Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of Season 1 here.
“I’m sorry, baby girl. Mum’s got work.” That’s June (Elisabeth Moss), as The Handmaid’s Tale returns for Season 3 – and, judging by the opening episode, that work promises to be fiery stuff.
Season 2 of Hulu’s drama left Margaret Atwood’s book behind, and descended into a repetitive, gruelling cycle of nasty abuse and burgeoning rebellion, one that ultimately moved away from dramatic territory and towards something verging on sadism. The prospect of going back to Gilead for a third dose of cruelty and resistance, then, isn’t exactly one to relish. But there’s hope in the air, and not just because of June’s actions.
We pick up where we left off, with June in the rain-drenched street, turning away from freedom so that she can go back to Gilead and wreak vengeance. It was a surprising move, one perhaps decided by the show’s writers more than her character, but Moss does a fantastic job of selling her conviction to make a difference; as she storms back to Gilead, with a little help from Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford, killing it as a man bringing down the regime from the inside), the shock from Emily (Alexis Bledel) is soon forgotten, thanks to Moss’ determined, scowling mask of retribution. She may be trusting Nicole to Emily, but she’s doing it to get Hannah, her older daughter, out from Gilead too.
It’s a quest that takes on an added urgency given the events of the real world, which have seen women’s access to abortion in certain parts of the USA unjustifiably, immorally limited – The Handmaid’s Tale may have verged into gratuity in recent episodes, but it hasn’t lost an iota of its rage-inducing relevance.
That rage is spreading, too, as we see Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) taking dramatic steps to draw a domestic line in the sand, burning down her whole household (a stunningly shot scene that’s as jaw-dropping as any other visuals the show has served up to date). She’s as angry and sick of Fred (Joseph Fiennes, increasingly resigned and powerless) as she is furious with June for handing away ‘her’ child to Emily. The complicated bonds that form between women, children, adoptive mothers and biological parents run through this episode with a nuanced complexity, with the episode finding time for shared moments of loss as well as shared moments of joy over recognising traits in Hannah.
And yet there’s still a tragic fatalism looming over it all, as June seems to acknowledge that she will probably never be free of Gilead and will likely die there. One who won’t, though, is Emily, as we see her flee to Canada – a sequence that isn’t surprising in any way, but certainly is satisfying. Alexis Bledel conveys so much in her facial expressions alone, as she moves from fear at the policeman who finds her across the border to relief, but not before working through trauma and terror – even as she’s applauded by the staff of a nearby hospital. Emily even manages to track down Luke and Moira, with baby Nicole in tow – and a picture of Hanna to boot, which makes their reunion all the sweeter.
Back in Gilead, things are darker for June, as she’s swapped over to a new host family. Until, that is, we realise that her new host will be Bradley Whitford’s Lawrence, a man whose loyalties remain enigmatic but whose actions place him firmly on the side of the rebellious handmaids. There’s the hint of a smile as he welcomes her to his house, which suggests that Season 3 of Hulu’s series may finally give June a new dynamic to play with, and a new situation that won’t simply revolve around repetitive punishments. There is, of course, punishment for the abduction of Nicole, and June is whisked away to the Red Centre to receive it. But as she’s strapped to a table, the camera pulls away from the room and backs down the corridor, leaving the cruelty to take place off-screen – things may be about to turn over a new leaf in more ways than one.
The Handmaid’s Tale airs weekly at 9pm on Sundays on Channel 4, with episodes available on All 4 for 30 days following their broadcast.