The third season of The Handmaid’s Tale picks up right where the second left off, which is with June (Elisabeth Moss) choosing to stay in Gilead rather than escaping with Emily (Alexis Bledel) and her infant daughter. It’s deeply understandable that after seeing her other daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake), again made June feel it was impossible to leave without her.
Still, it’s at least a relief that the show (and many of the characters) are well aware not only just how idiotic this decision is, but where it would lead, which is right back to the Waterford house. That doesn’t last, however, as Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) decides to burn it down, significantly beginning with the marital bed. With no home for her services, June is sent to the home of Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford).
Lawrence quickly became the show’s wild card last season and his true nature begins to unfold in various ways, much of them unpleasant. He is a high ranking member of this society for a reason, though you think he’d know better than to not expect trouble from June. And if June believed that Lawrence was “one of the good ones,” she quickly learns otherwise after Lawrence takes pains to dole out humiliations and mind games after June immerses herself in the Resistance.
With all this drama, it’s hardly surprising that those who have reached the safety of Canada are somewhat left out as the premiere episodes continue. It can’t be much of a spoiler to reveal that Emily makes it there with the infant Nichole, even if there’s a harrowing moment when the two reach the other side, but they are quickly taken in to a warm welcome. Even after Emily finds stability and makes contact with Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and Moira (Samira Wiley), her arc remains the most compelling.
Every female character, whether true believers or not, have earned our sympathy by now, but out of all the major characters, Emily has seen the worst of what Gilead has to offer. She witnessed her lover die, was genitally mutilated, abandoned by the Resistance, and experienced firsthand the horror of the Colonies. Unlike June, Emily has also dished out her fair share of cruelty, making her something far more complex than a noble victim, and all the more reluctant to reach out to the wife and child who managed to escape pre-Gilead.
Speaking of complexity, Serena also spends much of the episodes trying to recover from the loss of Nichole, as well as the love of Fred (Joseph Fiennes), the husband who allowed her to lose a finger for opposing him publicly. This season further expands her development by giving her something so many WASP woman will be able to relate to: an icy mother who values appearances above all, including her daughter’s happiness. Serena’s constant state of sympathy is a privilege that’s generally only granted to male characters who dole out rape and punishment. Perhaps the only difference is that Serena is unable to escape the consequences of her actions in this society.
Still, it says something that it would not only take a number of seasons for her to realize that her beliefs would end up harming her as well, but that the stories we tell about women are starting to resemble Gilead narratives about female power. The show itself has also suffered due to its lack of inclusivity, but the third episode is indicative that The Handmaid’s Tale may be taking steps to remedy that by having Amma Asante direct. There may be less cause to hope though, since not only the Handmaids, but the Marthas, who are soon revealed to comprise the bulk of the Resistance, are still almost uniformly white.
Time and again, it is Black and Brown women who suffer the most from attacks on women and they are generally the first to resist, even if you wouldn’t know it from The Handmaid’s Tale. It explains why the women from different classes on the show bond not from a sense of shared oppression, but through motherhood. It’s not only how June and Mrs. Mackenzie, who has been raising Hannah, are able to see each other, but how June and Serena are finally able to form a more tentative alliance in themselves and finally disregard Fred’s efforts to take charge of their relationship. But if the show wants to be known as more than a white feminist dystopia, it has to do better.