Previously On: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (Series recap and analysis)

What is Previously On…?
Awards Radar obviously loves film, but we also love our television and streaming series, too. The challenge is that once a series has a couple seasons behind it, jumping in can be intimidating. That is why we created “Previously On…” The column will provide full-series recaps of the most buzz-worthy shows by an Awards Radar writer who is also a super fan.

Our goal is to help create new fans who may have felt left out and also build excitement upon established fans. Use it as you may; as a way to catch up, a refresher, or just a fun way to revisit the characters and storylines you love. The column will cover each series’ best episodes and music, Emmy wins and more. We proudly begin Previously On… with the Emmy-winning Hulu Series, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Let’s watch together.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ Spoiler-Free Series Summary:

In a not-too-distant future, humanity is struggling. Birth rates have plummeted world-wide due to pollution, making fertility the most important issue on the planet. In America, driven by the crisis, a fundamental religious sect, based on the ideology of moral order and righteousness, has overthrown the American government and renamed the country Gilead. In Gilead, order is kept through violence, society is grouped into classes, freedoms are eliminated, including freedoms of speech, press and individualism. Women, in particular, are stripped of all rights and freedoms as every woman is assigned a duty or service to Gilead. Women who are considered to be “fallen” are designated as Handmaids, whose sole objective is to bear children for couples who are unable to have any. Handmaids have no freedoms, no rights and no say in their existence.

The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, is the story of one of these Handmaids, June, an educated, professional woman, who is also a wife and mother, who is captured as she tries to escape Gilead and is forced to become Handmaid to one of the most powerful couples in the country. Being a Handmaid means enduring every indignation, torture and suffering imaginable, but June remains determined to not only survive, but to find a way to escape and save herself and her daughter, who was stolen from her and sent to live with a childless couple. With the help of unlikely allies along the way, June proves the love of a mother and the courage to fight back can light a spark to ignite a revolution.

Main Characters:

June Osborne / Offred / Ofjoseph
(Elisabeth Moss)
Our protagonist. Kidnapped and forced into service as a Handmaid.

Commander Fred Waterford
(Joseph Fiennes)
The head of household where June is kept as a Handmaid. A high-ranking Gilead official.

Serena Joy Waterford
(Yvonne Strahovski)
Fred’s wife, a true believer who helped shape Gilead. Desperate to have a baby.

Dr. Emily Malek Ph.D. / Ofglen #1 / Ofsteven / Ofroy / Ofjoseph #1
(Alexis Bledel)
A rebellious Handmaid, who is a lesbian and former college professor.

Janine Lindo / Ofwarren / Ofdaniel / Ofhoward
(Madeline Brewer)
A perpetually optimistic and free-spirited Handmaid.

Aunt Lydia
(Ann Dowd)
Responsible for training and keeping the Handmaids in line. A true believer who is dedicated to following the rules and fiercely punishes those who break them.

Luke Bankole
(O. T. Fagbenle)
June’s husband.

Nick Blaine
(Max Minghella)
The Waterford’s driver and June’s lover

Moira Strand
(Samira Wiley)
June’s best friend before the war, reunited with June as a fellow Handmaid in Gilead.

(Amanda Brugel)
The Waterford’s Martha

Been avoiding watching The Handmaid’s Tale?
Here’s why you should give it a chance.

Yes, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dark show that paints a dire picture of what could happen if we lose sight of our humanity. But it also asks deeply humanistic questions such as what lengths would you go to and what would you endure for your child? For your beliefs? For freedom? For love? While there are clear villains and heroes in this story, the motivations that drive each character are never black-and-white, and villains can become heroes and vice versa. This all makes for excellent drama.

If you are staying away from this show because you think it’s about religion, or because it’s too dark, or it’s too depressing, may I offer a few reasons to give it a chance. Yes, it is a very hard show to watch. But, just in the way The Leftovers was also a very hard show to watch, The Handmaid’s Tale deals with human beings experiencing very human conflicts, within themselves and between each other. These inner and outer conflicts are sometimes painful, but always compelling.

