“June did this,” an emotional Rita whispers to Luke upon their first meeting at an airport in Toronto, after stepping off a plane filled with fifty-odd escapees from Gilead. The entire third season of The Handmaid’s Tale, with its weird stop-and-start pace, summed up in a single line, and yet I couldn’t help having a similar reaction to Luke: OK? So why isn’t she here with them?
Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale season 3.
Maybe that was me reading into O-T Fagbenle’s face acting, but it’s clear that at the very least Luke is disappointed. Neither June nor Hannah materializes in this scene that manages to make even an airport reunion dystopian. (“Rebecca?” Cue the tears.) No amount of secondhand praise will make up for the fact that June decided, once again, to stay behind in Gilead. More and more, he is presented with the myth of his wife, rather than her in the flesh. “You’re Luke,” was the first thing Rita said to him—and yes, he’s become fairly well-known on his own for going viral with Nichole at the rally and for publicly confronting Waterford, but what she meant was you are the patient, waiting partner to a heroine who is not finished being heroic.
Indeed, season 3 has built up the mythology of June, the Handmaid who gets others out. But is that enough to make up for thirteen episodes that more often than not felt like wheel-spinning? And can viewers make their peace with the idea that June herself may never get out?
With an overemphasis on certain stylized tics—ending an episode on an incongruous pop song, those uncomfortable lingering close-ups on June’s face—The Handmaid’s Tale has become repetitive in a way that lessens the effectiveness of those moments that used to be so unique to it. June’s arc wasn’t enough to stretch over thirteen episodes, but rather than give her a break for an episode, she had to be at the center of any Gileadean worldbuilding, from infiltrating the Marthas’ rebellion network to witnessing how Gilead refines its latest cruelties in DC. June’s horror—shared, fascinatingly, with Aunt Lydia—at seeing Handmaids with their mouths sewn shut is perfectly horrifying for this show; but June having to muzzle herself for the Waterfords in DC, then take it off when she’s back in Boston, lacks the same punch. Episodes like “Heroic” (in which June flirts with a complete mental breakdown again), while featuring a few key exchanges—Janine criticizing June for becoming so ruthless, the Gileadean doctor who seems to see June as something approaching human—take up so much narrative space that could have been given to Moira, Luke, and Emily up in Canada.
Instead of further examination of how these Gileadean refugees are adjusting to life in “Little America,” this season focused on those familiar faces and new characters still inside. June’s new walking partner Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop, pulling double duty on The 100 this season as Delilah/Priya) is a keen example of Gilead’s piousness, not unlike poor Eden. Both in turn demonstrate the future that June dreads for Hannah and Nichole. But the show never delved into why Ofmatthew believed so fervently in her “holy” duties, aside from the flicker of doubt about her latest pregnancy that would ultimately seal her fate.
Even when the show did explore character motivations, they fell flat. I was excited for Aunt Lydia’s long-overdue flashback in “Unfit,” especially upon learning that she had been a kindly teacher and aunt figure, but it amounted to a whole lotta nothing. She… opened herself up to a family in the form of a vulnerable single mother parenting the best (if imperfect) way she could? She… put on some makeup and made a pass at the principal, who clearly was into something happening with her at some point, but not that night? She… responded to this rejection by separating the mother and son because if she couldn’t be happy, no one could? Ann Dowd deserved a better backstory.
In Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), the series found another satisfyingly morally gray character. His grudging respect for June and loyalty to his wife made him almost seem like one of the good ones, to the point that we had to constantly be reminded that despite all this, he still created Gilead. He is still a war criminal, no matter how many bedtime stories he reads a room of children whose lives he architected. Further, Lawrence’s insistence upon not participating in the Ceremony and other strictures is even more galling; he would devise such dehumanizing tactics, but he is somehow above it.
And yet, the scene in which June talked him through the Ceremony was heartbreaking. One of the best exchanges this season, it carried the schadenfreude of the abusers becoming abused, yet one couldn’t really delight in Eleanor sobbing about how “you said we would never have to do this” and Joseph apologizing over and over for putting them in this awful situation. Despite the Lawrences’ devastation, we never forgot that June still had to do the emotional labor of readying Lawrence for an encounter that, if unsuccessful, would be more deadly for her than for him. She had to talk him through her own rape—both of their rape, really.
