12:15 pm EDT, May 29, 2019

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ season 3 review: The revolution will be improvised

The more things change in Gilead, the more they stay the same. Is it worth the trip back for The Handmaid’s Tale season 3?

The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 wastes little time in collecting itself. With barely any room for June’s traditional voice-overs, the series punches back into gear immediately where it left off.

Determined to rescue Hannah, June has sent her infant daughter Nichole to Canada with Emily. Networks of Marthas eke drops of freedom from Gilead’s deadly stone. And Serena Joy, freshly relieved of her pinky finger for the sin of reading, grapples with the choice to send away forever the child she took as her own.

Despite its early speed, The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 is also struggling. Its potent imagery has by now become familiar, its violence is somewhat muted by repetition. The first three episodes, available for viewing on Hulu on June 5, waver between stoic solemnity and spurts of frantic adventure, not yet synthesizing the two extremes.

Still, The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 is canny on leading with its strengths. It is a series that knows how to use silence possibly better than any other show on television, a choice buoyed to brilliance by the impeccable cast.

And unfortunately, its familiarity also beckons to ever-increasing relevance, emphasizing what has always been true of The Handmaid’s Tale: Its excellence is mandatory compensation for its intensely painful portrayal of life under tyranny.

Here’s a bit of what to expect as The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 strives to deliver on that excellence.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ season 3 review

Consequences

The final episode of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 proved divisive when June turned down the opportunity to escape Gilead with her infant daughter. June’s choices are no less controversial within The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 than they were among viewers.

The backlash to this decision is immediately evident in the opening minutes of the premiere, the act itself incomprehensible to most of June’s tenuous allies. The consequences, too, are swift and painful, setting up a shift in the familiar household dynamics that have defined the series through its first two seasons.

Obviously, this remains June’s story, and the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 lean into the idea that she is uniquely resilient to Gilead’s many evils. Still, as June’s connections to the Mayday resistance grow stronger, the potential consequences of her resistance loom increasingly ominously.

Gilead is never lacking in glossy brutality, and if the series doesn’t manage to quite break free of the now-familiar patterns of its violence, there are clear signs that this is indeed the intention.

Subtle mysteries

One such signal is the increased role of Bradley Whitford’s mercurial Commander Lawrence. Previously a figure mostly of suggestion, Lawrence quickly becomes a prominent presence in June’s daily life.

If Lawrence’s intentions and proclivities were difficult to parse in The Handmaid’s Tale season 2, more recent events don’t add much clarity. This Commander, the architect of Gilead’s economy, may have facilitated Emily’s escape, but his ultimate motivations are far from clear. The early episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 place June in the position of frustrated codebreaker, teasing at the mysteries of his household and tapping out the limits of Lawrence’s tolerance.

And make no mistake — Lawrence has limits, sharp and frightening. The man may have a vision wider than the borders of his hegemony, but his worldview is crueler and more machiavellian than June (and the audience) might expect from such a well-placed potential ally.

But imperfect solutions to systemic problems are something of a theme this season. The help that arrives may be distasteful, the options offered obscene. But in Gilead, everyone takes what they can get.

A house divided

While June burrows her way determinedly toward the core of Mayday’s resistance, a cold stasis has unfurled in the Waterford household. The events surrounding the abduction of their daughter Nichole has exposed the rotting structure of Serena and Fred’s marriage, and the early episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 probe at whether Serena especially has reached her breaking point.

Fred, of course, has his hateful male compatriots and the business of war to keep himself busy. Serena is left utterly unmoored by the wreck of her marriage. She is a stranger in (and increasingly, a victim of) the world she herself fought so hard to build, left alone when she should be absorbed in envied motherhood.

It’s never easy to trust Serena Joy’s proclivities toward kindness or change in Gilead, but The Handmaid’s Tale — and June — keep trying; certainly, both show and character have worked hard to optimize the conditions for a personal change that might be more radical than any revolution.

Fred and Serena’s maelstrom of drama also impacts the rest of their household. Rita steps with infinite care around a story determined to swallow her whole, while Nick receives news that could have major consequences for both himself and for June.

Refugees

Meanwhile, in Canada…

If the Canadian plot line was a weaker element of the show’s second season, early events in The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 suggest a much richer story to come. The fallout from Emily’s flight to freedom has profound consequences on the fragile part-life carved out by Luke and Moira.

For Emily herself, the results are even more radical and frightening to navigate. The Handmaid’s Tale has become an expert machine at carving horror from the ordinary, and it turns out that the horrifying can also become chillingly normal. The task set to Alexis Bledel, and indeed to the entire series, is to communicate the realities — both awful and wonderful — beneath this familiar skin.

Bledel handles the work with her characteristic brilliance. The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 grapples rather more with the problem; still, indications are that percolating changes will drive the season forward toward the success of its scarringly memorable predecessors.

The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 will be released on Hulu beginning June 5.

Official synopsis:

Season Three of The Handmaid’s Tale is driven by June’s resistance to the dystopian regime of Gilead and her struggle to strike back against overwhelming odds. Startling reunions, betrayals, and a journey to the terrifying heart of Gilead force all characters to take a stand, guided by one defiant prayer: “Blessed be the fight.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is executive produced by Bruce Miller, Warren Littlefield, Elisabeth Moss, Daniel Wilson, Fran Sears, Ilene Chaiken, Eric Tuchman and Mike Barker. The series is produced by MGM Television.

The series stars Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, Samira Wiley, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer, O-T Fagbenle, Amanda Brugel, and Bradley Whitford.

Our Score

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