There are characters in The Handmaid’s Tale who are driven by a selfish desire for power and status, who don’t necessarily have a depth of belief or moral compass. But then there are characters who are shown to be layered, complicated characters, more than just simplistic true believers. For characters such as Lydia or Serena, whom are quickly characterized as villains, you might see what lies at the core of their beliefs: a desire to protect children, to keep the human race alive and to save the planet. These may not differ too much from what we all care about. The difference lies in the extreme methods they employ for a hard and fast adherence to such beliefs. The real lesson of The Handmaid’s Tale is the warning about the dangers of extremism, and the dangers of losing our humanity in the effort to save it.

Despite all the philosophical debates this show can trigger, from climate change to human rights to religious extremism, at its core it is a phenomenally well written, acted and produced show that is one of the most visceral dramas on television. It gives us a central protagonist who we root for, antagonists we hate and an ensemble of allies who provide emotional depth and texture to a basic story of good vs. evil. Two essential elements make The Handmaid’s Tale such a compelling watch: it makes you wonder how you might react in similar circumstances, and it builds up an intense desire to see our heroine get justice and to see this world burn to the ground. As a viewer, you get sucked into June’s story and become emotionally involved with her getting her vengeance. The mark of a good show is when you are invested in the characters and care what happens to them. This show has that in spades.

But if compelling themes and exciting plot aren’t your thing, then come for the acting. While Elisabeth Moss is truly the centerpiece of this show, and delivers an exquisitely-tuned performance in every episode, the true glory of The Handmaid’s Tale is the incredible group of actors who surround her and create some of the most interesting and watchable characters in modern television history. There is not a single weak link. Samira Wiley, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd and Yvonne Strahovski deliver monumental performances, each one worthy of multiple Emmys (and each has won, except for Strahovski, which I will never understand). The men have a harder time connecting, since we are supposed to feel conflicted about them, but Joseph Fiennes, Max Minghella and Bradley Whitford are all exceptional and provide a depth to each of their characters that is essential. On top of all that, we are gifted some incredible guest appearances from actors like Cherry Jones, Yayha Abdul-Mateen II, Chris Meloni, Clea Duvall and John Carroll Lynch, in addition to the ensemble of performers who round out the cast, each one responsible with coloring in the world that this show presents to us.

In the end, I ask you to not be scared off by the intensity of the themes and the darkness of its story. While it is difficult to watch at times and incredibly violent, the payoff is in its monumental tribute to the human spirit, its capacity for courage and strength in the face of overwhelming odds, and a testament to the individual and collective strength of women to not only endure and survive, but to fight back and protect those they love. Ultimately, the show is about hope. And that’s something we all can use a lot more of.

Our 5 Favorite Episodes

(We do not recommend skimming through. the series, but if you want to revisit the very best episodes, here are our favorites).

“June” Season 2, episode 1
Directed by Mike Barker; written by Bruce Miller
“The Word” Season 2, episode 13
Directed by Mike Barker; written by Bruce Miller
“A Woman’s Place” Season 1, episode 6
Directed by Floria Sigismondi; written by Wendy Straker Hauser
“Household” Season 3, episode 6
Directed by Dearbhla Walsh; written by Dorothy Fortenberry
“Baggage” Season 2, episode 3
Directed by Kari Skogland; written by Dorothy Fortenberry

Season One recap (***spoilers included***)

After getting caught while trying to escape, June is taken to the Red Center, where women are taught the details of being a Handmaid. We learn through flashbacks how the world got this way and what June’s life was like before Gilead. She learns that her best friend, Moira, was also captured and turned into a Handmaid.

June is assigned to the Waterford house, ruled by Commander Fred Waterford, a top official in the government, and his wife Serena, who also played a crucial role in the forming of Gilead. While they are true believers, June quickly learns their vulnerabilities: Fred is sweet on June and likes to break the rules with her, and Serena is singularly focused on having a baby. So June is able to manipulate each of them to varying degrees, but this also sets her up for some harsh punishments along the way.