But Lawrence, too, was a character whose stops and starts dimmed his redemptive arc. By the time he had almost let June down for the third time, her dressing-down of him in his own home (“Men. Fucking pathological. You are not in charge. I am.”) felt less triumphant and more about checking the box before she could finally put her season-long plan into motion. One wonders that if June hadn’t had to manage Lawrence, if she hadn’t had to improvise to account for the overeager Martha who brought a child to the Lawrences’ home early, if she might have been able to get on that cargo plane.
It feels uncharitable to criticize the series for June not escaping Gilead, even though we as viewers are trained to hope for that catharsis, to reject any narrative half measures. Because freeing more than fifty children from a future in Gilead is incredible. It completely undercuts the raison d’être behind this totalitarian state—the defense that Waterford still uses, “fixing” the plummeting birth rate, to justify himself to Luke. If Gilead loses a couple dozen future Wives and Handmaids (depending on these poor girls’ projected fertility), that sets them back potentially years.
You know what else could take Gilead down? The Waterfords finally getting arrested. Its most public-facing Commander/Wife duo have turned on one another and in the process revealed some brutal secrets about how their country works—intel that could be used against them, and the world they represent, anywhere from the court of public opinion to a war crimes tribunal. The strongest choice for the series, going into season 4, will be to stay awhile in Canada and focus on the dismantling of Gilead. Luke and Moira and Emily are already right there (in a bit of plot handwaving), so it would fulfill two purposes.
But in order to do so, the series will have to release its grip on June, at least a little—or possibly entirely. She ends the season struck down by a gunshot wound that, while not immediately fatal, could still do her in; being carried away by her fellow Handmaids to parts unknown, but safe for the moment in the arms of her comrades.
There’s a chance that June will go full martyr and succumb to her gunshot wound between seasons. On the one hand, this season has suggested that we’ve seen the complete arc of her story: She may never escape Gilead, but she can show others the way out. She can create new life through love and sacrifice her own freedom by the same token. She may be incapable of doing more for herself, of completely reuniting the family she dreams of while she watches a plane fly away without her. “The June Osborne you knew doesn’t exist anymore,” Waterford taunts Luke. “Gilead’s changed her. I’ve changed her.” The finale showed her to be more ruthless than even she believed she could, but such cold calculations still add up to a net positive.
At the same time, we don’t know if The Handmaid’s Tale has more than one season left in it. Switching the focus to another Handmaid now—to Janine, or Alma—could leave viewers cold, after three years in June’s head. Which is why it seems clear that next season’s primary focus (or at least, the first few episodes’ arc) will be on Gilead’s young refugees. By crossing the border, their worlds have opened up. They have been welcomed into safety and security, because Canada recognizes that they have fled their dangerous home for the hope of a future. That’s what I want to see in my dystopia.
Scones & Muffins
- That’s what I’m renaming the section called “Scraps,” since those—the other Handmaids’ testimonies written on random fabrics and transported to Canada—seem to have served their purpose last season.
- Shockingly, the crime that Fred uses to cut Serena off from Nichole is the one I wouldn’t have thought to blame her for: forcing June to have sex with Nick, which led to an actual emotional affair that conceived their daughter. It was still rape at the start, and yet, as all things with Serena, she still came out as a sympathetic figure.
- I noticed that following her long vigil in “Heroic,” June had a more pronounced limp that she carried through the latter half of the season. It’s almost as if she’s sustaining more semi-permanent damage.
- “No one belongs here”: June’s declaration about the girl they almost return home in the finale, but such a great line in general.
- No, Handmaid’s Tale, you cannot have “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” that song is forevermore a queer dystopian love anthem.
- Other favorite scenes this season included Serena getting to wear pants and put her hair down in Canada; and the Marthas cleaning up the hotel room at Jezebels and disposing of High Commander Winslow’s (RIP Christopher Meloni) body. What about yours? What do you think season 4 has in store?