren’t used in the finale, which would have explained more about Nick’s role and allegiance in Gilead.   

The Canadian contingent: Emily, Moira & Luke

The Handmaid's Tale season 3 Moira and Nichole

Over the border, Emily (Alexis Bledel) struggled to recover from the trauma of Gilead. She became involved in anti-Gilead activism with Moira and Luke (Samira Wiley and O.T Fagbenle), protesting visits from Gilead leaders. She initially refused to see her wife and son, until Moira convinced her to visit them, when they agreed to take things slowly. 

Luke and Moira cared for baby Nichole, and had her baptised just as Luke and June had done for Hannah. Neither wanted Serena to have access to Nichole, but reluctantly agreed. Serena passed Luke a cassette recording in which she told him that Nichole wasn’t born of rape and that her real father was Nick, whom June loved. 

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We last saw Moira greeting the planeful of Gilead refugee children now on Canadian soil, and Rita introducing herself to Luke, who was disappointed not to find Hannah on board the plane. They hugged and Rita told Luke who was responsible for rescuing the children. “She did this. June. Your June.”

The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 starts on April the 28th on Hulu in the US. It’s due to air on Channel 4 in the UK later this summer.