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Review: Handmaid’s Tale Season Three Brings Hope and Resistance, but Spins Its Wheels

The award-winning Hulu series fights back, but wastes too much time hitting the same beats.

SPOILER ALERT: This post discusses plot points from the second and third seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale.

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Has there ever been a television series that has had better timing than The Handmaid’s Tale? The award-winning Hulu series first launched in the spring of 2017, when America was reeling from the disruptive election of Donald Trump. At the time, the series portrayed a dark future, one that became terrifyingly tangible in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, and now the series is back for a third season, following a disturbing and sweeping series of statewide abortion bans designed to threaten Roe v. Wade. The timing is uncanny, to say the least.

After a stellar first season, The Handmaid’s Tale stumbled in its sophomore outing. Of course, that stumbling must be put into perspective: The show is still a knockout when it comes to cinematography and its arresting performances, but many viewers and critics alike felt an emotional exhaustion from the relentless violence (sexual and otherwise) that the show’s characters were subjected to. At several times, the series verged on torture porn and had us wondering why we were voluntarily spending so much time in Gilead.

Add to that a baffling season finale, which saw June (an always excellent Elisabeth Moss) and her baby on the verge of escape with Emily (Alexis Bledel), only for June to reverse course and decide to stay in Gilead to try to rescue her daughter, Hannah. It was a frustrating turn, considering that June spent most of the second season attempting to escape.

Luckily, the third season forgoes torture and violence for a more uplifting theme. Emily’s escape is successful, and she finds asylum in Canada, where she delivers June’s baby to Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) and Moira (Samira Wiley). We see Emily struggle with PTSD as she tries to reconnect with her estranged wife and son in an emotional episode. Given the hideous treatment she endured, it’s a relief to see her safe, but she may never recover from what Gilead has done to her. Alexis Bledel continues to give a quietly heartbreaking performance in the role, and here’s hoping that the series will give her more to do in her new environs.

Meanwhile, June is fighting back, looking to recruit allies and make inroads in the underground revolution. She is no longer living with the Waterfords and takes up residence as the new handmaid to Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), who helped Emily escape and allows the Marthas to operate a rescue network within his walls. Lawrence is an interesting addition to the series, as a Commander who has zero interest in sleeping with his handmaids and seems to regret the society he helped to build, but we don’t get much time to explore him as a character.

While it’s a refreshing change of pace to see June finally get some agency, the series is hamstrung by her relationship with the Waterfords. Despite no longer being their handmaid, June finds herself constantly in their company. She tries to recruit Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) as an ally, which has potential for a strong character redemption arc, but despite giving up the baby so June could save her, Serena remains frustratingly devoted to Gilead.

Likewise, June remains in the Waterfords’ orbit, trusting them again and again despite the fact that these are the same people who held her down and raped her last season. Reviewers were only given access to the first six episodes of the series, which spends too much time spinning its wheels with the Waterfords to yield any satisfying forward momentum. Hopefully the remaining episodes will pick up the pace and deliver on the promise of this season’s theme of resistance.

The Handmaid’s Tale season three premieres June 5 on Hulu.

(image: Hulu)

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Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.