We've reached the halfway point in The Handmaid's Tale's third season, and the show has fallen into an unfortunate pattern. While Elisabeth Moss' portrayal of June continues to be top-notch, it feels like the show no longer knows how to progress the character of its leading lady. June seems locked in a cycle of failure and despair, getting close to achieving her goal before seeing it snatched away yet again. This week's episode might be the most egregious example of that pattern yet, leaving us wondering where this show is even headed.
With the Waterfords in DC and Emily in Canada, The Handmaid's Tale is widening its scope, but it feels like there are still untapped depths from a narrative perspective. It's time for something new, but Tale seems unwilling to give us that. Nevertheless, we persist. We're Alyssa Fikse and Jessica Toomer, and we're here to break down the latest goings-on in Gilead.
Alyssa: Now, there’s a lot to unpack in this episode, but let’s get started with the Waterfords first. They’re settling in pretty well in DC, right? They’re all buddy-buddy with the Winslows and thinking of making the move permanent. Serena and Mrs. Winslow going through the abandoned house was awfully chilling. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Gilead was once the America that we know, and reminders like this always feel so stark. What happened to these people? Were they all murdered or are they stuck in new forced roles under his eye? Either way, Serena is looking up their home on Zillow and she thinks she can make that mortgage work.
Jessica: Girl, she’s already put in an order at Wayfair for better furniture and a more modern dining table. What really struck me about the opening of this episode was the jarring contrast between seeing June and the handmaids forced to participate in a lynching one second, before we see Serena happily house hunting the next. As much as the house reminds us that this world was once something very different, the juxtaposition between the lives these two women lead feels even more impactful in a way. It’s a reminder that just because things aren’t bad for you, it doesn’t mean they’re not awful for everyone. Serena’s privilege allows her to be self-centered and I’m struck by how easily she’s returned to that way of life after the events of season two. But she’s not the only Waterford enjoying the high life right now. I hate that we have to, but I guess we need to chat about good ol’ Fred?
Alyssa: If we must! It’s pretty clear that Fred is loving every second of the prestige and power that he’s enjoying in DC. Sure, he had the respect of his peers in Boston, but his partnership with Winslow is truly affording him some next level sh*t. Winslow makes it clear that baby Nichole is a great bargaining chip with Canadian relations, and Fred ultimately agrees. Something tells me that Serena will not agree with that particular political decision. The Waterfords' time in DC is really putting a fine point on the goals of Gilead: It’s all about power and, like you pointed out, privilege. It doesn’t matter how awful things get for everyone else. The people in power can move into their nice suburban colonials and waltz at fancy parties while the handmaids are forced to deal out executions and give up their children. Cool cool cool. What do you think is going on with Waterford and Winslow? There is so much close talking and hushed tones between these two.
Jessica: There’s definitely something there between Waterford and Winslow. It could just be that Winslow sees an easy pawn in Fred — the guy is constantly playing to Fred’s vanity, promising him a move to DC, more power, a chance to have his name in the history books if this negotiation with Canada goes smoothly. It’s the same thing Mrs. Winslow is doing with Serena Joy — the house, more children, a circle of women friends who don’t mind being a bit naughty and breaking some rules. In my opinion, either Winslow sees Fred as a tool to manipulate for his own ends, or he sees a bit of himself in Fred and is attracted to that in some way — maybe sexually, maybe not. I think the men of Gilead love power and want to be constantly reminded of their own. That’s what Winslow’s relationship with Fred feels like in a weird way. But hey, maybe they’ll bone? Who knows with this show?
Protest In Canada
Alyssa: Truly, who knows. Our faves up in Canada are having a decidedly worse time, proving that Gilead never really lets you go. Emily is forced to recount the “crimes” (I put crimes in quotation marks because sure she may have killed a person or two and attempted others, but truly could there be any more justification?) that she committed in order to escape to the Canadian government, and that just brings up all kinds of pain. I hope this woman is in serious therapy, because, wow, does she have some dark sh*t to work through. As much as it pains me, I do like that the show is taking a realistic approach to Emily and Sylvia’s relationship and how they’re struggling even though they’re back together. The kind of trauma that Emily has endured takes a toll on a person, and it’s almost impossible for a partner to truly understand that level of pain. The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly not a show for happy endings, so this kind of agonizing realism feels authentic. Still, I hope they can work through it together because, hell, someone deserves a little peace on this show.
