While this is a site I normally dedicate just to movies, I have been branching out a bit lately and doing some television reviews as well. For those of you interested in The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, I will be recapping Season 3 over at AwardsWatch.com, but, to whet your appetite, here are my recaps for the first three episodes of Season 3, which dropped today (6/5). Beware, though, spoilers abound! (For a spoiler-free review of the first six episodes of Season 3, check out my review on AwardsWatch: Season 3 review)
Season 3: Episode 1: “Night”
[Warning: spoilers ahead]
Picking up right where we left off at the end of season 2, June (Elisabeth Moss) stands in the middle of the wet road, having just sent baby Nicole off with Emily (Alexis Bledel) to freedom. As distant screams of millions of viewers yelling at their televisions last July when June doesn’t get in the van still reverberate in the mist, June defiantly stands tall when a car pulls up, bracing for the consequences of her actions. After rooting for June to get out for two years, not only do we not see her escape when she has the chance, but now we are faced with watching her be punished for trying to. But, instead, the show throws us a curveball in the form of Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), who is the one driving the car and who is the one trying to help her to freedom. Not only doesn’t he punish her or turn her in, he’s still trying to get her out. But June has already made up her mind to not leave without Hannah, so she asks him to take her to the McKenzie’s, so she can get her.
But before she has a chance to grab Hannah, the police arrive at the McKenzie’s and take June away, which makes me wonder: who called them? This is literally minutes after her attempted escape, nobody even knows she’s gone yet and certainly nobody knows yet that Nicole is gone, so it’s clearly Lawrence who drops the dime on June. Is this out of spite or just gameplay? One minute, he’s trying to help, the next he turns her in. It’s just the beginning of the season and we’re already seeing a tonal shift in the story from brutal, graphic repression to mental cat-and-mouse games. It is a welcome transition and I’m intrigued to see how it plays out.
What is familiar is the twisted dynamic between Fred (Joseph Fiennes), Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and June, which is fully on display when June is returned to the Waterford’s. It’s hard to tell who is more pissed at seeing June—Fred or Serena. Fred is furious for putting them all at risk and demands to know where Nicole is. Serena has no such practical thoughts, she just, in this moment feels nothing but betrayal, anger and fear. Serena is utterly broken when she sees June standing in her living room instead of doing what she didn’t have the strength to do: keeping Nicole safe. At least someone else is as incredulous as the audience is that June didn’t take her opportunity to get out when she could.
When Fred promises to fix everything and put things back to “normal,” Serena snaps and literally burns the house down, an awesome sequence that feels as cathartic for the audience as it does for Serena. The song choice of Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” playing over the inferno as it incinerates all the reminders of the horrors of the previous two seasons is almost comedic in its simplicity and applies the perfect touch. It was always June who wanted to burn everything to the ground, but it’s Serena who lights the first match. Once the smoke clears, Nick (Max Minghella), Fred, Serena and June all go off in different directions, and it is unclear as to what their fates may be. Fire often signifies rebirth, it will be interesting to see how these characters come back together again, if they do at all.
Meanwhile, Emily makes it to Canada with Nicole and unites with Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and Moira (Samira Wiley), but it’s all a bit overwhelming for her. She’s not adjusting well after all she’s been through. Director Mike Barker lets Alexis Bledel do what she does best here as Emily’s terror, confusion and apprehension are all revealed in the nuances of Bledel’s moving performance.
Having been taken back to the Red Center, June gets punished by the new Aunt Lydia, Aunt Elizabeth, for breaking into the McKenzie’s, not for trying to escape or for kidnapping Nicole. It seems Fred’s plan to frame the whole thing on Emily has worked, but it still seems strange that there would be no inquiry or investigation. There were at least two fires set, Aunt Lydia is brutally attacked AND a handmaid and a child disappear—all on the same night? It’s really hard to swallow that it wouldn’t dawn on them that some sort of coordination by multiple parties may be at play. After all we know about Gilead, it seems inconsistent that this is let go so quickly.
But, no matter what, we are finally seeing signs that the resistance is gaining traction. We’ve already seen the network of Marthas who got June out (how many others have they done this for?) and now, as June is in the Red Center, an anonymous handmaid informs her that Nicole made it and is safe. June feels a renewed determination, knowing that she’s not alone. But then, in the final bit of irony—or control— she gets assigned to Lawrence, who playfully teases her, “you’re not going to be any trouble, are you?” Bradley Whitford is perfect at playing the morally ambiguous charmer, but there’s something especially creepy that he’s added to his performance here that is the perfect cherry on top of this nightmare sundae.
Season 3: Episode 2: “Mary and Martha”
[Warning: spoilers ahead]
I was wondering what would happen when the Waterford’s house burned down, considering that house had been the centerpiece of the show for two seasons—where would our focal point be now? Well, it turns out that plot point actually serves to open the show up and expand the worldview beyond their twisted walls, which lets the show tell a wider story. In this second episode of the third season, we don’t even see Fred or Serena, which tells you how far the show is expanding, for the better.
