Blessed be the fruit, things are finally picking up in Gilead. Where The Handmaid’s Tale season two was mostly about finding new ways to physically and psychologically torment June/ Offred / Ofjoseph (Elisabeth Moss), series three quickens the pace dramatically. Suddenly this is a show where the story is as important as the suffocating tension. How incredibly novel.
There’s a genuine mystery crouched at the heart of The Handmaid’s Tale now too. Is June’s new master, Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), a gruff and (understandably) paranoid good guy? Or a sociopath whose surface-level empathy with the Mayday resistance conceals darker motives? What, moreover, of his Miss Havisham-esque wife Eleanor (Julie Dretzin), and her penchant for padding angstily around in her dressing gown?
One thing that is clear is that Lawrence and June have become intertwined, perhaps destructively so. She knows his secret: that he has helped the resistance funnel escapees to Canada. And he is aware the Marthas are running an Underground Railroad-style cell out of his kitchen. For now an uneasy truce holds. Why do we have the feeling it’s all going to go horribly awry?
Aunt Lydia is back
She appeared to have been fatally stabbed by Emily last season. But no, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) endures – and is paying a courtesy call on the Lawrences that doubles as an opportunity to keep tabs on June. With her walking stick and haunted face, Dowd is clearly trying to make us feel sympathy for the grisly yet presently frail matriarch. But it’s a feint – just as our hatred for her starts to melt she turns on June and spritzes her with a cattle-prod (okay, so it wasn’t actually a walking stick).
Lawrence witnesses the zap-attack but is unmoved at seeing June suffer. And yet he lies for her when earlier telling Lydia that he had his Handmaid participated in the “ceremony” – aka the state-mandated rape. What’s going on with him?
June is part of the resistance now
Remember when June declined to join Mayday in season one… for reasons? No, neither does she. She’s more or less fully on board with the Marthas and their insurrection now – even if they are openly distrustful of her as they plot in Lawrence’s kitchen. Still, she wins them over, mostly by looking even more miserable and haunted than they. Their mission – which June immediately signs up to – is to smuggle chemist-turned-explosives expert Alison into the city’s industrial zone, so that she can infiltrate Gilead’s higher echelons (and plant bombs). This is sort of a treat for June. She dresses up as a Martha and passes unnoticed through the noxious ghetto above which flutter Gilead flags embossed with black birds – cough, Nazis, cough – so that Alison can get on with some top-level infiltration.
But she’s even more ruthless than the Marthas
The plan backfires as Alison later returns to Lawrence’s house with a critically injured Martha we’ve never met previously and to whom we won’t be properly introduced (with good reason). Guardians are sweeping the neighbourhood for her. Cora, one of the other Marthas, wants to save the woman by handing her over to the authorities. They’ll all pay for it – but she at least will live.
June, however, has learnt to let go of sentiment. She essentially lets the woman bleed out. Her logic is that the Guardians will put their quarry on the Wall anyway – and the rest of them too. As this is happening, Lawrence, though obviously not pleased to find a dying insurrectionist in his basement, fobs off the Guardians. He’s furious but his anger seems to flow from the fact Cora lied to him rather than because Mayday has essentially set up a mobile operations unit in his home.
Mrs Lawrence is on their side too, we learn. She fobs the Guardians off with tea while the Marthas mop up the upstairs blood (in the process providing a glimpse of what a dystopian Father Ted remake might look like). We’ve only just met her and already she is the season’s most fascinating character. Later June drags out the body and buries it. Is this her gesture of contrition for permitting the woman to die?
Life is still complicated for Emily
In Canada, former Handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel) struggles to readjust to normality. She doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry or shriek to the heavens when at a health check a doctor admonishes her for her high cholesterol. A few weeks ago, she risked being put on the Wall merely for speaking out of turn. Here she is being chided for eating too much butter.
Also struggling is June’s husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle). Emily has brought to him the child his wife had with another man (albeit coercively). He gets drunk at dinner and elsewhere throws weird gazes at the baby. But he’s a good guy and after some killer glares from Moira (Samira Wiley) comes around to accepting the little girl is going to be part of his life. He is also angry at Emily for not reaching out to anyone from her past life who is now in Canada. She’s spurning the opportunity to reconnect – a chance he and June have been denied.
Emily takes encouragement from the humanity she witnesses at Luke, Moira and Erin’s unconventional household. After a quietly cathartic moment undergoing an eye-test she finally contacts her wife Sylvia (Clea DuVall). The other woman is so stunned to discover her significant other alive and in Canada she double parks in the middle of busy road. True love still exists – even on The Handmaid’s Tale.
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