Jessica: What’s even more heartbreaking is that it seems Sylvia is doing everything right in how she’s handling the situation. She’s not pushing Emily, she’s not punishing her for not opening up, she’s just constantly reassuring her and trying to be there in case she does want to share. Still, when you’ve gone through something as life-changing and ugly as Emily has, sometimes the only people you feel comfortable talking to about it are other survivors and that’s where Moira comes in.
I personally loved seeing these two together this episode, hashing out their respective pasts in Gilead, encouraging each other, sympathizing and finally protesting together. It felt like a cathartic release for Emily to shout at that Canadian Prime Minister and I think only Moira could’ve subtly convinced her to do something like that. At the same time, I worry for both these women. What are they doing career-wise? If it were me, I’d want to have something to keep me occupied, something not related to protesting the injustices of Gilead, so I didn’t have to sit with my own thoughts all the time. Emily even asks Moira about that which made me question the status of book deals in this dystopia. Can our girls not sell some kind of tell-all?
Alyssa: Moira and Emily reconnecting was definitely my favorite part of the episode, and honestly I think that these women can find some kind of solace in each other because no one else really knows what they went through. But you’re 100% correct: what do they have to do with their time? The protest is definitely a start — Emily shaming the politician, telling him that she did her part to keep Nichole safe and challenging him to do the same, was magnificent — but I worry that even though they’ve left Gilead, they are still stuck just slamming their fists against an immovable wall.
The thing that is becoming increasingly clear as the show goes on is that other nations don’t seem all that concerned. Sure, Gilead is a hellhole. Everyone can see that. But as long as they have the military might to hold onto the power that they’ve stolen, the rest of the world seems relatively content to play along. So, sure, Emily or Moira could write a tell-all, but who would listen? We’ve seen more of the political players and how they deal with Gilead, but I am kind of curious to see more average folks realizing the truth of what’s going on there.
Jessica: I always relate it back to the world we’re living in right now — it’s terrifying how easy that is to do. There are countries with governments far worse than our own (even though ours is a garbage heap on fire at the moment) who are committing terrible crimes against their own people but how often do we hear about it or think about it or do something about it? I get it, everyone’s got their own sh*t to handle, and I’m sure Canada has a refugee crisis and a border situation keeping them busy, but you’d think if this regime toppled the most powerful government in the world and restructured the face of global politics and diplomacy, they’d be a bit more aggressive and unforgiving with their management of Gilead.
I’m still not sure what Gilead has to offer the world or the kind of threat it poses to warrant this limp-hand approach from Canada and other countries, but I guess it could be as simple as this nativist idea that we have to take care of our own, protect our own borders, make sure this doesn’t spill into our way of life. It’s bullsh*t, but we’ve seen it before.
Alyssa: Yeah, it’s safe to say that The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t throwing away its shot to shame our current administration and honestly the rest of us over what’s going on here IRL. While it makes the point inelegantly at times, I do appreciate The Handmaid’s Tale speaking truth to power pretty consistently. It definitely makes me wonder what I can do here and now that can help make a difference because it is such a familiar feeling to have all this rage that is ultimately rendered impotent because the task at hand feels too daunting. But sh*t, if Moira and Emily can have the wherewithal to keep fighting after all they’ve been through, I can certainly get off my ass and do something. I’m excited to see where the show goes with these two, and I hope they get more screen time because June’s story is starting to get very repetitive.
Jessica: Frustratingly so. Look, I know June is handicapped in this Gilead world order, and things seem to be getting worse if the lynchings and the stapling of women’s mouths is anything to go by, but our girl is making some obvious blunders that have me questioning her ability to play the game. Her desire to rescue Hannah is all-consuming which is understandable, but it’s causing her to take some foolish risks — like chatting up the Martha who helped her get close to Hannah last time and taking Mrs. Lawrence out for an ill-fated stroll. Even before finding out that Mrs. Lawrence is bipolar I could’ve told you that wouldn’t end well.
