If your blood pressure has just returned to normal after Chernobyl, and you need something to get your heart thudding again, then never fear! The Handmaid’s Tale is back to fill you with dread and give you lots of nightmares again. Huzzah!
Season 2 ended with Emily escaping Gilead in a van, assisted by the mysterious Commander Lawrence and the Martha network. June almost went with her, after striking a deal with a broken Serena Joy to take baby Nichole away to safety. But ultimately, June was never going to leave Hannah behind. And there is a regime to overthrow…
Season 3 takes a while to establish the new order, and three episodes in, it is finding its feet and its mood. All the familiar ingredients are there: the rising dread, the tension, the horror… But for those of you who read this for trigger warnings and reassurance: it’s dialed back some of the terror. Season 3’s opening is nowhere near as horrifying as Season 2’s first episode, with the mock execution and the screaming… We can take a breath. The musical cues occasionally give us a little bit of hope. Season 2 changed a lot of the character dynamics, and Season 3 takes its time to let these play out and set up the rest of the season.
Spoilers ahead for episodes 1, 2 and 3!
19 minutes. 19. That’s how long it took for June to end up back at the Waterford house again. In those precious minutes, she made her (presumably first) attempt to rescue Hannah, was reported by either Mrs. Mackenzie or Commander Lawrence, and unceremoniously returned. There was, however, time for a semi-friendly chat with Hannah’s new mother that set up a thread for the first three episodes: what does it mean to be a parent? Who is the ‘real’ parent? It’s something that June and Serena wrestle with, and something that we see play out north of the border as well.
But much has changed Chez Waterford. Power is an illusion, as Fred finds out to his horror. His household has rebelled against him, and his only hope is to cover it up. Fred spends his first episode barking orders that are ignored and declaring his intention to protect the household, to keep it all together. But even that infuriates Serena, and rightly so. Fred’s narrative blames Emily for the kidnapping, and absolves Serena and June of any wrongdoing. But it also strips them of their agency, something that we see even in the grammar of their lines. Fred clings onto his own active voice: “I am protecting this house,” he says, and while Serena owns her actions, saying it was “my choice”, Fred won’t even let her have that teeny bit of control. “I drove you to desperation,” he says. Coming out of anyone else’s mouth, this might seem like a sweet acknowledgement of wrongdoing, but from Fred, it’s just another way of turning Serena into an object. It doesn’t work.
It’s an interesting symbol, that bed. It represents them, their union, their marriage. It’s where countless ceremonies took place. It’s not where Nichole was conceived, so it is a symbol of the lies they tell the world. It’s where Serena and Fred performed their worst act of cruelty last season, when they raped June to punish her and to try to kickstart labour. Burning it down is a rejection of the relationship, the lies, and the practices of Gilead. It’s a purging of her sin. It’s another sign that you should never ever mess with Serena Joy. It’s an uncontrollable force, something that Fred can’t contain. And it’s glorious. “Inflaming fire, thou shalt take vengeance” indeed. Burn it all down. No-one likes Mondays. Only the relationships between the women remained intact. More on that story later.
And so, while it might have only been 19 minutes until she was stuck in that house, it wasn’t much longer before she was moved out of it, and the show got some movement, something we desperately needed after last season.
First for June was some “penance” at the Red Center for her attempt to see Hannah, penance we were thankfully spared from witnessing; even the shot of June’s tortured feet was softened by the news that Emily and Nichole had successfully escaped, and so it was worth it.
Then came the new posting. June is now Ofjoseph, handmaid to Commander Lawrence, the “architect of Gilead” and man of mysterious allegiances. In case you thought the way he aided Emily was a sign he was an out and out goody, the first three episodes hammer home how complex and unsettling he is. By episode 3, June decides he is a psychopath. He is constantly testing his household, ruling with surprising laxness in some areas, such as his disinterest in the resistance network operating out of his kitchen, but with an iron fist in matters pertaining to his own personal comfort and anyone who upsets his wife. June’s normal attempts at flattery and flirtation don’t work on him; he is unplayable. He demands the truth, no matter how risky that is. He hates people, but finds opportunities to save a few every now and then. He is a misogynist in public and in private, at times sounding like Gilead’s answer to Jordan Peterson. He ditches one Martha unceremoniously, not for being part of the resistance but for lying about it. It’s almost refreshing how he immediately recognises how “transactional” June is, as it forces her to change tactics. Movement, people. He mocks her for trying to “invent” a “humanity” for him, and yet the audience is constantly doing the same thing. What motivates him? Does he really believe he is doing the right thing? Is he “doing a good deed once in a while” so he can sleep at night?
His big test for June cruelly makes her complicit, but it is also an opportunity, and once June understands that, she feels more comfortable in the Lawrence house. Making her choose 5 women to save from certain death in the Colonies, by choosing the “best people for the job” of Martha, forces her to see the world as he does: somewhere where there are terrible choices and tiny windows of opportunity. She chooses the best people for the job alright. Was it the job he had intended? Was this what he wanted all along? It’s not clear yet. But June handpicks women who would be useful in the resistance rather than just the kitchen, and so this counts as a win.
