In “Night,” the first episode of season 3 of Hulu’s dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale, the house where much of the first two seasons took place burns to the ground. The camera pans between the small room where handmaid June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) was imprisoned, the study where she bonded with her captor, Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), over tense games of Scrabble, and the master bedroom where he repeatedly raped June with the goal of producing a baby that his wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), could claim as her own. As the flames consume each set, the metaphor is clear, if not exactly subtle. This part of the story is over. It’s time for something new.
That’s a good thing for The Handmaid’s Tale, which became a seemingly endless string of murders, mutilations, and general misery in season 2. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the series is set in a near future where the United States has transformed into the misogynistic theocracy Gilead, and fertile women are pressed into sexual slavery. But after the show moved beyond Atwood’s storyline, showrunner Bruce Miller largely abandoned story and character development in favor of a series of portraits of female despair. Given that real-world women are now frequently dressing in the show’s signature red dresses and white bonnets to protest abortion restrictions passing around the country, the unrelenting brutality and bleakness in Handmaid’s Tale felt too real to be entertainment.
In season 3, Miller has dramatically changed directions. Torture has moved off-screen. The pacing is faster and fleeter. And the focus has moved from June’s attempts to escape Gilead to her efforts to change its society from within. That last point was necessary for the show to stop feeling like a particularly depressing version of Gilligan’s Island or Star Trek: Voyager, where the writers had to keep trying to make it seem possible that June could escape, then come up with a way for her to stay trapped so the show could continue. Season 3 picks up right after the season 2 finale, with June opting not to flee to Canada with her baby daughter Nichole and fellow handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel). Instead, she wants to try to rescue her firstborn daughter, Hannah Bankole (Jordana Blake).
The writers acknowledge how poorly critics responded to that choice by having every character who’s tried to help her escape call her a selfish idiot. The berating ends with a fiery exchange with Nichole’s father, Nick Blaine (Max Minghella), where June acknowledges that she’s unlikely to ever get another chance at freedom. Instead, she starts trying to cultivate allies, pushing Serena and Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), who helped her get Nichole and Emily out of Gilead, to do more for other women. With the Waterford household in literal ruins, June is transferred to Joseph’s home. There, she seeks to bolster the resistance movement run by Joseph’s Marthas, Gilead’s term for infertile women working as domestic servants.
Joseph is one of the architects of Gilead’s economy, but he barely pays lip service to its complex rules. Whitford plays him with the mix of wry wit and malice he perfected in The Cabin in the Woods and Get Out, infusing some desperately needed (though dark) humor into the show. He dresses June down by bringing up some of the same criticisms her mother did in season 2, pointing out how complacent she was before the rise of Gilead, and questioning her ability to actually make a difference now. Whitford’s ability to meld humor and suspense particularly shines in a scene where June tries to get on Joseph’s good side by approaching him in his study, standing close to him in a moment of proffered physical intimacy that mirrors her early encounters with Fred. Instead of taking the bait, Joseph just laughs at her, insults her previous commanders’ intelligence, and berates her for being willing to use her body to get what she wants.
It’s difficult to get a read on Joseph, who seems to be acting as a sort of Oskar Schindler, saving who he can from the inside, while also showing clear contempt for women in general, and June specifically. He uses his power over June to force her into humiliating, morally compromising positions, and those blows are actually more emotionally effective than the previous seasons’ repeated physical assaults, because they feel calculated rather than gratuitous.
The writers are also doing excellent work with the storylines set in Canada. Emily somehow managed to endure her time in Gilead’s radioactive colonies without lasting physical effects — her worst physical malady seems to be high cholesterol caused by a meat-and-butter-heavy diet — but her emotional scars run far deeper. The scenes involving June’s husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) trying to push her out of the protective nest of his home, hoping she’ll reconnect with her wife and son, provide a heart-wrenching look at the effects of trauma, and how hard it can be to understand it from the outside.
While individual dramas are still the core of the story, the first six episodes show the plot moving in a more geopolitical direction, due to Gilead’s efforts to recover Nichole. Episode 6, “Household,” visits Washington, DC, which has been remade in a Christian Nazi aesthetic, complete with ubiquitous red banners and a bar being added to the Washington Monument to turn it into a massive cross. The glimpse of Gilead’s capital, where handmaids are treated even worse than their Boston counterparts and having a house full of children is the ultimate sign of influence and power, provides some tantalizing world-building and a chance to set up deeper intrigue.
Not all of the changes in season 3 are for the better. The framing flashbacks to life before Gilead that were key to season 1 and 2 have been all but abandoned, with only one of the first six episodes still using the structure. While it’s understandable that the writers want to keep the action focused on the present, those scenes did some real narrative heavy lifting, and would be extremely helpful for continuing to develop the show’s supporting cast. Miller has shown he has a good memory, and the relationships and backstories explored in those early flashbacks continue to haunt characters in season 3. Abandoning them risks having weaker scaffolding for future plots.
Other things don’t change enough. The Waterfords are still major parts of the plot, but the writers seem to be struggling to decide what to do with them. Fred is demoted after Nichole’s kidnapping, but his power doesn’t actually seem to diminish, and he seems to potentially be more influential than ever. Serena has been vacillating between sympathetic antagonist and hard villain since the beginning, and the writers keep refusing to pick a side. June spends most of one episode trying to play marriage counselor at a party that ends with a handmaid being brutally beaten because she wants to spend more time with her baby. When Serena shows more sympathy for the hostess than the handmaid, the camera zooms in on June’s face as she shakes her head in a disgusted “Why do I bother?” look. It’s extremely easy to relate.
But overall, The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 is off to a strong, promising start, and the introduction of new characters and potential conflicts in DC could make it even better. The show faltered in season 2 by spending too much time wallowing in suffering and helplessness. By empowering its characters to rage against its terrible world, the writers can rebuild the show as a vision of resistance against wrongs that feel all too real.
The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 will premiere on Hulu on Wednesday, June 5th. The other 10 episodes of the season will release week to week.