June has to endure “the ceremony” once a month, where Serena holds June down and Fred rapes her, in hopes of making her pregnant. But Serena knows that Fred is impotent, so she asks June if she will sleep with Nick, their driver. June does sleep with Nick and she and Nick embark on an illicit affair, falling in love, even though Nick is an Eye. When June becomes pregnant, she knows that she now has some leverage over Serena. Serena, in turn, drives June to see her stolen daughter Hannah, and warns June, “your child is safe as long as mine is.” The battle begins.

Moira gets caught trying to escape and is forced to work as a prostitute at Jezebel’s, an illegal brothel. Moira helps get a package to June on behalf of “May Day,” the underground rebellion. June is able to get a note to Luke in Canada.

June’s walking partner, Emily, gets caught having an affair with a Martha and is forced to watch her girlfriend be hanged. Since they need Handmaids, they don’t kill Emily, but they mutilate her so she will no longer feel pleasure, and assign her to a new house. But Emily, still rebellious, steals a car and kills a Guardian.

Janine gives birth for the Putnams to a little girl and when they won’t let her see her, she steals the baby and stands on the edge of a bridge. June manages to convince her to save the baby, but Janine falls to the river below. She survives, but is sentenced to be stoned to death by all her fellow Handmaids. But the Handmaids, led by June, refuse. The season ends with June being taken away for leading the mini rebellion.

SEASON MVP: June, the relatable hero who finds a way to survive and finds enough strength and courage to stand up and fight back.

UNSUNG HERO: Emily, the most rebellious. Forced to endure the worst tortures and punishments, she never stops fighting.

KEY MOMENT: Nick and June fall in love. It may not be the biggest or most memorable, but it’s the plot line that has the deepest and widest ramifications for our story.

Season One review:

First seasons are always the hardest. You’ve got to establish your characters, your world and your story while grabbing the attention and—more important—the interest of the viewer. The Handmaid’s Tale has no choice but to go dark right from the get-go because Margaret Atwood’s novel doesn’t leave much room for joy.

But what creator/showrunner Bruce Miller does is take us into the world so quickly and so intensely that we have no choice but to get sucked in, no matter how depressing the story is. When this show first premiered, in April, 2017, there were inevitable comparisons to what the world might devolve into under a continued Trump/Pence-led authority, prompting many, I’m sure, to tune in just to see the “what ifs” of it all. But for those of us who were just looking for great drama and a story well told, we were rewarded with a riveting story filled with villains easy to hate and heroes easy to root for.

We spend most of this season just getting familiar with the lay of the land, who is who and what the rules are in this dark hellscape. The writers’ use of flashbacks really help us escape the darkness and color in the missing pieces. But it is the characters who are introduced that are the highlights of the first season and the main element that makes you want to come back for a second. Meeting the irrepressible Janine, the rebellious Emily, the strong Moira, the evil (but complicated) Serena, the loathsome Lydia, the mysterious Nick, the manipulative Fred and, of course, the determined June, are why we stay. This season makes us genuinely care what happens to these people, good and bad. Although it takes maybe a bit too long, the season finally ends with a hint of rebellion, which is what we came for.

Season 1 must-watch episodes:
“A Woman’s Place” Season 1, episode 6
Directed by Floria Sigismondi; written by Wendy Straker Hauser

“Offred” Season 1, episode 1
Directed by Reed Moreno; written by Bruce Miller

“Night” Season 1, episode 10
Directed by Kari Skogland; written by Bruce Miller


Season 2 recap (***spoilers included***)

Aunt Lydia’s punishment for the Handmaids’ refusal to stone Janine is a trip to gallows, but she only scares them. Instead of hanging them, she proceeds to find various ways to torture them, with June forced to watch because she’s pregnant. June’s punishment is knowing she’s the reason the Handmaids are being brutalized.

