Hulu's 'Handmaid's Tale' season three still has problems — but plenty of potential

Until Hulu figures out which stories it really wants to be known for, it will never achieve the promise of that first season.
Image: Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid's Tale
Elisabeth Moss has a lot of tough choices ahead of her.Elly Dassas / Hulu
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By Ani Bundel

It continues to speak poorly of our current administration that “The Handmaid’s Tale” seems to arrive at a timely moment every year. The first season dropped mere days before the U.S. House attempted to repeal Obamacare, with women’s right to reproductive health care specifically being defunded. While season two was airing, President Donald Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Now the third season arrives as state after emboldened state is pushing to repeal abortion rights wholesale. Once again, you simply cannot buy this kind of PR. However, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is running into its own problems as it rounds into season three.

It continues to speak poorly of our current administration that “The Handmaid’s Tale” seems to arrive at a timely moment every year.

(Spoilers below.)

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When the second season ended in July 2018, heroine June (Elisabeth Moss) was being asked to choose between the oppression of home and freedom in Canada. Shockingly, almost impossibly, she decided not to seek freedom. While the show’s reasoning was that June could not bring herself to leave Gilead without her older daughter — now being raised by a Gilead upper-class family — for many critics the ending just made it seem like the show was stuck. Some critics even declared they were done with the series.

The good news for fans is that the production clearly has taken these complaints to heart. June cannot go back for another round with the Waterfords, but by the end of the first hour, there is no more Waterford home at all. The Waterford matriarch, Serena Joy, finally snaps after learning her baby is no longer with June, burning down the ceremonial marriage bed. Her behavior gets Commander Waterford demoted. Serena is sent home to her mother (Laila Robbins) and June is reassigned to a new household, run by Bradley Whitford’s Cmdr. Joseph Lawrence.

A new household means a new cast of characters and a new plot to unravel. Cmdr. Lawrence was introduced at the end of season two as the intellectual architect of Gilead’s economy, a man who sat around theorizing about using humans like widgets. Unfortunately, like so many political theorists, he never actually considered the human costs of his theories until it was far too late. His guilt and his wife’s self-aware horror add an interesting dimension to June’s plans for revolution. But the series makes it clear he’s not some sort of silver bullet. Any man who would dream up a world where women are treated like chattel is no feminist, even if he himself declines to rape one on a monthly basis.

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Still, this decision seems to be a step in the right direction. From its beginning, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been vaguely aware of the concept of intersectionality: how different aspects of social and political discrimination overlap. But the original novel was written at a time when such concepts were less mainstream, and the book itself has serious racial issues. The show has previously dealt with critiques of racial blind spots by ignoring them.

From its beginning, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been vaguely aware of the concept of intersectionality. But the original novel was written at a time when such concepts were less mainstream.

This new season, however, at least gives the show an opening to engage with these critiques, even if it doesn’t quite have the self-awareness required to face them head on. With June’s decision to return to Gilead, she has, without consciously realizing it, decided to fight Gilead from the inside. For that, she will need to band together with the women who have power already, as well as men like her new commander. In other words, the show’s protagonist is going to have to get her hands dirty. And indeed, by the end of the first three episodes, she has already accepted a level of complicity within the Gilead system.

Like the all-white group of Gilead wives who use what power they have to hold those below them down, June is now officially part of the system. While the show still doesn't directly adopt a critical viewpoint on June’s privileges as a white woman, it’s a step in the right direction.

But though there is real potential here, it is not immediately clear what “The Handmaid’s Tale” is trying to achieve with this move. Part of the problem is the show’s expansion in season two from 10 episodes to 13. In the second season, this meant the middle of the show got bogged down. Season three also runs 13 installments, and though quite a bit happens in the first four episodes or so, by the middle of the run things have once again slowed to a crawl, as the revolution takes a backseat to the continuing psychodrama over the fate of June’s baby in Canada.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” at this point still has plenty of inventive stories to tell. The story of Emily, for instance, the lesbian character forced to undergo FGM who is now trying to readjust to life in Canada, is a fantastic addition that deserves more screen time. The politics of fomenting change from within, and what price must be paid to gain even the smallest measure of power, would make for a fantastic season on its own. But until the show figures out which of these stories it really wants to be known for, it will never achieve the promise that first season held.