It’s still a June-centric show, though, of course, as we are seeing her settle into life in the Lawrence household. But unlike in the past two seasons, the action of the narrative at this point in the story is not driven by June, instead, she’s more of an observer, which requires a bit of an adjustment for the viewer. The Marthas are the ones who have this rebellion thing already well in hand. I love the fact that June is almost humbled by the fact that all these other women have already figured it out and have learned to work together. And not only that, but June learns that they not only smuggle women out, they even smuggle women deeper into the country, so they can work for the resistance on an even more significant level. It almost makes me wonder if we should’ve been watching their story for two seasons instead of June’s. But it’s not a well-oiled machine yet, as one of the Marthas gets shot by the guardians and ends up dying in Lawrence’s basement. Lawrence, blaming June because she convinced him to look the other way when they first brought her there, makes her bury the body.
The paradox of the Lawrences becomes curiouser and curiouser as not only can’t we figure out what Mr. Lawrence is playing at with his witty asides and sometimes cruel comments, but, even stranger, Mrs. Lawrence, who one minute seems almost catatonic and the next is planting flowers in the spot where June buried the body—ostensibly to make the big dirt spot seem less obvious—seems almost like an ally. We are not used to grey characters in this story, so it’s almost fun to try to figure out what their real game is. I never thought I’d ever think anything in The Handmaid’s Tale would be fun, so good for you, Bruce Miller.
Meanwhile, in Canada, Luke is struggling with Emily being there just as much as Emily is. Apparently, seeing Emily just reminds him of June, which is the lamest thing I’ve ever heard. Luke’s self-pity party is wearing thin, but Moira forgives him, which means we do, too. Emily, for her part, finally gets the strength to call Sylvia (Clea DuVall), who literally stops traffic when she hears her voice. Again, we rely on Emily’s story to bring us moments of joy like this—other than every moment Samira Wiley is on screen.
Finally, we have the great reveal: Aunt Lydia is alive! Thank goodness, the last thing I ever want to see is Ann Dowd leave a show just when it’s getting good—I already went through that with The Leftovers. Dowd’s performance as the brutal believer Aunt Lydia is the only thing that can stand next to Elisabeth Moss’s in terms of scope and power. After being around for so many years (her multiple stints on Law & Order a testament to her working-actor label), she won her first Emmy ever for this role in 2017, and it probably won’t be her last. June isn’t as happy to see Aunt Lydia as the audience is, however, as she gets a not-too-subtle reminder that Lydia is still Lydia, no matter how physically weakened she may be. Hmmm, maybe this won’t be so fun after all.
Season 3: Episode 3: “Useful”
[Warning: spoilers ahead]
After a couple of episodes that gave us glimpses of hope (the skeleton of a resistance, Nicole being united with Luke, Emily escaping), we’re back to the bleakness that we’ve come to know from The Handmaid’s Tale. But the darkness in this episode is very different from the terrors of earlier in the series. The earlier graphic brutality and tortures have become the subconscious undercurrent of this story, and now so much terror is simply implied—the fear itself seems to be just as effective. All it takes is Aunt Lydia to appear on screen, for example, and, like Pavlov’s dog, we respond reflexively. I sure hope that foundation of fear is enough, because I don’t think I can stand to see any more mutilations.
This episode does offer some familiar reminders of Gilead’s brutality though, like public hangings and detention centers, but the story is now focusing on the more subtle, behind-the-scenes elements of the regime—where the cracks might be. We see that Lawrence is in a position so powerful that the leadership comes to his house to meet, simply because he doesn’t like to commute to the office. It seems strange, in so many ways Gilead reminds us of Nazi Germany, but the big difference is there doesn’t seem to be a single leader in Gilead. It runs by committee, so it’s really hard to get a sense of where someone like Lawrence, or even Fred, fall in the hierarchy. Still, it’s clear Lawrence is very important, a fact that is not lost on June, who is determined to find a way to make use of his power and position.
But Lawrence isn’t going to make it easy on her, as he continues his cat-and-mouse game-play with her, constantly probing and testing her. She is determined to find a way in with him, though, knowing she needs allies with power to succeed in her long game, but, like a chess game, every time she makes a move, he makes one just a bit better. Unlike Fred, Lawrence is not easily manipulated, and June has her work cut out for her.
Meanwhile, Serena is sinking into her own despair while she’s at her mother’s house on the coast. It doesn’t help that her mother is as cold as the climate, so Serena goes to the one person who can understand the pain she’s feeling about losing Nicole: June. When Serena comes to visit her, June sees it as an opportunity. She tries to convince Serena to help with the resistance, help all the other mothers who had their babies taken away. What makes this scene so powerful is the clear torment that Serena is in and the depth that Yvonne Strahovski gives her. Strahovski and Moss have a chemistry that is impossible to define as their characters’ relationship is complex and so intertwined, you see them fighting to not get sucked into each other’s abyss. And yet they know that the other is their own key to survival. They both need each other and their reluctant bond is by far the most fascinating element in the series.
As for Lawrence, June continues to try to find the wedge that will crack him open, but instead she realizes he’s just as good a manipulator as she is. When she calls him out on the fact that he only does occasional good deeds so he can sleep at night, he takes her for a drive to a detention center, where thousands of women are about to be sent to certain death in the colonies. Pick 5 to save, he challenges her. “I thought you might enjoy being useful for once,” he sneers. While initially horrified by his request, she again finds a way to make the best of a terrible situation as she selects five women who could be beneficial to the resistance: an engineer, a lawyer, a journalist, an IT tech and a thief. Useful, indeed.