Hulu’s trailer for The Handmaid’s Tale season three promises that we’ll “witness the birth of a revolution.” The website explains that the season 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.’” But this revolution takes much too long to gain momentum. By the end of the six episodes screened for critics, that “Blessed be the fight” rallying cry is far from a catchphrase, if it’s even uttered at all.
Hulu appears to be acknowledging that the defiance of the handmaids is what the series’ audience has been waiting for: It’s the only way to explain why June (Elisabeth Moss) made the puzzling decision she did at the end of last season, sending her daughter Holly/Nichole off with Emily (Alexis Bledel) while she returns to Gilead. Which makes it even more of a disappointment when, by the mid-point of the season, June is as devastated and disenfranchised as we’ve ever seen her.
At this point in the series, there’s little time (or viewer patience) left for episodes that do little more but spin wheels, with no repercussions, no follow-up, no actual progress in the handmaids’ subversive David versus Goliath movement. In one episode, for example, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) loses her cool at an official gathering, then falls apart, fearful that her powerful position is in jeopardy. But the next time we see her, it’s as if nothing of consequence has even happened. The horrific deaths of young Eden and Isaac were a turning point at the end of season two, and now they’re not even mentioned.
Along those same nonsensical lines, June continues to trust the Waterfords, the couple that repeatedly raped her—even though Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) has beaten his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), with a belt in front of her, and had Serena’s finger cut off. June’s own mercurial relationship with Serena Joy continues to sway from comrade to worst enemy in a matter of moments. As with June’s decision to stay, her choice to believe the duplicitous Waterfords is beyond frustrating, and makes little sense except in terms of moving the plot forward. Elisabeth Moss seems to be enjoying portraying June’s manipulative attempts to spin some webs and curry some favor with prospective allies in her fight—but to what end if we don’t get to see these machinations come to fruition?
There are a few bright spots, as we watch Emily trying to rebuild her life in Canada, and baby Nichole makes a family with Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and Moira (Samira Wiley), until some (typical) bad decisions on Luke’s part seem to put even that sliver of happiness in peril, slowing much of the storytelling velocity. June does tap into a resistance movement via the Marthas, but only briefly, and that small spark of rebellion doesn’t get very far. We got a full-on resistance bombing by the handmaids last season, and yet Gilead remains intact, as powerful as ever. At least June is still at the home of Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), but despite his help with Emily’s escape, he’s still one of the architects of the original Gilead plan. Whitford does what he can with such an inconsistently written role, while Christopher Meloni and Elizabeth Reaser are wasted as a commander-and-wife couple even worse than the Waterfords. The show still offers stunning visuals, even if it’s just June’s lone red umbrella fighting a sea of gray-blue—or, most impressively a sea of handmaids at the nation’s capital. But even those brief glimpses of handmaid power ultimately end in defeat.
Maybe the second half of the season will turn things around. Unfortunately, six hours is a long time to slog through a story that just seems to get more and more depressing. June glaring into the camera with apparent promises of revolt, backed by a revolutionary-themed rock song (which happens more than once), doesn’t count as actual plot progression. The unsubtle needle drops continue to lay it on thick—the worst pick may be the inclusion of Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind”—the show pumping its fists to the hits while refusing to let June use hers in a fight.
In a series that’s already shown us multiple rapes, beatings, maimings, and outright killings of its disenfranchised population, showing some actual cracks in the seemingly impenetrable fortress of Gilead would actually be heartening. Especially considering June’s decision to subject herself to this continued misery; especially considering the promise of revolt.
Currently, if we want to spend our TV-viewing hours watching women’s equality slip further away, we can just flip from Hulu to CNN to see reproductive rights in peril in a number of U.S. states. If season three of Handmaid’s Tale is still trying to scare us, there’s no need: We’re already terrified. It’s beyond time for the wheels to stop spinning and for the revolution to finally begin.