The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Review

  • Series Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Season: 3
  • Episodes: 13
  • Discs: 4 (Blu-Ray)
  • Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Amanda Brugel, Ann Dowd, Joseph Fiennes, Madeline Brewer, Alexis Bledel
  • Original Network: Hulu
  • Original Production Company: MGM

This review contains spoilers for Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale.

At the end of the previous season, June gives her baby to Emily and sends her off to escape Gilead, while she remains behind. Season 3 opens with Emily and the baby continuing their escape and successfully obtaining asylum and refugee status in Canada. Emily brings the baby to Luke and Moira, and after a period of adjustment living with them, she locates her wife and son. By the end of the season, she’s returned to her profession as a doctor.

In Gilead, June returns to the house of Commander Lawrence, where she discovers he’s a psychopathic game-player and his wife is ill and not always able to get the medications she needs due to the laws and rules of Gilead. June is determined to see her daughter, Hannah, and try to get her out. She also has a young walking partner, who constantly repeats the Gilead Party Line. June doesn’t pay as much attention to this as she should. Finally, a plan is made for June to see Hannah at her School for the Domestic Arts, using Mrs. Lawrence as a cover. It doesn’t work – and soon after Hannah and her Commander and his wife are moved again. Not only that, but the entire household – Martha, Handmaid, even Guardian are executed by Gilead, with the Handmaids literally pulling the ropes to hang them.

June’s walking partner gets pregnant but doesn’t immediately reveal it to her Commander. Aunt Lydia has June publically shamed. June fights back by claiming her walking partner doesn’t want her baby – and the girl is publically shamed by Lydia. A few episodes later, in a sequence without much explanation, the girl goes crazy and starts firing a gun in the market. She is shot down by a Guardian in front of Lydia and June. The woman is taken to a hospital and put on life support until her child is developed enough to be removed by Cesarian section, then she is allowed to die. Aunt Lydia forces June to remain in the room, on her knees. June slips into a deep depression and altered status. She even takes a used scalpel from the sharps container and attacks Serena when she visits, as well as harming herself. The doctor examines the cut and asks her how long she’s been suicidal. At first, June insists she isn’t but realizes that she is – and that she has been since she realized she’d probably never see her daughter again.

Now back at the Commander’s house, June gets access to records of Handmaids and their children. She finds out Janine had a son that was taken from her by Gilead, only for that child to be killed in a traffic accident. All of the Handmaids we know through June have also lost children. June has an epiphany and changes her focus. Instead of focusing on her daughter only, she decides she’s going to get children out. Any child. As many as she can. When she talks to the Martha network about this – she gets an incredible amount of support, more than she could possibly have expected. By focusing on others, on her fellow Handmaids and their children, June grows and also gets help, whereas before the Handmaids and Marthas were getting tired of her selfishness. June works on getting help from Commander Lawrence by promising to take his wife with her to escape to someplace she can get the medical help she needs.

The second half of the season focuses on June and the Martha Network trying to set up this escape. There are setbacks, but June’s determination wins the day. She returns to Jezebel’s to convince the bartender there to help the Handmaids. They know he brings in regular shipments by plane of contraband, so June wants to use the plane as an escape route for 52 children. Billy seems uncommitted, but as she’s leaving June is spotted by the Washington DC Commander of Gilead who forces her to an upstairs room and tries to brutally rape her. June kills him but then shuts down in shock. A Martha finds her, one she had chosen to be saved from The Colonies. The Martha helps June get out of Jezebel’s and she and her fellow Marthas burn the Commander’s body and clean-up the mess. No one in authority ever realizes he’s dead, they just think he’s missing. Meanwhile, Serena becomes more and more determined to get her daughter, Nichole, back from the Canadians. This had resulted in the Waterfords, Aunt Lydia, and June taking a trip to Washington DC where Haidmaids cannot even speak, their lips are sealed together with metal rings. But Serena realizes that despite her husband’s assurances – he has no intention of actually getting Nichole back. Serena works with an American spy to get herself and Commander Waterford to Canada to face war crimes accusations. Serena gets immunity by testifying against Waterford. So now, the Waterfords are in Canada facing war crimes charges (Serena is charged with separate crimes later on), and the Commander they met in DC is dead. Furthermore, Billy decides to help the Marthas and Mayday is a go – June and company will rescue the children. As her new Martha tells her – she is “fucking fantastic”.

