'The Handmaid's Tale' Season 3: TV Review

Still occasionally powerful, but rarely as provocative.
6/5/2019

Hulu's Emmy-winning dystopic favorite returns with Elisabeth Moss as good as ever, the cinematography as moody as ever and a plot that has become frustratingly repetitive.

There's a subset of the population — not restricted by party affiliation or, I'm assuming, by nationality — that gets caught up in the swift transitions of the news cycle and thus can speak informedly only on the first chapter of any major story, but couldn't tell you how things progressed or evolved. That's not a sign of ignorance or obliviousness, just a reflection of how it's often easiest to process things.

More and more, with its third season poised to begin on June 5, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale is beginning to feel like a show designed for and from that perspective. Much has been made of the relative "luck" that this Margaret Atwood adaptation experienced in launching in April 2017 as an audience of disconsolate viewers on the left was eager for a show that reflected the extreme consequences of a perceived, pending dystopia. Two years later, the world has moved along and The Handmaid's Tale has not. This is not to say that the new season, produced many months ago, needed to anticipate or to address restrictions on reproductive rights from Georgia to Alabama to Ohio. To some degree that's what the show was doing when it started. What the first six new episodes lack isn't prescience, but a sense that the show has anything new to say or any conversations it's hoping to advance. Or is a show we once treated as idea-driven now content with being a wonderfully acted, beautifully shot and frustratingly repetitive thriller?

Certainly the first few episodes of the new season, though they hail from showrunner Bruce Miller and producing director Mike Barker, tend toward the redundant side.

When we left things, June (Elisabeth Moss) had just made the decision to pass up her latest opportunity at freedom in Canada, handing off Baby Nichole to Emily (Alexis Bledel) and remaining in Gilead with her eye on vengeance and reuniting with older daughter Hannah. It was a choice that some viewers found infuriating and indefensible, either in the totality of June surrendering possibly her third chance at escape in the same season or in the specifics of how anybody would think leaving a baby in the care of the psychologically damaged Emily was a viable, much less good, idea.

I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that June is very, very, very quickly back in captivity/servitude and the opening installments are invested heavily in why she did what she did and whether it's justifiable. June has a new Commander, a new walking buddy and, as you might expect from her role in what Gilead sees as kidnapping the child of a Commander, a new stigma. Certainly Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) aren't happy with June's decision, but for very different reasons.

Meanwhile, Emily makes it to Toronto and to Moira (Samira Wiley) and Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), as the new season gives at least somewhat more details on what life is like in free Canada — life that becomes all the more complicated when Gilead begins the process of trying to get Baby Nichole back.

Even in its repetitive second season, a slower dirge without the spiky beats of humor that often worked so well in the first season, the raw wounds of The Handmaid's Tale still impacted me and the showcase moments — the season opener at Fenway Park, the episode spent with the Muslim family, the harrowing nightmare of birth at the country house — pretty much all landed. That Fenway Park scene is masterful and it was the introduction to the season, as effective a re-hooking as I can imagine.

The contrast in the third season, which picks up immediately after the last finale, couldn't be more stark. The first two episodes are a slog of overly familiar misery and variations on the type of gloominess and fleeting glimpses of hope that we've seen over and over before. It's well into the third episode before anything felt new, into the fourth before The Handmaid's Tale hit me on any emotional level and into the fifth before any of the season's plotlines or themes seemed interesting.

It took until the sixth episode, directed by Dearbhla Walsh and filmed largely in Washington, D.C., for anything resembling the overall creative excitement that I felt in the first two seasons to kick in. That Washington episode is practically forced to provide new information about life and government in Gilead and there are a couple images, playing off of American iconography, that pack a punch (and at least one that makes absolutely no sense to a degree that it made me actively angry). What's missing is any expanded provocation, any additional insights into the religious fundamentalism that shaped Gilead or how its institutionalized misogyny developed, much less how those things relate to whether the America of 2019 has us closer to or further from that vision of the future.

The best illustration of this absence of introspection might be the background reports of rioting and uprising in Chicago, where, at least for the moment, the "Chicago" of it all is an arbitrary and not pointed option. It feels like such a great opportunity for The Handmaid's Tale to address some of the frequent complaints about its backdrop of/focus on primarily white economic privilege. So far that has not materialized.

Moss remains a marvel, but I'm beginning to wonder if the show is using her exposed nerves and barbed outrage as a crutch. There was a cleverness to the dialogue, especially in the first season, and Moss turned that cleverness into the escape valve laughs that the show required. Now the writers are content to just let June embellish cliches with a little swearing and call it a day, forcing Moss to get value out of limp lines like, "This is the Valley of Death and there's a fuck-ton of people to fear." The number of episodes and key moments that rely on the camera pushing into extreme close-ups of Moss and forcing her to sell either the harrowing circumstance or the rebellion of the scene is way too high.

It's a strategy that the directors have noticed they can also apply to Strahovski, so deserving of her Emmy nomination last year (and Bledel, still confirming the merit of her Emmy win two years ago). The writers have recognized that Serena is the show's most conflicted and confounding character and that Strahovski can always deliver on her ambivalence.

Bradley Whitford, who joined the cast late last season, is being asked to do something similar and he's immediately established Commander Lawrence as the show's best male character. He's a slippery and manipulative figure and every time you think you have his motivations figured out, he goes a different way. This is a new thing for the men in The Handmaid's Tale, because the next time I think, "But what are Commander Waterford or Nick up to?" will be the first time.

Even if The Handmaid's Tale feels like it's building to more and more of a straightforward rebellion — June's involvement with the underground resistance is simultaneously abrupt and protracted — it's always sharply shot. Cinematographer Colin Watkinson delivers his usual distinctive lighting and eye-popping jolts of color for the initial episodes and then seamlessly passes the camera to Zoe White as Watkinson makes an assured directing debut in the fifth episode.

When The Handmaid's Tale becomes exhausting, I can always just concentrate on the sun pulsing into a darkened room through an ominously perched fan or on Moss' never-wavering intensity or Strahovski's deceptive and simmering serenity. The six new episodes are littered with elements to admire and respect when you aren't bogged down in feeling like a show that once appeared to have a lot to say is no longer participating in the conversation on the same level.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, Max Minghella, Ann Dowd, Madeline Brewer, Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley, Bradley Whitford

Adapted by: Bruce Miller from the book by Margaret Atwood

Episodes premiere Wednesdays on Hulu starting with three episodes June 5.