But June is proving to be very much a “short-term” kind of planner, she makes quick decisions based purely on emotion and worries about the consequences later. That’s going to catch up with her at some point this season. Until then, we should talk about Mrs. Lawrence and that dynamic because boy do I have some feelings. What did you think of the reveal that Mrs. Lawrence lives with a mental illness? And that it was bipolar disorder?
Alyssa: I honestly liked the reveal. Gilead seems like the absolute worst place to have to deal with a mental illness, which is clear by Mrs. Lawrence’s frailty. While many wives are complicit in the system, Mrs. Lawrence seems at least to feel guilt and shame over many of the truths of Gilead. Being confronted by that reality and knowing that you play some part in it has got to take its toll, especially if you are prone to depression anyway. Not to wipe away her role in Gilead or exonerate her for taking part, but this is not a well woman.
I completely agree that June is getting reckless and not thinking in the long term here. The scene outside the school was heartbreaking; all that risk and all she could do was listen. However, I was very frustrated by the lack of pragmatism on June’s part. Her recklessness cost four women their lives and convinced the McKenzies to move away to who knows where. Full disclosure: I am not a mother, so I do not know the pain of losing a child and that kind of separation. I just wish that June was a little better at playing the long game when that is her whole goal!
Jessica: Agreed. Mrs. Lawrence really broke me this episode. I think we all suspected she was unwell, but really seeing her struggle to interact with others made me angrier at Gilead than I’ve been in a while. Obviously, she can’t medicate, can’t ease her condition in any way because this is a place that doesn’t believe in mental illness and that sort of thing. Her husband keeps her locked away, I’m sure for her own protection but also for his own — can’t have a man in power with a “crazy” wife, right? And hearing that she wanted kids but couldn’t because of her condition but also because Commander Lawrence wasn’t interested was just so heartbreaking. I don’t know, I really felt for Mrs. Lawrence this episode, certainly more than June, which surprised me.
Another thing that surprised me, how sh*tty this show is being towards its few women of color. Other than Moira, we’ve seen one black woman lynched for helping June, and another made out to be the villain for betraying her. I know this show centers on June, but I really want to see better when it comes to the supporting players who happen to be minorities in this regime.
Alyssa: Woof, you’re right about that. Ofmatthew has been a perplexing character from the start, and I hoped last week that with her concern over her pregnancy could turn her from simpering and complicit into an ally for June. Instead, the writers decided to really double down on making her a villain. I don’t think we’ve seen a handmaid so all-in on Gilead before, and to make it be one of the few women of color is… yikes. When we said we wanted more diversity, this was not the way to go about it.
Jessica: I hate to say it, but I feel like we’ve been stalling the past few episodes. The start of the season was so strong, but June’s arc especially feels dead in the water right now and with Fred more than happy to drag out this negotiation for Nichole, I’m wondering what’s going to propel the story forward at this point? I’d love to see more from Emily, to see her get involved with Moira’s protesting more, to see her take back some control in that way. (Honestly, I just enjoy the hell out of hearing Alexis Bledel yell the word "f***.") I’d also like to see more of this mess in the Lawrence household. The show has a brilliant actor in Bradley Whitford, they need to use him more.
Alyssa: With this episode, we’ve reached the halfway point in the season, and it’s really time to shift gears. (Stalling, shift gears, car metaphors!) We can’t continue this cycle of “June does something reckless, fails, faces absolutely devastating consequences.” I’ve said it before, but it’s just not a sustainable model. So, I’m hoping that the first glimpse of Emily joining in the protest is the start of these women taking back their power, even in small ways. Let Moira and Emily make some noise in Canada. Don’t force Serena back together with her slimy husband. And for god’s sake, please let June succeed at something. If they’re going to insist on a close up of Elisabeth Moss’s face at the end of every episode, I would rather see it with a hint of triumph instead of devastation again.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.