The details of the plan have a few setbacks, especially when a Martha brings a child to the house, gets cold feet, and decides to return to her mistress. But the younger Martha in Commander Lawrence’s house, Sienna, points out that because they don’t have any transport that they can go through the woods to get to the airport – it’s shorter. The route also proves to be safer, with less chance of getting spotted. They reach the border of the airport only to face fences and guardians on the lookout. June decides she will create a diversion while the Marthas find a safer way to get to the actual plane. Handmaids and Marthas return and help with the diversion – throwing rocks at the Guardians. It’s women armed with rocks versus men in black with machine guns, but the women actually do okay, definitely providing the needed distraction, even though some are shot and injured. June further leads a Guardian into the woods – he shoots her, but she gets him, at gunpoint, to call in the all-clear before she shoots him dead, then collapses. The plane, with the children, escapes. Later the plane lands in Canada and Moira and Emily are leading the refugee aid. Luke looks on in hope to see June. Rita tells Moira that June did all this – pointing to the rescued children.

Back in Gilead, six Handmaids find June and carry her off. June is injured but alive.

Going into Season 3, I was expecting to see June meeting with the Resistance and becoming a Harriet Tubman of Gilead – leading others out but staying herself to continue to help the Resistance. It takes June about half a season to come to that realization. She does help the Resistance throughout, using Commander Lawrence’s house as a safe place. One woman she smuggles through she’s told isn’t going out – she’s going deeper in, as a chemist, she can make bombs to be used by the Resistance. This knowledge is part of June’s journey to becoming a leader, not simply another victim. Her Epiphany after kneeling, for months, watching a woman as a human incubator (a metaphor for how all Handmaids are treated in Gilead) is the second step in her journey. Seeing how much help she is offered when she becomes determined to save others, strangers, children but strangers she doesn’t know is the final step. June has gone from being fundamentally selfish and getting others killed to becoming a Resistance leader who saves lives. I cannot wait to see what she does in the next season!

I highly recommend The Handmaid’s Tale. From the premise, it might seem like it would be depressing, difficult to watch, or angering – and it is, but it is also hopeful and just a really well-told story. The acting, cinematography, and stories are excellent.

Read my Review of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1.
Read my Review of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2.

The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1 Review

  • Series Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Season: 1
  • Episodes: 10
  • Discs: 3 (Blu-Ray)
  • Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Amanda Brugel, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, Joseph Fiennes
  • Original Network: Hulu
  • Original Production Company: MGM

Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. The television series begins with June, her husband, Luke, and her daughter fleeing. They don’t get far. Gilead captures June, takes away her daughter, Hannah, and kills, she thinks, her husband. She is next seen as a Handmaid, known only as Offred (Of Fred), a sexual slave to Commander Waterford, there to provide him and his wife with a child. The opening episode concerns “The Ceremony” in which the household gathers, pious words are said, then Offred lies between the legs of Mrs. Waterford while Mr. Waterford, clinically and without passion or emotion forces himself on her – all to get her pregnant. This is life in Gilead, a Fundamentalist Christian society devoted to “family values” which has replaced the United States. Women are split into four groups, all of whom have their own uniforms: the wives (always dressed in blue dresses), the Handmaids – in red with white caps inside and white bonnets outside, the Marthas (always dressed in grey) domestic slaves who do the household work for the wives, and the Aunts (dressed in brown) who train Handmaids at the Red Centre and also administer discipline. There is one other group – which I will discuss in a bit. Anyone else is presumably killed unless they’ve managed to escape Gilead. There are mentions of “the colonies” throughout the series, which is used as a threat against misbehaving Handmaids and other women.