Nick arranges for June to escape from the doctor’s office and she ends up at the abandoned Boston Globe building, where she waits for a few weeks until someone shows up and says it’s time to go. When she’s left on her own, June finds her way to the airstrip where she was told a plane would fly her to Canada. The plane is shot down during takeoff and June is again captured.

Janine and Emily both find themselves at the colonies as punishment for their actions at the end of season 1. Because she’s pregnant, they can’t kill June, but the Waterfords plan to make June’s life a living hell until the baby is born. June is in a dark place, blaming herself for all those who have died and been tortured because of her.

Fred and Serena arrange to get Nick married off to 15-year-old Eden, in order to hurt June. We get to know Serena’s story and learn why she can’t have a baby of her own.

Serena and June continue to manipulate each other. Ofglen blows up the new Red Center, killing many and injuring Fred.

Because of the Handmaids they lost, Emily and Janine are pulled out of the colonies and put back into rotation as Handmaids.

While Fred is in the hospital, Serena forges his signature and writes several decrees, and asks for June’s help. They find mutual respect for each other and enjoy the moment, fleeting as it is.

When Fred returns and finds out what Serena has been doing, he whips her with his belt, in front of June. When June reaches out to her, Serena’s walls are back up.

Fred and Serena make a diplomatic trip to Canada, where an American representative approaches Serena and offers her asylum, but she refuses. During a protest in Toronto, Luke rushes the Waterfords, saying he’s June’s husband. Nick later finds Luke and gives him the bundle of letters. Once the letters are released, the Canadians cut off all diplomatic talks and make the Waterfords leave.

Luke and Moira now know that June is alive. When Nick gets back from Canada, he tells June that Luke and Moira are both still alive. Now she’s more determined than ever.

June has false labor and Serena is so pissed and humiliated, she tells Fred that they need to induce labor in “the most natural way.” They hold June down and rape her in the most violent and disturbing scene of the series so far.

The next day, Fred tries to make it up to June by having Nick drive her to see Hannah at a house in the country. June gets stuck there and is forced to give birth alone.

Emily is delivered to her enigmatic new master, Commander Lawrence, who is strangely kind and allowing.

Eden and Guardian Isaac are killed for falling in love. June finds out that Eden read the Bible and pleads with Serena about saving their daughter from Eden’s fate in the future. Serena is so moved by Eden’s death that she leads a group of wives to present a proposal to the Gilead high council, suggesting they allow women to read the Bible. Fred has Serena punished by having a part of her finger amputated.

Emily stabs Lydia. Commander Lawrence takes Emily on a drive, and Emily is sure she’s going to her death.

Several fires are lit in town, to distract the Guardians from an escape attempt, arranged by the Marthas to get June and the baby out. Lawrence is also in on it, and he delivers Emily to the van, wishing her a good life. June gives the baby to Emily and closes the door, saying she can’t leave without Hannah.

SEASON 2 MVP: Serena, the most magnificently complicated and nuanced character in the series. Season 2 belongs to Serena, in all her pain, commitment, belief and evil.

UNSUNG HERO: Nick, who lets Luke know that June is alive, which gives him new reason to fight and June new reason to hope.

KEY MOMENT: Serena letting Nichole go

Season 2 review:

It’s impossible to fathom how much happens in this season. It’s absolutely chock-full of plot, but, somehow, the creators manage to make a visually stunning, character-building and performance master class on top of the lickety-split story that moves like a freight train. Everyone’s manipulating everyone, motivations are revealed and tested, and it ends with one of the most memorable and audience-defying moments in television history. I can’t imagine a season better than this one.

This season starts with one of the best-looking episodes in history (brilliant cinematography by Colin Watkinson), and keeps going from there, with one powerhouse episode after another. Our heroine is put through the ringer, teased with freedom (twice), plagued by depression, forced to give birth alone in the freezing cold, and Elisabeth Moss traverses the gamut of emotions, delivering a powerhouse performance (and, thanks to those intense and ubiquitous close-ups, we get to see every single nuance). The traumas and devastating scenes pile up for the audience, however, culminating in the most violently disturbing scene to date, followed by the most heartbreaking. Eden and Isaac’s punishment hits us so deeply—and we hardly even knew them—which only goes to prove the caliber of writing this show boasts.

