Note: This post addresses plot points from the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season three.
The Handmaid’s Tale returned for a third season on Wednesday, under his eye and ours. The Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel grows more disturbingly relevant with every episode, its crimson-colored attire and elimination of bodily autonomy for anyone who isn’t a cisgender man refusing to remain relegated to the page.
But is its timeliness reason enough to keep up with the series, especially after the second season capped its unrelenting bleakness with a bitterly disappointing finale? Going into the show, we expected it to be a challenging, even dispiriting, watch, and showrunner Bruce Miller has delivered on that promise. The performances have been excellent across the board, but the cruelty was often the only point the show seemed to be making once it went off-book. By the time June (Elisabeth Moss) was gliding along to the most on-the-nose needle drop in the show’s history (which is saying something), several A.V. Club staffers felt the decision wasn’t motivated by characterization so much as the need to keep the show going.
Allison Shoemaker and editorial coordinator Gwen Ihnat’s review coverage has already started the conversation about the merits of this new season (its pertinence can’t be denied), but we thought it would also be a good time to ask The A.V. Club staff: Why are you still watching The Handmaid’s Tale? And, after watching the first three episodes of the new season, how likely are you to stick with it?
I didn’t have the chance to weigh in on the season-two finale, “The Word,” when it streamed last year, but my feelings were more mixed than my colleagues’. I initially interpreted June’s return to the horrors of Gilead as symbolic of the 53% issue—that is, someone from the 47% of white women voters who didn’t help elect the sitting president directly confronting the majority of white women voters who did. I thought it was a sign that Bruce Miller, who’s acknowledged how the source material and the first season “excised” race from the story, realized just how misguided that notion is, and was also ready to elevate the show’s feminism beyond its current brand of White Feminism™ to something more intersectional.
Was I giving the show too much credit? At the time, I certainly considered that. Now, after having watched the first three episodes of the new season, I know I was being far too generous in that assessment. The decision to ignore race is a fundamental flaw of the book, and as Angelica Jade Bastién writes for Vulture, remains a real issue for the show. After all, as Noah Berlatsky wrote for The Verge in 2017, the dismal future presented in Atwood’s book, like so many other dystopian works, is rooted in reality—in this case, the oppression of black women in the United States. Race isn’t quite absent from the book, and neither is racism. The tyrants in Gilead have effectively segregated the country, populating the theocratic regime with nothing but white people.
The series completely glosses over race, though, even as it continues to mine the trauma of black women and women of color, who have been victims of sexist and racist legislation. The latest example comes in the season-three premiere, “Night,” which depicts Emily’s (Alexis Bledel) harrowing journey to Canada with baby Nicole in her arms. She trudges along a riverbank, evading helicopter spotlights, before plunging underwater. She reappears, gasping for breath then sobbing because she briefly thinks the baby is dead. When little Nicole begins to cry, Emily is allowed a moment to weep in relief before some Canadian officials offer her asylum.
The whole scene is incredibly wrenching, as is Bledel’s performance. It’s also painfully reminiscent of the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, where refugee families face all kinds of danger. But any commentary the show was attempting to make is undermined by the fact that, in the world of its own making, the bigotry that’s led to children being caged and left to die in some cases doesn’t even exist. The Handmaid’s Tale wants to have it both ways: call out past and modern-day atrocities while also ignoring how its dystopia is founded on them. It’s incredibly frustrating and not at all ameliorated by the colorblind casting—which has been a point of pride for the show’s creative team—because Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and Moira (Samira Wiley) are still so underdeveloped. By the third episode of the new season, the only scenes with Luke and Moira still center on June.
I should note that Bledel identifies as Latinx, but since such cultural distinctions don’t exist on this show, it hardly matters. But at this point, The Handmaid’s Tale is too exasperating an experience for me to continue. How are you feeling, Laura and Caity?
That’s a smart assessment, Danette, and I agree with your analysis of the show’s poor handling of race, which feels like one of the many squandered opportunities a show like The Handmaid’s Tale has inherent in its premise. Another opportunity the show’s writers don’t seem to realize they have in the third season is to show what resistance looks like. Not the #Resistance that exists mostly in Twitter and a “ladies to the front!” empty feminism, but a depiction of how people undermine and work against the Gilead regime in structural ways. The Handmaid’s Tale’s first season was so powerful because it used its near-future setting to show viewers a scenario that feels scarily possible to us. The writers smartly read the ways the winds were blowing with a populist, sexist president with authoritarian leanings ascending to power and the state-by-state erosion of women’s rights. The horror of Gilead was a persuasive warning of what a future can look like where women’s rights are eroded totally.
