More timely than ever, the new season offer the promise of some hope in a patriarchal dystopia seemingly devoid of any compassion or decency.
"The Handmaid's Tale" was in danger of becoming a circular saga of misery and torture porn and when June made the decision to stay in Gilead, our greatest fear was that she'd end up back with the Waterfords and we'd rinse and repeat.
Well ... she did end up back at the Waterfords, but as far as repeat that was definitely not in the cards. The show did some very important work in these first three episodes. While it was never less that must-see television in this #MeToo era, it nevertheless very intelligently pushed itself firmly into a new era.
It was ingenious to kick off this 13-episode third season by dropping the first three hours on us all at once because in many ways they serve as a self-contained story that can kick-start something exciting and new for the next ten weeks.
The first hour featured some of the most beautifully shot sequences of the entire series, and none more poignant than the closing moment when Serena Joy makes a fateful decision that definitively closes that first chapter for all of our major players.
"You Have to Stop"
June may be our protagonist, but it's been well-established that she works more in burning rage and impulse than thought and reason. She is absolutely justified in her rage as this patriarchy has taken so much from her already, but it felt like these three hours were all about teaching her how to fight.
Obviously, as we saw through the first two seasons, June has all the passion of a revolutionary with none of the discipline, patience or savvy. She basically sets herself up for failure by coming on too strong and too directly, so of course this season kicked off with her forcing Commander Lawrence to take her to the McKenzie house to get Hannah.
How does she think this is going to work? That's just it. June doesn't think. She reacts and she cares, but she never thinks. She represents the first step in revolution and that is just getting mad and deciding you want to do something about it. But she also serves as a cautionary tale that in some situations, that's not quite enough.
You also need patience, calm reason and most importantly, a plan. She's going up against a massive government infrastructure that has subjugated a nation and she thinks she can just bluster her way through. Of course that's not going to work. And so of course she wound up back with the Waterfords and back at the Red Center getting punished for her attempted escape.
At least she got her baby, Nichole, out. The June we see in this first episode hasn't really learned anything useful in her captivity thus far other than how to survive suffering and abuse without losing her fighting spirit. That is important, but it's not enough, which is what makes what happens to her next so intriguing.
We've gone about as far as we can with June at the Watefords, but her new posting is ever so intriguing. Bradley Whitford is absolutely slaying his performance as the enigmatic Commander Joseph Lawrence. Even after two full episodes with June in his house, we're no closer to understanding his true motivations behind really anything he does.
Joseph is the architect of Gilead, in a way, but seems reluctant in some of its execution. Nevertheless, he plays along and holds a position of power. And yet he helped Emily and Nichole and what should have been June escape at the end of the last season. And when he finds out about June's attempt to help a Martha escape Gilead, his anger isn't in the effort.
Instead, Joseph gets angry at his own Martha, Cora, for lying to him twice throughout the endeavor. So, he hates liars, but he allows June to attempt to save this woman and help usher her to safety. It's worth noting that the Martha network does not traffic in saving people, just information primarily, so this is more of June bulldogging her way through life.
That's why Joseph tells her it's her funeral if she attempts this. He knows this world better than she does, but he also knows that June isn't someone who can really learn something by being told. And so he allows her to try ... and fail.
In fact, Joseph gives June so many chances to prove that she has some mettle and it remarkably takes her the entirety of two hours to finally show some initiative and creativity. First, her foolhardy efforts to force a single Martha into safety cost the poor woman her life. As penance and for another hard lesson, Joseph made her dispose of and bury the body herself.
At another point when she offers to answer the door, he asks her what should be the punishment for a Handmaid answering the door. In her silence, he tells her that she's just not capable. Again, he appears to be testing her, but to what end remains a mystery. And perhaps what he's forgetting is that June is coming from the Waterford house where sudden bursts of violence were the norm and so her prolonged silence is a defense mechanism taught through prolonged suffering and abuse. Better to be silent than say the wrong thing.
But what is Joseph's end goal? Fred's end goals were to satisfy his base desires and feel powerful. He subjugated and punished his own wife, who was far more capable and instrumental in setting up Gilead than he ever was. He is a small and inadequate man who has to lash out in violence to try and gain control from his betters. As Joseph pointed out, Fred is not that bright but he's at least somewhat predictable.
That's why June was able to seduce him, play on his fragile male ego and his pride and his lustful nature. To Fred it's all a power trip, but it's not as simple as that with Joseph. At one point, he's railing at June that he cares more about Hannah than June does because of the world he's built for her; insisting that June has a loving mother in Mrs. McKenzie so June should just let it go.
In the next, he is justifying why he helped Emily to escape Gilead altogether.
"I helped Emily because she is unnaturally smart and could be useful to the world one day," Joseph explained. He knew, obviously, that she could be of no help to the world from within Gilead because women have no rights. But this then suggests that Joseph doesn't buy into the idea that women are inherently inferior to men and should be subservient. He freed her mind to a world that could appreciate her and use her.
So if he doesn't believe that basic tenet of the faith he lives under, what else doesn't he believe? Why does he allow the Martha network to run through his house? Why does he seem to be training and testing June throughout these episodes? Is he trying to take down Gilead from the inside even as he is it's architect? It's a dangerous game no matter how you look at it.