What begins in a decaying Fenway Park and ends in an underpass showered by rainwater runoff, this season is pure dramatic perfection. We finally get moments of real rebellion—go, Ofglen!–and it comes just in the nick of time. We needed something positive to happen, even I was getting to the point where I was feeling overwhelmed with the scale of the spirit-crushing nightmare. So, imagine how loudly I screamed at the television when it aired, absolutely furious that June did not get in the van. All we had wanted for two seasons was to see her get out, and then she doesn’t go? It all makes sense now, but, in the moment, the first time I watched it, I was PISSED. I guess I was invested.

But the highlight for me of this season is the complicated, dramatic and manipulative see-saw relationship that plays out between June and Serena. They need each other, they feed off each other, and yet they fear and loathe each other. They are both smart and calculating, manipulative and vengeful. The performances by Moss and the brilliant Yvonne Strahovski are mesmerizing. Strahovski manages to humanize a monster and turn Serena into one of the best characters on television and she’s never been better than in this season. The fact that Strahovski has never won an Emmy for her performance in this show is scandalous.

Even though the final shot of the season made me angry, you bet I was going to come back for more.

Season 2 must-watch episodes:

“June” Season 2, episode 1
Directed by Mike Barker; written by Bruce Miller

“The Word” Season 2, episode 13
Directed by Mike Barker; written by Bruce Miller

“Baggage” Season 2, episode 3
Directed by Kari Skogland; written by Dorothy Fortenberry


Season 3 recap (***spoilers included***)

June is caught trying to collect Hannah for the escape. Serena is furious that June left her baby with Emily when she promised to take care of her and despondent without Nichole. Serena sets fire to the house.

After a harrowing journey, Emily makes it, with Nichole, to Canada.

June gets assigned to Commander Lawrence’s house, where she learns there is a Martha underground operating out of the basement. Lawrence and June try to figure each other out.

In Canada, Emily finally gets the courage to call her wife and tell her she’s there. She is overwhelmed when they reunite, feeling awkward and like a stranger.

Aunt Lydia is alive, but frail and angry.

June and Serena are sharing the same loss of Nichole, so June uses this bond to convince Serena to start working behind the scenes. Serena tells June where Nichole’s school is.

Hoping to help Serena’s mood, Fred convinces June to ask Luke to let Serena see Nichole at the Toronto airport. After an awkward meeting, Serena is reinvigorated by seeing Nichole and is even more determined to get her back. Fred and Serena make June record a video with them, pleading for the safe return of their kidnapped baby.

June and Serena seemingly burn all the bridges between them while on a trip to Washington, DC.

Fred is realizing the political leverage Nichole’s “kidnapping” is giving him. The irony is his rising in the ranks is only dependent on Nichole staying in Canada.

When Hannah’s Martha is hanged, June is panicked that it means Hannah will now move away and she won’t have anyone protecting her anymore. June blames this on Ofmatthew and schemes to have her bullied by all the Handmaids. When Ofmatthew snaps from the torment, she shoots a Guardian and gets shot herself. Lydia forces June to sit at Ofmatthew’s bedside in the hospital.

We get Lydia’s backstory.

While in the hospital, June gets an idea to smuggle children out of Gilead and she convinces Lawrence to help.

Serena and Fred meet with Mark to discuss the possibilities of getting Nichole back, but Mark tricks them into driving over the border to Canada, and they are both arrested.

In custody, Serena gives up Fred in order for the chance to see Nichole. She is promised immunity to all the crimes she did with her husband. Fred gets back at Serena by telling the Canadians that Serena made Nick impregnate June, so she is also arrested for rape.

June leads a group of Handmaids and Marthas, along with 52 children, through the woods, to a waiting plane. But June must again sacrifice herself by pulling the guards away so the plane can take off. A few Handmaids also choose to help her instead of escaping. June is shot during the diversion, but she also kills a couple of Guardians.

