The Growing Paradox of The Handmaid’s Tale

The third season of Hulu’s speculative series continues to assert its feminist credentials while keeping its central character in subjugation.


This word, empowerment—I don’t think it means what The Handmaid’s Tale thinks it means. Since it debuted in 2017, just a few months into Donald Trump’s administration, the Hulu series has toggled awkwardly between modes. This is a show about ritualized sexual and physical assault, set amid a fundamentalist-Christian theocracy that has stripped women of all basic human rights. But it’s also a show that can’t stop framing June (played by Elisabeth Moss) as a grand feminist icon, a nascent slayer of the patriarchy and purveyor of infinite slow rage-gazes at the camera. With jangly “girl power” musical cues (Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” scans strangely in a world where women are assigned to men as property) and the defiant mantras June recites in her head, The Handmaid’s Tale keeps insisting that its story is an empowering one. The commanders of Gilead, June thinks at the end of Season 1, “should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” a nugget so quotable, it was tweeted out as fan art by the verified account @HandmaidsOnHulu.

Real empowerment, though, isn’t the storytelling equivalent of a branded tote bag bearing the words Burn. It. Down. It isn’t endless close-ups on June’s face, her eyes blazing rebellion because surliness is the only dissent she can manifest that won’t get her killed and fed to livestock. Empowerment isn’t making another woman a kicky green-leather sling to accessorize her amputated finger. And, most crucially, empowerment isn’t the same thing as brazen stupidity. In the final moments of Season 2—a 13-episode stretch that invested heavily in portraying the violence and brutality of Gilead—the show asked viewers to believe that June, set up for escape with her baby, would decide to stay instead and fight the regime from within. For me, it was maddening. Not only because it was such a conspicuous example of narrative problem-solving, but also because it so neatly encapsulated the paradox of The Handmaid’s Tale: The series continually asserts how empowering it can be, straining all the while to keep its central character in complete subjugation.

Season 3 of the show, the first three episodes of which arrive on Hulu today, was delayed sufficiently that it missed the cutoff for Emmy eligibility, a decision that Hulu’s Craig Erwich stressed was about maintaining the quality of the series. Visually, The Handmaid’s Tale is as striking as ever, maintaining the chilling beauty of Gilead’s optics—the curated flecks of handmaid red on stark white snow and the strange symmetry of ceremonial events. Story-wise, though, it’s blotchy as hell. If you were enraged by June’s decision to ship her baby off to Canada without her, you won’t be mollified in the opening moments of Season 3, when she justifies it by thinking breezily, There are always reasons. I’m sorry, baby girl. Mom’s got work. To be clear, this is state-sanctified rape and torture she’s talking about returning to, not late nights at the office.

Put aside the clumsy feminist overtures for a moment. The Handmaid’s Tale, in Season 3, is as narratively inert as it was in its earliest episodes, which at least did the necessary work of establishing Gilead’s universe. June, supposedly a smart and intuitive woman, repeats the same mistakes she’s made several times in the previous seasons. Mostly, these involve trusting Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), a character who previously held June down while Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) raped her. But Serena isn’t the only character who vacillates between sympathetic and monstrous in the blink of an eye: The enigmatic Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), last seen helping Emily (Alexis Bledel) escape with June’s baby, swings back into (complicated) antagonism after that act of charity. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), wounded by Emily and thus more dangerous than ever, doles out electric shocks with a cattle prod in some scenes and teary maternal hugs in others. Even the person June trusts the most in Gilead seems to be getting set up as a villain.

The pacing of the first six episodes is tedious, as the plot picks its way ploddingly toward a new locale while circling through old conflicts and tensions. Janine, played by Madeline Brewer, is still prone to erratic outbursts that put her at risk; June still periodically finds herself being escorted into ominous vans without any sense of whether she’s going to her death or the drugstore. In lieu of character development for June, the camera returns to her in close-up over and over, zooming in on Moss’s visage with all the commitment of a dedicated Hollywood facialist. And the writing, liberated since Season 2 from Margaret Atwood’s elegantly spare source material, is all over the place, meaning that June gets ponderous inner monologues comparing herself to trees, but also sporadically clunky outbursts. (Which handmaids, she wonders in one scene, might be compelled to “burn this shit place to the ground”?)

Even more disorienting, though, is the show’s complete lack of consistency when it comes to Gilead itself. It’s either a police state or it’s not; it can’t be both a brutally efficient disciplinary environment and a world in which June has the freedom to enter any room she pleases, smoke conspiratorial cigarettes with Serena, and kiss her baby’s father, bareheaded, outside the home of an impossibly powerful (and well-guarded) leader of Gilead. Moss, who’s charged with selling June both as an impuissant figure of roiling resentment and as a plucky member of the underground, tries valiantly to reconcile these two disparate roles, but she’s boxed in by every bad decision the writers force June to make.

In some ways, The Handmaid’s Tale feels like it’s suffered from its uncanny timing over the past two seasons rather than benefited from it. Here we are, in this entirely strange moment when feminism is more culturally popular than ever and women’s bodily autonomy more gravely imperiled than it has been since the ’70s; and here Bruce Miller’s series is, an adaptation of a novel about a regime so repressive that it reduces women to hooded wombs. It’s a TV show about children being forcibly taken from their mother, coinciding with a presidential administration that forcibly takes children from their mother. It’s a drama that frequently and unabashedly uses the word resistance. But it’s also a series that scooped up so many awards during its debut season, and so much critical praise, that Hulu seems unlikely to let it start wrapping up any time soon. Hence the catch: Empowerment is crackling through the zeitgeist, and The Handmaid’s Tale wants to deliver it, but its continuation also depends on June being a prisoner of Gilead for a good while longer.

This inertia is frustrating, because when the show breaks out of its self-imposed loops, it’s extraordinarily moving. Without spoiling too much, there are developments this season involving Bledel’s Emily and O. T. Fagbenle’s Luke that left me in emotional shreds, enabled by both actors doing astonishing work. Miller and his writers are demonstrably gifted at imagining the aftermath of surviving Gilead and portraying it with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. These are the kinds of stories that resonate, characterized by responses to trauma that ring acutely true. But June—trapped in her sequence of shock, rebellion, rinse, repeat—doesn’t feel like a person anymore. She’s the empty embodiment of female rage, perpetually denied meaningful release. And that’s a hard thing, in this moment, to keep on watching.