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Still Bleak and Grim, 'The Handmaid's Tale' is Back With the Glorious Elisabeth Moss
June 5, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Hulu’s intense The Handmaid’s Tale enters its third season with probably a bit less buzz than it generated after the first, and the reason may be mildly ironic.

The Handmaid’s Tale, whose new episodes become available Wednesday on Hulu, hasn’t fallen off in quality. Rather, it has conveyed the searing intensity of Margaret Atwood’s novel so well that at times, frankly, it can be hard and depressing to watch.

That doesn’t mean the show isn’t worth the effort, or that Elisabeth Moss has become any less riveting in the role of June/Offred, a woman designated for child-bearing servitude in a future society where women’s lives are entirely dictated by their designated male masters. 

It’s a timely issue, though The Handmaid’s Tale sticks to its own story and lets the viewer extrapolate from the stark and somber world in which June and the “handmaids,” along with other women in different categories, find themselves imprisoned.

Speaking of imprisonment, June spent much of Season 2 trying to escape from her first master Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), whose baby she was assigned to have because Fred’s wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), like most women in this new society called Gilead, is infertile.

The baby thing didn’t work out quite that way. June instead had a daughter with Nick Blaine (Max Minghella), who works as one of the Waterfords’ guards. After an extremely complicated set of multi-layered relationships and shifting alliances, June started trying to help her friend Emily (Alexis Bledel) escape with the daughter.

Whom, by the way, the powerful Fred Waterford believes to be his heir, creating a significant obstacle to any escape.

As we start Season 3, then, that’s the immediate central drama: whether June and Emily can make it to Canada, which grants political asylum to women persecuted in Gilead.

They get some timely and invaluable help from several men, of all people. That includes Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), who founded the Colonies, a work camp/death camp where disobedient women and other dissidents are sent. Commander Lawrence will be playing a more prominent role this season.

Still, while June obviously has motives and a deep hunger to break free of this oppressive society, it’s not a clear-cut call for her. She still has business in Gilead, possibly including the daughter, Hannah, from whom she was separated at the time of her capture.

We will also be witnessing the furtherance and occasionally even resolution of numerous other dramas launched over the past two seasons.

That includes the semi-unusual sight of character evolution.

Fred Waterford, initially a man who appeared to have a flickering spark of empathy for women like Offred, seemed last season to be reverting to his master mode.

Conversely, the initially fanatic and vindictive Serena Joy seemed to start wondering whether giving unconditional support to Fred might be shooting both herself and all other women in the foot.

We also can expect an answer about the fate of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), the deplorable psycho whose job is convincing the handmaids they’re blessed, not cursed. At the end of last season, Emily stuck a knife in Aunt Lydia’s back, a “right on, Emily” moment that did not immediately kill her.

In the larger picture, there is also this. TV has no shortage of grim dramas these days, so any viewer looking to get depressed won’t have a hard time finding an enabling production.

Most of these shows seek a bit of balance by finding ways to inject some humor, albeit often dark. In this area, The Handmaid’s Tale has more trouble than most.

In some ways, its closest brush with humor comes when a handmaid or other character recites the rote religious catchphrases of the theocracy (“Praise be”) and then when Big Brother is no longer watching follows it with a profane one-liner that shows how they really feel.

Moss continues to shine, and the toll of this whole battle is brilliantly reflected this season in her appearance. She looks older, more haunted.

Probably because she is. Some viewers know the feeling.

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