But then you go back to his seeming sincerity in telling June that their way is better for Hannah and it's better for the future of humankind. So where does Joseph really stand? What matters to him? He disposed of Cora easily enough for lying, but that might be more a matter of assuring he can trust the people in his house through fear (as in new Martha Sienna) or common purpose, which seems to be his goal with June.
It remains to be seen what kind of revolutionary June will be, but in her brief encounter with Nick this week, we see how much colder she's become as she immerses herself deeper into this cause. Nick was once a lover and someone she cared about almost to a fault. Part of that was probably because he was kind to her in a house where no one was kind to her, but there also seemed to be some kind of connection.
For his part, Nick's feelings seemed to be genuine, which is why it seemed to be somewhat cruel when she dismissed him out of hand after learning he couldn't do anything to help her. In that moment, she was dehumanizing Nick as much as she'd been dehumanized by all of Gilead.
It's as if the show is running June through all the possible reactions to this kind of trauma. In this case, she is sitting dangerously close to becoming what she hates, to an extent. If she starts seeing actual people only as tools toward her own ends then she is not much better than the forces she is fighting against.
And to justify her dismissal of Nick, she told herself that by becoming a commander, he was now "one of them," which is how easy it is to justify abhorrent behavior. "Us or them" mentality is at the heart of much of the divide currently in this country and it's a debate everyone is having as more and more state are taking a Gilead-like approach to women's reproductive rights.
On the one hand, it feels totally justified because in many ways it is a war on women's bodies. In the case of Gilead, it is a war for their very lives and autonomy. There is no woman in that system that is free; even the wives are beholden to the men.
While June is struggling to make sense of Commander Lawrence, Serena continued her own redemption arc, though in many ways it's been a long-time coming. Serena began this arc last season but got derailed at the thought of being a mother. It' the same as gladiator combat being used in Roman times to pacify the poor so they wouldn't realize how oppressed and awful their lives had become.
Commanders pacify their barren wives by giving them children borne through their handmaids. This way they can keep their power and their wives can put blinders on to what's going on as they focus on their children ... a truly precious commodity in this world. Now that Nichole is gone, however, Serena has no blinders.
She'd already begun to defy Fred with Nichole in her arms because she realized what kind of future awaited a girl in Gilead and it's not future at all. Now, with her child gone, Serena may well be ready to take a more active role in taking down Gilead from the start.
Her journey was one of rejection of Fred and all of it by burning down their house and retreating to her disapproving mother's house. There, she relearned some of who she was as a woman and not just as Fred's wife and discovered that that person is someone valid who deserves life, too.
It was a powerful reunion when she and June came together. Serena had come to accept that Nichole was never hers and so it was so poignant that it was June who told her that she was every bit Nichole's mother just as much as June was. Loving a child isn't always about bearing that child.
These two women are the heart of the series, and with a nearly blank slate moving forward, here's to hoping Serena doesn't slip back to her fearful cruelty and becomes a true ally for whatever comes next.
The culmination of Commander Lawrence's training for June -- at least that's how we're choosing to see it -- was when he showed her hundreds of women in pens and told her he could only save five. He then asked her to do this. Why? Because he's testing her to see if he can step up and be ... something.
After resisting because she couldn't take the time to really think this through, June finally relented. This was a death sentence for all the women going to the Colonines, but she's in no position to magically save everyone. She is in a position however to do something. And so finally, she did.
After making her choices, she told Beth, "We have five new Marthas for the resistance: an engineer, an I.T. tech, a journalist, a lawyer and a thief."
Is this what Lawrence wanted the whole time? Who knows. Is that why he fought so hard to keep Emily alive and even brought her back from the Colonies; because he saw her potential. And now he sees that potential in June.
Maybe Lawrence was about freeing women he sees of value to the world and he was on the fence about June. Or maybe he's changed his mission himself and now sees the value in keeping those women in Gilead to overthrow the goverment from within? Who knows what Commande Lawrence wants.
An absolutely exhilarating and exhausting three-hour premiere, it was like watching a blockbuster film that beautifully set up its sequel. The player are all in place in their new positions. The game board has been set. It's time to see what "The Handmaid's Tale" has in store as revolution finally gets underway.
If they keep bringing us gorgeously shot sequences like the burning of the Waterford home or even June's rage face as she fetched a book for Lawrence, we'll be tuning in. It remains consistently one of the most beautifully shot shows on television with some of the mot compelling performers. So often they have to sell a scene with no dialogue and they deliver every. Single. Time.
And now, it's more important than ever that we see this show for what is -- and that's not a guidebook for how to pass legislation, by the way! Gilead is what happens if we continue to define ourselves by our differences and refuse to relearn how to communicate through those differences and come to an agreement.
This is the world that blind hate builds. This is the world built on the back of intolerance and the self-righteous view that your will and your beliefs should be subjected onto other people's bodies and into their lives. This is a world that has no respect for other people, other cultures, other belief systems or other values.
"The Handmaid's Tale" is a dystopian future, but it's not as far down the road as we might wish it were. In many ways, it is the world outside our window.