There’s a moment in The Handmaid’s Tale’s third season when Aunt Lydia comes up to June and issues a stern warning: “Don’t be clever. There are consequences when you’re clever.” That’s no longer true, at least not as much as it used to be.
The world of The Handmaid’s Tale feels different now, in that the rules that made it a harrowing experience for millions of people feel like they no longer apply. The Hulu series is trying so hard to rise above the misery and give its audience hope that it’s weakened the power of its own premise. However, what that means for the overall quality and takeaway from the show is a bit more complicated.
The Handmaid’s Tale picks up shortly after the season two finale, after June chose to send her newborn daughter to Canada without her. The official in-show reason is because June wasn’t willing to abandon her other daughter, Hannah, but it also feels like it’s because The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t willing to let June out of Gilead. Emily and baby Nicole are safe above the northern border, with Emily struggling to pick up the pieces and mend the relationship with her distanced wife. Tensions between Gilead and Canada are high, and Nicole’s presence isn’t making that any easier. Serena Joy is grieving the loss of her child and goes to extreme measures to try and fill that void in her life.
Following one of Serena Joy’s “extreme measures,” June has been relocated to the home of Commander Lawrence, i.e. the guy who helped Emily and Nicole escape. This puts June (now called Ofjoseph) in a unique position. She no longer has to perform the duties of a handmaid, as he’s not interested in doing that (season three has overall reduced the show’s sexual violence). June is also in a place where she can help the Resistance—something she does willingly and often, to the point where she should’ve been caught but for some reason hasn’t been yet. I’ve watched through episode six, so it’s possible complications are yet to come.
One of the things that made the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale so impactful was how immediate and pressing the threat of Gilead was. This was a totalitarian regime where you could be killed for something as mundane as speaking out of turn, or sharing too long a conversation with a person who later turned out to kinda-maybe know someone in the Resistance. If you were a woman, you weren’t safe. It didn’t matter how much they claimed to value you. June had to watch every word she spoke, every flick of her eyebrows, every sideways glance. She couldn’t trust anyone, and no one could trust her.
Nowadays, it feels like the rules have relaxed—but only for the characters who matter the most, mainly June. But the Gilead we thought we knew, the one we’d endured, would’ve never tolerated the shit June pulls this season. She’s caught sneaking into Hannah’s home. She helps the Resistance and conspires against the government on several occasions. She smokes. She’s mouthy and talks back to the people in charge, not caring who sees her. There’s a moment when we see her yelling at Serena Joy in front of the now-destroyed Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. We pan out a few moments later to see the park is lined with hundreds of handmaids and Eyes. Did nobody hear this handmaid screaming at a commander’s wife, like, five minutes ago?
Even the events of last season’s finale would’ve been enough to consider June too much of a risk to keep around. The official story from Commander Waterford is that Emily stole the baby, and Serena and June tried valiantly to fight her off. That’s a pretty thin excuse as it is, but it turns into translucent tissue paper once the government learns that June’s husband is the one taking care of Nicole. Even if June hadn’t conspired to save Nicole (which she did), that alone should be enough to accuse her of conspiracy or treason.
I understand that the rules have changed. Season two’s suicide bombing forced Gilead to make compromises to accommodate the sudden loss of leaders and handmaids. Plus, June has given them a child, which means she’s valuable. But Gilead values order and control above everything else, and June is out of control. Apart from the fact that Elisabeth Moss is the star of the show, there’s no reason June hasn’t been killed yet for her transgressions—or at the very least, severely punished with the loss of a hand, her tongue, or something else. Personally, I would’ve liked to see the show take June out of the equation (at least for part of the season) and switch to a new protagonist, like a Martha.
The Handmaid’s Tale tries to compensate for June’s script immunity by shocking us in other ways. For example, in one of the Washington DC episodes, the series shows us a specific thing D.C. does to its handmaids. It’s legitimate body horror, overt symbolism that’s meant to be evocative, and it briefly works. But when you think about it for longer than a few seconds, the shock of the visual fails to disguise the fact that it’s totally unrealistic. It feels like it’s overcompensating for the fact that June needs to get away with just about anything she wants to nowadays because it’s the only thing giving the audience hope at this point. And this...is where things get complicated.
I was ready to write off the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale as another show that had fallen victim to the Plot Armor trope. In fact, the original title of this piece was “Offred Should Be Dead By Now.” But as I was working on this review, I realized something. There’s a reason thousands of real people have taken to wearing red cloaks and white wings at protests, in congressional chambers, and at the U.S. Capitol. For many people, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just a television show. It’s become something more.
Scary things are happening right now in the U.S. States like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and others are working to restrict access to safe and legal abortions. These anti-abortion activists are trying to ultimately get one of these cases before the Supreme Court, in the hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade. If that were to happen, which seems possible (given the conservative lean on the court), several states have “trigger laws” ready to go that would make all abortions illegal there. On top of that, Alabama has introduced legislation that would punish victims for filing “false rape accusations,” and the U.S. Senate has still failed to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act, which lapsed months ago.
In times of hopelessness, it’s only natural to turn to things that make you feel good—or at least a little bit more powerful in an otherwise paralyzing situation. June started out helpless but has found her voice. Her newfound power, in turn, empowers us. It might make more narrative sense for June to get caught and have her eyes gouged out, but where would that leave us? Still on the edge of the abyss, facing a very real and very unknown future.
The third season is about June fighting back against a system designed to break her spirit, something a lot of us can identify with right now. She’s stronger, she’s smarter, and, yes, she’s more reckless. But she has to be in order to do what needs to be done and keep the spirit of resistance alive. To give June the space she needs to be the heroine we need, Gilead in turn has to be a bit more flexible, even if it bends the rules of its established world.
Plus, television shows need to move forward in their stories, give their characters something to do other than suffer. Otherwise, it risks getting stagnant and the audience will get tired of the torture porn. The only problem is, in trying to progress the story, the show has broken its well-established internal narrative, in a pretty clunky way.
I won’t begrudge anyone for getting frustrated that season three of The Handmaid’s Tale has negated some of the brutal realism that made it such an evocative show when it first debuted in 2017. In the end, that’s my biggest problem with it. There were moments I genuinely liked about this season. For example, Aunt Lydia’s character journey is something to see, and watching June fight back is inspiring at times. But I found myself getting frustrated every time we watched June yell at someone, stare angrily into the camera, or conspire with a foreign government. I kept thinking: “Someone’s bound to see this and report her, right? No? OK then.” As someone who cares about world-building, it’s exasperating to see a show like this bend or break its own rules.
However, I also feel it’s okay to think that consistency and canon aren’t as important as how a television show makes you feel overall. The Handmaid’s Tale debuted just a few months into the Trump administration. Since then, we’ve seen and experienced a lot of pain, and some fear the worst is yet to come. A little hope can go a long way. For many people, in many situations, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just a show. It’s a symbol. And right now, the symbol is: “Burn, motherfucker, burn.”
The Handmaid’s Tale season three premieres June 5 on Hulu.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.