What’s obvious about “The Handmaid’s Tale” works wonders. What’s more opaque can create problems. There’s a scene in the sixth episode of Season 3 that takes place at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. To describe any more specifics would cross into spoiler territory, but all you really need to know is the setting and how it’s changed: Here, the statue of Lincoln has been obliterated from the waist up, leaving the former president’s legs and hands intact, but rendering the man himself unidentifiable, as well as all he represents.
This is Gilead, the totalitarian government enslaving women under the law of a righteous Old Testament God, so it makes sense they would eradicate any symbol of freedom, inspiration, and hope. This is also “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a series constantly balancing heavy-handed symbolism with intimate character development in order to dramatize the oppressive, sexist underpinnings of modern America (if not the world). Season 3 isn’t short on powerful moments (like the shot of the monument) or personal growth (like the argument had at his feet), but it does falter at times while trying to bring the two together.
So much of what showrunner Bruce Miller creates hits home; so much of this American horror story is driven by nuanced arguments, along with top-level production design and captivating performances. The tone is meant to unsettle its audience, even if it proves too unsettling for some. But the show’s strengths invite further scrutiny — nuance demands added attention, just as uncomfortable viewers need a reason to endure all that pain — and scrutiny exposes blind spots, be it how the narrative moves forward or what’s being ignored within it.
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Picking up right after June (Elisabeth Moss) makes her painful choice — to stay in Gilead for one daughter while sending another away without her mother — Season 3 starts by reestablishing our lead’s purpose: resistance. Only this time, it’s much more active resistance. Having made her decision, June needs more to do than survive, but building a rebellion is slow work hingeing on sacrifice. Gilead is big and strong, looming ominously in the tall framings of each scene and instilled in the handmaids’ via pained glimpses skyward from under their bonnets. The first six episodes are compelling, yet slower and more laborious than the first two seasons.
As in past seasons, June is suspicious of everyone, including Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), who helped Emily (Alexis Bledel) escape in the Season 2 finale. Lawrence emerges as a pivotal figure in Season 3. The founder of the Colonies also is instrumental to Gilead’s robust economy, but his reasons for helping Emily and other “insurgents” remains a well-kept mystery, even through six episodes. It’s a purposeful constraint: Whitford’s fiery, entitled-yet-compassionate performance helps define him, but Lawrence’s true self will emerge when it’s needed by the story and no sooner.
The excellent development of Lawrence is contrasted by a befuddling arc for Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). After spending much of Season 2 de-villainizing the oppressive matriarch, the new episodes steer through her grief to a surprising destination. What’s clearly meant to be progress feels more like backpedaling, despite onscreen insistence she’s changing. (At one point, she bluntly exclaims, “I’m not that person anymore,” but how and why she changed are murky, at best.) It’s as though Miller & Co. are falling back on the belief that being a mother fundamentally changes Serena, and that excuses any faulty character development on their part.
The increased value of motherhood in Gilead helps motivate her choice, but it really feels like Serena does what she does for the sake of the plot. Season 3 debates the value behind making concessions for the greater good, and the season itself often feels like it’s living out the “pro” argument of that ideology — sacrificing what can be overlooked by some (like character motivation) in order to serve what can’t be ignored by many, like action and consequences. There has to be forward momentum in a serialized story, so, by requirement, international politics become more of a talking point, and the narrative’s scale grows to accommodate.
June remains at the center of it all, serving as a defiant individual cog to the daunting global machine, and Moss’ stalwart turn is more than enough to keep viewers’ rooted in June’s struggle. The set design, costumes, lighting, and more formal elements also burst with life, guiding the eye wherever it needs to be and providing a more active experience than the scripts would by themselves.
Even with all these valuable attributes, “The Handmaid’s Tale” bites off more than it wants to chew. How the series handles race has been a point of contention, namely for ignoring racial conflict altogether, but Season 3 borrows more from black history than before, without the necessary black perspective. There are hints that such a voice could emerge after the sixth episode, but after the shot of the Lincoln Memorial, it’s stunning they haven’t already been introduced. Yes, there are two enslaved women arguing at the feet of the president who ended slavery, and yes, the irony is as wrenching as seeing Abraham’s erasure. But the monument means more than that, and “Handmaid’s” has invited more into its ongoing story than it’s ready to acknowledge.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 3 premieres Wednesday, June 5 with three new episodes on Hulu.