At the hangar in Canada, we see they all made it safely. Moira is the first one on the plane and is shocked by how many made it out. Emily and Rita reunite. Emily introduces Rita to Luke. “Your June did this. She did everything.”

The next morning, the Handmaids come to June and carry her out of the forest, still alive.

SEASON MVP: Lawrence. June has always needed allies from the inside and Nick can only do so much. Lawrence is the key brick to topple the wall.

UNSUNG HERO: Rita, for her steady hand, her calm in the face of danger, and her army of Marthas.

KEY MOMENT: Fred and Serena get arrested

Season 3 review :

No matter what, season 2 was going to be a hard act to follow. Season 3 already had its challenges, having to compel the audience to continue caring and rooting for June after she had the chance to escape and didn’t take it. While I applaud her determination to stay behind for her daughter, I will admit it was hard for me to stay invested in this character. So the best thing the writers did was put June into a new environment, with a character who could match her, wit for wit, manipulation for manipulation. Commander Lawrence infuses a much-needed streak of color to the show, and Bradley Whitford’s performance comes as a soothing balm after all the degradation that precedes him. Instead of physical torture, Lawrence engages June in mental and emotional gymnastics, and neither she nor we really know if he’s to be trusted. It’s a game that is played exceedingly well and I was all in for it.

What I wasn’t in for was seeing a despondent Serena and a bullying and mean June. Those character pivots thankfully didn’t last long, but they made for a bit of a slog, as did watching Emily’s difficulties at home. We just want to see her find a LITTLE joy! But any time we get Alexis Bledel on screen is still a treat.

What truly didn’t work was the whole Ofmatthew storyline, where June turns into a bully and we are forced to root against a handmaid. The hospital episode was painful and miserable to watch, and, in the end, felt like the whole season was just a means to an end. Thankfully, that end was worth the wait, especially when Rita landed safely in Toronto with that planeful of children. I swear, if anything had happened to Rita….

So, am I excited for Season 4? Undeniably. But now that June has sacrificed herself twice, denying herself the chance to get out, there needs to be a real progression towards active rebellion in the next season. I don’t know how much more I can take of just watching June suffer. I trust that the show runners have lots of tricks up their sleeves and I’m all in for it.

Season 3 must-watch episodes:

“Household” Season 3, episode 6
Directed by Dearbhla Walsh; written by Dorothy Fortenberry

“Mayday” Season 3, episode 13
Directed by Mike Barker; written by Lynne Renee Maxcy

“Liars” Season 3, episode 11
Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven; written by Yahlin Chang

Best Music of the Series
The Handmaid’s Tale may be known for a lot of things, but the use of pop music playing over key moments is one of my favorites. That being said, here are my 5 favorite needle drops from the series so far:

“This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush; Season 2, episode 1
As the Handmaids stand on the gallows, awaiting death to come, Bush’s haunting, powerful hymn captures June’s panic and, eventually, peace.
“Cloudbusting” by Kate Bush; Season 3, episode 11
The Marthas clean up June’s brutal murder of Commander Winslow at Jezebel’s.
“I Don’t Like Mondays” by Boomtown Rats; Season 3, episode 1 – The Waterford house burns.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2; Season 3, episode 5
June silently rages after Serena betrays her trust and allows Fred to make a “hostage video,” begging for Nichole’s safe return.
“Que Sera Sera” by Doris Day; Season 3, episode 8
June basks in the chaos she has created after Ofmatthew snaps and is shot.

Emmy Wins To Date


Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, Bradley Whitford


Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series, Cherry Jones

Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Contemporary Program (One Hour or More)

Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Contemporary Program (One Hour or More)


Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series, Samira Wiley

Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series

Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Contemporary Program (One Hour or More)


Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, Elisabeth Moss

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, Ann Dowd

Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series, Reed Morano

Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, Bruce Miller

Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series, Alexis Bledel

Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Contemporary or Fantasy Program (One Hour or More)

Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (One Hour), Colin Watkinson

Originally published on AwardsRadar.