There have been moments of revolt throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. Over the course of two seasons, we’ve seen moments of defiance both personal (June’s choice to have sex with Nick for pleasure, a reclamation of control over her own body shared between the two of them, is but one example of many) and with a larger reach (the refusal of the handmaids to perform Janine’s “particicution” in season one, etc.). The end of season two promised more than these isolated moments. It promised a fight, and one that, when it comes, will come at great cost. June didn’t get on the truck. Bewildering as it was to a segment of its audience, she marched off down the street, ready to raise hell. It wasn’t an isolated moment of defiance. It was a starting pistol firing.
And that’s where season three picks up—marching, or rather aimlessly running, down the street to a destination unkown. Yet the episode begins with a grim reality, one that will likely prove as frustrating as June’s big decision to some of those watching: You can’t just decide to make something like this happen. The soundest of plans can go awry, and when there’s no plan at all beyond fighting back, the odds aren’t great such an effort will be successful. The fight might be blessed, but it’s not automatic.
“Sorry, baby girl,” June says in one of the show’s familiar voiceovers. “Mom’s got work.” And as it happens, it is going to take work.
A contradiction will be apparent throughout this review, in that this writer believes the most effective element of “Night” is also one that holds it back. June is not a superhero; she cannot run off into the bushes in a bright red dress and topple the walls of Gilead. The footwear may be practical, but that’s about it. She has no resources, precious few allies, and no way to reach those few, most of whom are, like the audience, bewildered if not furious about her reappearance (though their reasons for anger vary). Had she promptly had some kind of far-reaching Katniss Everdeen moment, it would have been dreadful. But that doesn’t make her slow progress, or the show’s retreads, any less vexing.
The Handmaid’s Tale has often stumbled when leaning into the “strong women changing history” elements of its story, while succeeding when that strength is just as potent but less performative. (See June’s farewell to her daughter Hannah in “The Last Ceremony” for one example of the latter category; see multiple staredowns with wolves in the episode that follows for an example of the former.) This episode has examples of both, though encouragingly, more of the good sort. More unusually, it’s Serena who gets the show’s big on-the-nose moment, taking the alcohol she’s using to clean her woulds and using it to set her marriage bed, and by extensions that whole horrorshow of a house, on fire.
(Mercifully, Handmaid’s resists the urge to blare “Burning Down The House” at this moment, though using a song famously and effectively used by The West Wing seems like a questionable choice, given the TWW reunion happening here. Granted, it’s a different version, so perhaps others won’t be as jarred by it as this devoted fan of Josh Lyman and Zoey Bartlet was.)
The decision to place June back in a household after another failed escape attempt, this one resulting in a baby crossing the border, rankles, even as it seems inevitable. It’s not like she can hole up in an abandoned library and start a movement over the radio or something. Even the destruction of the Waterford house feels less like a major change and more like hitting the reset button. Yet while the status quo remains realistically but frustratingly intact, the changes that do exist loom large, both in the story and in the show as a whole.
Three big narrative shifts here. First, Emily and Nichole make it across the border to Canada, Emily’s escape as harrowing as the sight of that mylar blanket being wrapped around her shoulders is moving. (Not so the weirdly public welcome and sustained applause at the hospital, which Alexis Bledel rightly plays as totally bewildering.) Second, the burning of the house itself may feel like something of an empty narrative gesture, but as an action taken by Serena, it deepens the rift between her and Fred in a way that feels hugely significant. Third, after her unplanned attempt to spring Hannah immediately fails and her reunion with the Waterfords ends in flames, June winds up back at the Red Center, and then quickly moves from there to a new household—and it’s Commander Lawrence’s.
What’s encouraging about all these developments is that they open the door to complexity and contradiction, and when the show chooses to engage with those elements, it nearly always succeeds. (When it ignores them, as it so often has, particularly with regard to race and parenthood, it fails.) Emily’s connection with Luke and Moira opens up a whole new narrative avenue, as does Nichole’s arrival in their lives. Serena’s rejection of the kind of life she trumpeted into existence similarly opens new doors, while her conversation with June forces them both to confront the corners of their actions into which they’d rather not look. And June’s arrival in Lawrence’s household, in particular, sends the show in a new direction.
Elisabeth Moss remains the single best reason to watch this show, but Bradley Whitford’s arrival is perhaps its most promising development. It’s not just that having another actor working on the level of Moss, Dowd, Strahovski, and others is welcome; it’s not just that an unpredictable character with unknown motives offers plenty of great storytelling opportunities. It’s that, like Emily, Commander Lawrence gives June (and Moss) a scene partner and possible foe whose intellect is formidable. On a purely practical level, it means their scenes can crackle in a way that Moss’ scenes with, say, Fiennes and Minghella never could. On a narrative level, it adds a lot of uncertainty into a story that revisits a lot of the same issues in the exact same ways. (Waterford: Shouts about how we’re all going to die! Respect! The wall! God’s grace! Lawrence: “Spunky.”)
Whether or not Lawrence will be an ally or foe (or, most likely, both) remains to be seen, but he’s shaking things up, just as the show acknowledging June’s inability to snap her fingers and make change happen shakes things up. If Handmaid’s can continue to take the narrative necessity of keeping June in Gilead and make it an active part of the story, it’ll be a blessing indeed. If not, at least we’ll get some great acting out of it.
- Not sure about any of those needle-drops, particularly the last one—though if you view it as June badly misreading the situation she’s in, it becomes entertaining. Nothing about her early interactions with Lawrence seems to indicate that she can count on him being an ally.
- Emily getting sucked into the undercurrent? Just terrifying.
- Welcome back to The Handmaid’s Tale coverage! Two more reviews to come today, and then we’ll be weekly.
- As with the previous two seasons, if you want to address something from the book that has not yet happened in the show (though I’m not sure there’s much left, honestly), please make that clear at the top of your comment below.
- I’ll be doing the best shots thread on Twitter again, though I’m going to wait to post this week’s until tomorrow.