I’ve always admired Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” for being so much more than entertainment. With Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 dystopian novel as its source material, the show has always managed to entertain its audience with multidimensional characters and a riveting plot, all while forcing viewers to confront just how real, how plausible a world like Gilead is, especially in today’s political and social climates.
Unfortunately, however, based on the three episodes released this past Wednesday, the show’s third season has turned out to be a major disappointment compared to the first two, failing both as a source of entertainment and as an instrument for social commentary.
Season 3 picks up exactly where the second season left off, with June (Elisabeth Moss, “Mad Men”) making the controversial decision to stay in Gilead to remain close to her estranged daughter, believing that her chances of rescuing her are greater if she stays. Meanwhile, Emily (Alexis Bledel, “Gilmore Girls”) and June’s other daughter escape to Canada. Aptly titled “Night,” the season’s first episode makes it clear that the sun has set on an era of June’s life in Gilead. Under circumstances I won’t reveal, June finds herself plunged into a wholly different environment: a new house, a new Martha (Kristen Gutoskie, “The Vampire Diaries”) and a new commander (Bradley Whitford, “The West Wing”).
Inevitably, with a new setting comes a new set of subplots, subplots that are impossible to care about because they involve new characters we hardly know or even care to know. Our investment lies with the characters the show has been developing for two whole seasons now: Fred (Joseph Fiennes, “Shakespeare in Love”), Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, “Chuck”), Emily and Nick (Max Minghella, “The Social Network”). The progression of their stories and their relationships with June are precisely what made Seasons 1 and 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” so intriguing. For the show to cast all of this aside so abruptly and in such a lazy, derivative way is immensely careless. June on her own is simply not enough to maintain interest.
Season 3 further disappoints by perpetuating, whether consciously or not, a harmful social message. For a show that prides itself on being a pinnacle of feminist artistic expression, this season opts for a breed of feminism that at the very least is problematic and at the very worst is dangerous, this breed being the kind that paints all women as victims, without holding those who consciously act against other women accountable. All of this comes to a head in the show’s treatment of Serena, a woman who has repeatedly acted in favor of Gilead, a patriarchal dictatorship that has ruined the lives of millions upon millions of women, not to mention inflicting constant physical and emotional abuse onto June. In Season 3, however, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is increasingly sympathetic toward Serena, making her out to be just as much a victim of the patriarchy as June is, despite her influential role in the creation of Gilead and outspoken belief in and support of archaic conceptions of gender norms that adversely impact women.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a show asking its audience to challenge themselves morally. However, I take offense when a show makes it abundantly obvious how it wants its audience to feel. Season 3 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” does exactly that, ultimately making the viewer feel insecure, even heartless when they refuse to pity a person who is arguably just as complicit in the brutality of Gilead as the men in charge.
Maybe it’s too early to suggest that the best days of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are behind us. But if these three episodes are any indication of the show’s future, I think it’s safe to say that they are.