And the third season now has the chance to show something else that would be helpful to explore in a make-believe world in 2019: how women go about getting their power back. Having only seen the first three episodes, I don’t like what the show’s writers are envisioning organizing a rebellion looks like. The network of Marthas is the most intriguing aspect, but thus far that storyline is taking a back seat to June’s attempts to appeal to those in power for help. June tells Serena Joy, “We can help each other. We cannot count on them”—them being the men. And yet, June appeals to both Commander Waterford and Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) for information and help, to seemingly little purpose. The most apt conversation she has with a man might be the one with Nick, where she asks what he can do—which is nothing.
Perhaps June will learn the lesson that those in power (and those who benefit by being close to power, like the Serena Joys of Gilead) won’t help the people trying to take their power away. But hoping that’s the story this show is telling feels foolishly optimistic at this point. Season three’s first three episodes set up the relationship between June and Commander Lawrence, an even more powerful man than Commander Waterford. Thus far June’s contribution to the resistance seems to be that she’s the Commander Whisperer, able to convince the most powerful men in Gilead to let a couple small acts of resistance slide. Is the lesson this show wants to impart on its viewers that the way to wrest power from your oppressors to befriend them? Instead of trying to reason with Commander Lawrence, the most legitimate action for June and the Marthas to take would have been to get that chemistry teacher to build a bomb, in Gilead, and for June to have set it off during the meeting of the commanders, eliminating the brain trust of the whole operation and setting off a much more interesting chain of events than June’s pleading with a few powerful allies she’s made for minor ends.
What I’m really wishing for is a pivot away from the story The Handmaid’s Tale told in seasons one and two and for season three to embrace a new mode, be it radical rebellion in Gilead or depicting trauma and PTSD in Canada. That’s what’s frustrating me so much about the show: Not only is the story spinning its wheels after Atwood’s source material ran out, it’s also ignoring the really interesting possibilities it’s opened up by going beyond the original story. So to answer the question posed in the headline: I am unlikely to keep watching this show, unless I hear from my coworkers that the second half of the season embraces a different story than the one I’ve seen thus far.
How about you, Laura? Are the possibilities of the premise still enticing enough to continue, or are you as frustrated as Danette and me?
I had a very similar reaction to these first three episodes as you, Caity. I want to see what a Gilead resistance could actually look like, as opposed to the “#Resistance” it has offered up so far: in slow-motion scenes of a bomb exploding or the Handmaids refusing to stone their friend, or all of Moss’s steely-eyed stares into the camera while her voice-over recites the kind of phrase found on signs at a women’s march: “We’re coming for you,” “Burn, motherfucker, burn,” etc. Especially since season two, the show has been more interested in the aesthetics of resistance—of making it all look and sound cool—as opposed to creating interesting, complicating action. While such moments serve as rallying cries of sorts, albeit boiled down to a single image or phrase set to an ironic or very on-the-nose song choice, as in real life, this story must move beyond mere slogans (and the showrunners’ seeming desire to make music videos) and focus on how this narrative might unfold in more interesting ways.
Which is to say, I’d like to see the show get back to the nuts-and-bolts storytelling of its premise, focusing on the problem of its protagonist (June needs to get out of Gilead with her daughter Hannah), how she will go about solving it, and how other characters might aid or stymie her efforts. Episodes two and three start to do this. Commander Lawrence is occasionally sympathetic but not consistently so; the resistance is, by necessity, scattered; and Serena seems like she’s about to turn. (As an aside, I didn’t necessarily see June’s appeals to those in power as an argument for negotiating with one’s oppressors as the best way to make change happen. I saw it more as a “by any means necessary” tactic. The Marthas’ underground Resistance will still hum along, but June will continue to use what little power she has “upstairs,” as it were, to try to loosen the reins of the Commanders and their wives and/or manipulate them into providing important information.)
So, will I keep watching? If one of you turns it on at work and we can watch during lunch, yes. Sometimes, as with a controlled burn, I like to purposely rouse my anger, and if I can get paid while doing so, all the better. But if I’m at home looking to watch an episode before I read and go to bed? No. There’s potential in what episodes two and three have begun to set up, and I’m mildly curious to see what the show will do, but I’m also still annoyed at more or less all of season two, and I frequently give up on series for a whole lot less.