The cinematography of the series is fantastic. I really enjoyed that part of the show. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale looks fantastic, and the red and white of Handmaids uniforms are used to almost artistic effect, as we see lines of Handmaid’s walking, or forming a circle or kneeling in perfect unison. Within the Waterfords’ home – framing, extreme close-ups (especially of Offred and especially in the early episodes) and lighting that varies from golden and soft to gray are used to emphasize mood. Offred is often closed in by her surroundings – and even though the entire frame is widescreen, she will be confined to a small portion of it – showing how small and confined her world now is. Outdoor scenes are about color: red, white, and gray. There is no real color in Gilead.

The plot is presented in two tracks: June’s present as a Handmaid; and the flashbacks that establish both how Gilead came to be – and that track June’s journey from a young, professional woman, to Handmaid to the Waterfords. This journey is largely told out of order, but it eventually builds up a chilling story. Gilead was formed by a Christian Fundamentalist (the exact nature of Gilead’s religion is much more obvious it previous adaptions than this one) extremist group called “The Sons of Jacob” – Waterford and his wife were leaders of the group, and Nick, their driver, an early recruit. The Sons of Jacob organized a three-pronged attack, taking out Congress, the White House, and “the Court”, and then declare martial law. They claim martial law is temporary. Soon women are forbidden to work or own property and all property and money held by women is transferred to their husbands or “male next of kin”. Women are forbidden to drive or to read. One chilling episode shows in flashback June and her friend Moira from the Red Centre attempting to escape. Moira, dressed as an Aunt, makes it to a train – June, dressed as a Handmaid, is recaptured. But while they are walking to the station, they see Gilead troopers tearing down street signs, destroying all signs in the train station, and standing outside a university where they are burning books and art.

Books are memory – and Gilead cannot afford to have anyone remember a different and no doubt better life. A later episode featuring a meeting at the Waterford house with the Mexican trade delegation, a delegation led by a woman, has the woman mention to Mrs. Waterford that she “read her book” – and, “doesn’t it bother her that no one can now read it”. Mrs. Waterford’s book, A Woman’s Place, was an argument for “domestic feminism”. It’s a book we later see being thrown in the trash along with all of Mrs. Waterford’s clothes after their revolution.

The situation with her book is one aspect of this complex and masterful series that at times makes me feel sorry for Mrs. Waterford. During the Ceremony, she averts her eyes, as does Fred Waterford. When Offred doesn’t get her period on time in an early episode, she’s exceedingly nice, until Offred does get her period – then we can see her disappointment, and how much she desperately wants a child. She’s jealous of Mrs. Putnam, when Ofwarren (Janine) gets pregnant and has a child. And later, after finding out about Offred’s late-night scrabble sessions with her husband (and other things) she forces Offred to take a pregnancy test. When it’s positive, she is happy and lays off a bit. But Offred sees Mrs. Waterford as The Enemy. And Mrs. Waterford can be cruel. When Offred angers her – she is confined to her room, for weeks, not even allowed to do the shopping. When she finds out that Fred is having an affair outside of The Ceremony with Offred, Mrs. Waterford attacks and beats her. And, after that, Mrs. Waterford takes her on a long drive, confines her to the car, and talks, briefly to Hannah, who is dressed in pink at a strange house. June bangs on the car windows, begging to see her daughter, but Mrs. Waterford doesn’t allow her to. Later, Mrs. Waterford threatens her: “You take good care of my child, and no harm will come to your daughter.” No pressure. Offred reports this to Mr. Waterford.