It’s a strange education, Chez Lawrence. It gives June the chance to bond with the Martha network, to try and establish some trust between the groups, and get out there to see how it works. (Successfully but not without risk of casualties.) It gives her freedom from the brutality of the Ceremony. It gives her opportunities to try and glean information from Fred again, as meetings happen at this house. It means a reunion with newly-promoted Commander “what are you good for?” Nick, and even a visit from Serena. It is not a safe place. But where is?
We also see the return of a beaten but not broken Aunt Lydia, who has gone from calmly terrifying to unpredictably terrifying. Her visit shows that while Commander Lawrence will lie to protect June (OK, mostly to protect his wife) from the Ceremony, he won’t intervene if Aunt Lydia gets in a zappy mood. He has limits.
Meanwhile, Serena spends most of her time smoking and looking out to sea. She gets no sympathy from her own mother. Fred spends his time looking sadly at her or practicing narcissistic ‘apology’ monologues in front of sex slaves. Serena’s only friends are Rita and June, and these episodes draw out the importance of women working together against a common foe. Even though June’s new walking partner, Ofmatthew, is a “pious little shit”, the handmaids had their moment of bonding last season when they reclaimed their names, and they can help each other a bit now. June’s work with Beth, Cora, Alison and Sienna is establishing bonds with the Marthas. And now, Serena is a potential new recruit.
“One day, when we’re ready, we’re coming for you. Just wait.”
Bring it on… Until that day, let’s enjoy this moment from Season 2 a few times:
“Everybody loves Canada!”
Whenever we have a scene set outside Gilead, I am almost certain to cry, and this week was no exception. After escaping some rubbish drones and nearly drowning, Emily is safely on Canadian soil with Nichole, where she is met with kindness and respect. She is applauded at the hospital, and HOLY HEALTHCARE, she is well looked after. Who would have thought that an optometrist appointment could be so moving? But for Emily — a college professor who wasn’t allowed to read — just casually being given letters to look at was a huge deal. The questions echoed through her head, though.
“Better? Worse? Better? Worse?”
And it’s not easy to give a definitive answer, because it’s going to take a lot to make things better for Emily. I mean, how much has this woman suffered? She lost her wife and child when she wasn’t allowed to leave the country. She was enslaved and raped. Her lover was executed in front of her. She was mutilated. She murdered a guardian with a stolen car. She was sent to die in the Colonies, where she saw unimaginable suffering and murdered a Wife. She was re-drafted into service and raped again. Her Commander died during the ceremony and she watched. She attacked Aunt Lydia and thought she would be executed for it. Then suddenly, she is being applauded, and treated kindly, like nothing happened. Who is she now? She can’t just go back to who she was before. There are layers of trauma, shame and guilt that she will need to unpack. It is not just her body that was scarred and mutilated by Gilead.
Fortunately, Emily has our favourite refugees on hand to help her out. Erin and Moira understand. They’ve been there. Luke has a harder time, struggling to bond with Nichole due to his own survivor’s guilt. Seeing Emily, broken and hiding, fills him with fear about how June will be if she ever escapes. But Emily will get there in her own time. It doesn’t take too long before we see the phone call that stops traffic. SOBBY SOB SOB
If the first three episodes are establishing the direction of Season 3, where did we end up? We have alliances between the castes of women, for a start. Nearly-pointless Nick is getting deployed to the front, to attack Chicago, but stopped by for a ‘visit’ before he left. We are still not sure what the Commander and Mrs Lawrence are all about, but they seem interesting. And most importantly, we know that being a parent means lots of different things. Both June and Serena mourn the loss of Nichole, and try to figure out how to remember her without just feeling the agony of their loss. They let her go because they loved her. In Canada, Moira takes on the role of parent immediately, as a way to honour her friend. Like Moira, Luke looks at Nichole and sees June and Hannah. But it is harder for him. He wasn’t there. He has only heard about the horrors. Nichole is a symbol of his wife, but also of the way Gilead has treated her, and a reminder that he couldn’t save his own daughter. But June “had another job in mind” for Luke, and when he finally takes the baby in his arms, he loses the fear and doubt that made him so clumsy around Emily, and remembers: June trusted him with something precious. It’s time for him to be a parent again.
Callbacks and references
Serena sees Nichole in the bath, just like June remembers Hannah in Season 1.
The picture of Hannah that Luke collected was given to June by Fred. She used to keep it in the music box that Serena gave her. June tucked it into Nichole’s blankets before she gave Nichole to Emily, and it somehow survived the river.
“Get your shit together” was Moira’s motto. June used it on Moira to break her apathy in Jezebel’s. Now it seems Luke has started to use it as well.
The former Chemistry teacher, Alison, nicknamed Breaking Bad by June, was the person who built the bomb that Ofglen 2.0 (aka Lillie) detonated last season.
Clea DuVall returns as Emily’s wife. She was last seen in Season 2 flashbacks.
Bye bye Scrabble, and bye bye graffiti!
Lines from the book are still woven into the voiceover. “To be a man watched by women…” was originally about Fred, but is used here about Lawrence. “I compose myself….I am not proud of this” was upcycled in a similar way. Another one of Aunt Lydia’s lectures makes the transition: “A society dying of too much choice…” And June’s mother gets a mention as well, in the reference to wanting a “women’s culture”. There is still plenty of value to be mined from the book, it seems.
And now, it’s time for a dance break… Until next time!
Header Image Source: Hulu