Scene 1, shot 1, frame 1: Five bodies hang lifeless from a scaffold. It must be time for another episode of cheery Hulu original The Handmaid’s Tale! This show is so consistently brutal that the scenes which actually shock by this point are the more quotidian, happy ones. We’re so accustomed to death and misery that I’m steeling myself for the day we get a smash cut to a basket of puppies.
That said, despite the ominous opening shot of the Marthas’ grave punishment for their “heresy”, this week’s episode actually represented a bit of a departure from what we’ve become accustomed to in the show of late, taking a break from action. Both June and Serena – the dual focus of episode 3 – were in somewhat of a holding pattern, and given a little breathing space to ponder the nature of resistance.
It’s so tempting to want to root for Serena, who is currently at a bit of a crossroads after her attempt at politics in Gilead lost her a finger, but the showrunners are toying with us by withholding her redemption. They’re probably right to, as a 180-degree turn toward the light for Serena wouldn’t really make sense; even in the most dire of situations, there will always be people who don’t fight as hard against oppression as other victims of it.
Serena was crushed to receive little sympathy to her plight from her mother this week, but it was a lesson June learned a much harder way: that you can’t rely on others to rescue you and must claw your way out alone. Episode 3, ‘Useful’, had a measured, meditative feel, although Serena’s scenes veered more toward being ponderous, and having her wade into an ocean at the end was to indulge in tropes more readily than the show normally does.
June’s story, meanwhile, was more compelling, and focused on the other side of the coin in terms of how to be, as the episode title puts it, a “useful” rebel. As Serena tries to come to terms with what she’s sat back and been complicit in for so long, June is learning that she may need to exercise a little more patience, however hard that might be.
This was the week The Handmaid’s Tale showed its hand when it came to Joseph Lawrence. It turns out the mysterious new character is not a secret ally nor a secret villain, but more of a maverick outsider. He’s a bit of an intellectual renegade, a contradictory figure who is at once ordered, mischievous, pompous and merciful.
The people locked in cages might have been the most clear reference to the real world this week, with echoes of Trump’s border policy, but the fleshing out of Joseph’s character was probably the more interesting riff on 2019, and the rise of celebrity philosophers. The concept of Commander Lawrence is basically ‘what would happen if Jordan Peterson was proven right in all of his bold ideas by history, but can only stare into the abyss and say “Ha, I told you so”?’
Joseph and June is the show’s best pairing of characters right now, and here we saw June initially revolted by her new ‘master’s cold, calculated style of philanthropy, but then forced to see its benefits. The episode hit on a stark truth: saving people is hard, but deciding who to save is perhaps even harder.
This was a pivotal gate that June passed through on the slalom of character development; the moment she ceased to be a soldier in this great fight and started to become a general.
Episode 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 airs on Channel 4 on Sunday 23 June 2019.