The scrabble sessions lead to Commander Waterford taking June, dressed up in a short cocktail dress and makeup, to Jezebel’s – a bar and brothel. At Jezebel’s, June runs into Moira, who is forced to work at the club. Moira was captured, and given a choice: Jezebel’s or The Colonies, as she’s a “disruptive influence”. At Jezebel’s, the women have access to booze and drugs. They serve the elite men of Gilead in everything from conversation partners to, well, the purpose of prostitutes since the beginning of time. Needless to say, the wives do not know and aren’t to find out that their husbands are still sex-obsessed, even with their Ceremonial Handmaids at home. It’s finding out about Jezebel’s that sets Mrs. Waterford off on her rampage against Offred.

But also during the episode with the Mexican delegation, in front of everyone, Offred says and does as expected – but at the end of the episode, she tells the female trade official that she lied. She didn’t volunteer – she was captured. Handmaids are beaten with cattle prods, mutilated, Gilead took her daughter, and no, she isn’t happy. The woman says she cannot help, then leaves. Her male aide, offers to help, telling her Luke is alive. He asks her to write a note, which she does. There are a few the chilling scenes in the episode with the trade delegation. First, one of the other Handmaids tells June, as she asks for information, is that the trade deal isn’t about oranges – it’s about Red Tags – the only thing everyone else wants. This is confirmed when, after Offred has spoken up, the Mexican woman says she’s from a city the size of Boston – where there hasn’t been a live birth in six years. She remarks, “My country is dying.” Offred’s response, “My country is already dead.”

The next episode follows Luke, from him getting separated from June as they try to escape, to his getting June’s note in Canada. It’s an interesting episode, as Luke joins with a group of refugees trying to get out of Gilead (some die on the road). But throughout it – I found myself wondering what was happening to Offred.

In the last episode, the Handmaids attend a ceremony where they are to kill someone for a violation of the rules of Gilead. It’s a stoning. The woman being stoned, is Janine, and her “crime” is “endangering a child”. In the previous episode, she had stolen her child from the Putnams – as well as refused to go through with the Ceremony at her new posting. Although June is able to save the child, Janine jumps off a bridge into an icy river. She’s pulled out. During the stoning ceremony, one Handmaid objects that they “aren’t going to kill Janine”. She’s beaten down for her trouble. Offred steps forward, drops her stone, and says, “Sorry, Aunt Lydia”. All the other Handmaid’s in the circle – do the same. Later that night the Eyes and soldiers of Gilead come to the Waterfords’ house and take her. The season ends on a hopeful note, as Offred comments that she doesn’t know what will happen to her. (As she says goodbye to the household’s Martha, Rita, she whispers in her ear – “behind the tub”. This is where she hid the package of messages from Handmaids begging for help, or for news of the children taken from them.)

As dark as The Handmaid’s Tale is, it is also compelling television. The cinematography is remarkable. The acting is incredible. And the stories of all the characters are also amazing – as this is not a tale of clear-cut good and evil. Gilead is evil. Yes. But I felt oddly sympathetic for Serena Waterford – she was so desperate for a child, and she’s also remarkably naive, believing in her “New World Order”, even with what it has done to herself. The Aunts are brutal and quite possibly the most unsympathetic characters in the show – but they are also naive. The men, Waterford, his cronies (whom we barely see, but always in a bad light), Nick, have a created a world in their own image, a world where they are on top and control everything – from their wives to their live-in sex slaves. It’s even Waterford who comes up with the idea of “The Ceremony”, deciding they can’t call it “the Act” without upsetting the wives. Luke, on the other hand, is a good man – but when he gets June’s money his first response is to say that it will be good to “take care of her”.

Offred’s journey is that of survival. She becomes a member of the Resistance not by joining up, but by talking with other Handmaids, giving information where she can, and helping if she can. The Resistance is a silent, and careful group. But it provides some solace in a world that is paranoid, cold, isolating, and terrifying. The last episode ends, not on a note of fear as one might think, but on a note of hope – hope that Offred may escape.