Well, Game of Thrones may have choked, but at least The Handmaid’s Tale – arguably the second biggest televisual event of the year – looks to be staying the course.
The Hulu original imperceptibly went off-book with season 2, forging beyond the source material without a drop in quality or a change in tone, and the consistency continues in the season 3 opener.
‘Night’ picked up right where we left to off, to the point where the season 2 climax starts to feel more like a mid-season hiatus. Great though the last batch of episodes was, June’s decision to stay in Gilead and fight the good fight was hard to swallow – a Star Wars character move in a universe where time and time again heroics have proven foolhardy. But why do we demand logic and good sense from a protagonist? Would you not remain in Gilead and try and liberate your child even if it seemed hopeless?
June’s swift capture in season 3 episode 1 needed to happen, and came as little surprise to her; June knew she didn’t have a solid plan, but she had to try something. Commander McKenzie’s words, “you have to stop”, will be ringing in her ears however, as June’s skirmishes could ultimately endanger Hannah. At the very least, things are now positioned for a bittersweet ending to June’s story, where she is reunited with Hannah outside of Gilead but her daughter struggles to remember her real mother and misses her interim foster parents.
This episode was filled with the kind of thoughtful shot selection we’ve come to expect from The Handmaid’s Tale, which might be the most beautiful show on television. Lazy cutting between close-ups and wide shots is spurned in favour of something a little more interesting, and this week, for instance, we watched an exchange between Serena and Fred Waterford almost entirely through one panel of a triptych mirror – Fred not even visible in the shot.
The Handmaid’s Tale is also very considered and lyrical in how its big moments unfold. Take this week’s arson of the Waterford house, Serena torching its bed (side note: you may remember the season 2 finale ended with Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” playing over the credits, a brazen bit of foreshadowing). A lesser show would have had a character simply smell smoke and head towards the source, but here June plays with the smoke in the quiet light, and later cathartically embraces a wall, able to feel the beams of the house bend as the fire ravages it. It was a powerful moment, and perhaps didn’t need a narrated “burn, motherfucker, burn”, the show’s sassy voiceovers now starting to feel hackneyed.
With June reassigned to the house of secret ally Commander Lawrence, she’s now poised to wreak havoc in Gilead this season, which should be a lot of fun. I expect we’ll come to learn a lot more about Lawrence (played by the excellent Bradley Whitford). We’ve been told he was essentially the architect of the colonies, but I suspect matters are a little more complicated. It will also be interesting to see what happens with Serena now she is woke to Gilead’s atrocities, Yvonne Strahovski’s character being the most compelling in the show right now.
Outside of Gilead, Emily was in awe of Canada’s hospital facilities and cheerfully non-fascist staff. As much as The Handmaid’s Tale is a warning about America’s present, I think scenes like this are also a reminder that hey, we have it pretty good and shouldn’t take quotidian 2019 life for granted. I’d like to see the show become more about Gilead’s relationship with the rest of the world, and it would be fascinating, for instance, to visit Hawaii and Alaska (which we understand are the last two states standing in the United States of America). But with showrunner Bruce Miller having as many as 10 seasons of this show planned, there’s plenty of time for that.
There were a couple of minor gripes I had with this season 3 opener, not least how Gilead seems to be losing its penchant for cruel punishment. June escapes her house, emancipates a rare baby and breaks into a commander’s house to try and rescue her first child, and only gets her feet whipped and put on floor-washing duty? Hmmmmm.
But this was still a confident and intriguing return for the show, which for now is holding back its ace in the hole: the return of a supremely pissed off Aunt Lydia.