There are several crucial scenes in the opening episodes of the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale (returns Sunday, Bravo, 9 p.m., with two episodes). Some are visually important and some are important in shifting the plot forward. Yet, perhaps the most striking for viewers here is toward the end of the first new episode. This question is asked of a character, “Do you wish to seek asylum in the country of Canada?”
Yes, the series picks up immediately after the events that concluded season two. That’s when June (Elisabeth Moss) made the startling decision to pass up a chance to run toward freedom in Canada. Instead, she handed her baby to her friend Emily (Alexis Bledel) and remained in Gilead, for reasons that weren’t clear.
They are now. It was a perverse decision, this urge to stay and fight with a resistance against the totalitarian state from inside. It’s not giving much away to say that Emily makes it to Canada while June is stuck in the psychodrama of her status with Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), who have been given the story that the child June bore for them was kidnapped.
Much of what June endures in what looks like a season less harrowing, but as grim as the second season, is small-scale warfare with large implications. Serena has been moved into what seems like angry-resistance mode, but she is an unreliable fighter against Gilead’s misogynist establishment. After all, she helped create it. June appears to be stuck in a groove of brutal subservience. She has a new posting, to the home of Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) who already attempted to help her escape, but we cannot be sure why he did it. He’s beyond slippery, and one senses he gets his kicks from manipulating June with the old-school relish of a sexist brute who simply enjoys torturing women without laying a finger on them.
Nothing that happens as The Handmaid’s Tale moves forward will match the enormous impact of the first season. Its expansive, gorgeously made version of Margaret Atwood’s novel arrived just as much of the world recoiled in horror at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. The series had a rare kind of heft, and viewers projected much on it. Now, after the hard-to-watch second season with its disturbing scenes of torture and permanent air of gloom, this third season asks us to dwell on the horrors of Gilead but with the simmering, underlying tension of a movement fighting against those horrors actually playing out.
As such, the series can feel repetitive, but it was meant to be. We are asked to gaze upon Gilead and its obsession with the purpose of women, and asked to be mindful of the story’s roots in real events in history. When opponents of the alarming shifts in women’s reproductive rights in some U.S. states dress as Handmaids, they are making an appallingly relevant point. And what happens in the series isn’t that distant from the thrust of events in everyday reality. The nightmare of The Handmaid’s Tale is just there, not so far-fetched, if women don’t awaken to what’s happening.
The elements that help the series transcend that air of repetition are as intact as ever. Elisabeth Moss remains electrifying, her angry face alive with seething rage. The storyline, as it appears from the early episodes of this season, is anchored in the dynamics of motherhood. After all, June is staying in Gilead largely because that’s where her daughter Hannah is, after being taken from her. Much of the fraught discussion between June and Serena is also about the perilous position that every mother is in, from the moment she gives birth.
The series also continues to be sumptuous, and at times breathtaking in its visual power. That is part of its unsettling allure – the fanatical misogyny in which Gilead is steeped does not obscure beauty or strength, in nature or in the women determined to eventually smash it to pieces.
This third season will start on Hulu in the United States on Wednesday, and advance reviews have pondered its continuing pertinence. No review noted that scene of Emily, frightened and distraught, requesting asylum in Canada in a remote wood near the border. That scene is relevant here in Canada and the entire series remains universally relevant.