The headlines keep providing all the context Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” will ever need: There’s a notable drop in birthrates; Bible classes are offered in public schools; Facebook accepts no responsibility for its users’ distortions of fact. And recent votes in state legislatures in Georgia, Missouri, Louisiana and other states seek to limit abortion to a prohibitive degree, bringing the ultimate goal within reach — a Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Chilled and angered by these developments, protests often include women who show up to statehouses wearing the familiar red robes and white bonnets required of the fictional handmaids of Gilead, a militaristic theocracy once known as the United States of America, first envisioned in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel and brought vividly to life in showrunner Bruce Miller’s acclaimed series. A red-robe event certainly gets a message across, but the more it happens, the more the image loses some of its potency, or can even be misconstrued as free publicity for the show. It’s also no surprise to hear the show’s most loyal fans talk about the fatigue that comes from watching too many episodes in a row. It is consistently depressing and sometimes just too close for comfort.
While Atwood prepares to release a new novel in September — a sequel the author says takes place 15 years after “The Handmaid’s Tale” — Miller and company often struggle to move their ongoing story of June (Elisabeth Moss) along at a pace that is both consistent and intriguing. They’ll rev it up in one episode, only to ramp it down in the next; they’ll terrify us in one moment and then rectify a life-threatening crisis almost as fast. The show is full of pauses and quiet close-ups (mostly of June, who narrates).
The third season, which begins streaming Wednesday with three new episodes, sustains many of the qualities that first made the show such a talker (and award winner), with memorable performances and a fascinating vision of government oppression and cruelty in the name of God. As dour as the viewing experience can be, that’s the good news.
The bad news is that the first half of this season (six episodes were made available for this review) often lapses into the realm of the deadly dull, making long and redundant loops around its original premise and revisiting already established resentments and animosities between characters.
In a land where sinners and suspected insurgents are publicly executed and then strung up to rot in town squares, June continues to demonstrate a knack for skirting past the worst consequences. She’s a fighter who keeps getting forgiven for her transgressions. In June’s final days as Offred, the handmaiden assigned to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), she delivered a baby daughter, Nicole, who was secretly fathered by Fred’s chauffeur, Nick (Max Minghella).
At the end of Season 2, June convinced Serena, who had recently petitioned Gilead’s rulers to let women and girls be allowed to read the Bible (and had a finger chopped off for her troubles), that Nicole would never have a full life in Gilead. While the Waterford mansion went up in flames, Serena helped Offred escape with the baby to Canada. But Offred, who still hopes to one day rescue her older daughter, broke her promise to Serena and instead gave the baby to Ofjoseph (Alexis Bledel), who was whisked away to the border in a van driven by the resistance.
There is now more talk of babies in “The Handmaid’s Tale” than you’d find at a weekday Mommy and Me playgroup — too much even for a show that’s a protracted metaphor about the reproductive rights of women. Almost immediately, a grieving Serena decides she wants her baby back (I’ll leave out the spoiler details of where the infant and Ofjoseph wind up after last season’s cliffhanger), leading Fred and the rulers of Gilead to treat the infant’s kidnapping as an international crisis, Elián González-style.
After a period of punishment at the Red Center, June is reassigned to become Ofjoseph, ostensibly to bear a child for Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), an intellectual leader among Gilead’s policy framers. As viewers learned last season, Commander Lawrence is capriciously contradictory — helping the handmaids and the baby to escape, while taking a sadistically ambivalent, mainly academic interest in the dystopian nightmare he helped create. For a character with so much potential and insider knowledge, it feels as if the writers don’t know what to make of him. Whitford does what he can with the material he’s given.
Although she ended last season with a paring knife in her back, Ann Dowd returns as Aunt Lydia. By far the show’s most interesting character, she has acquired what might be interpreted as an evolving perspective on Gilead’s treatment of its handmaids, whom she loves with a mix of religious zeal and vicious discipline.
If you can make it through the sluggish start (five long, poorly structured episodes), things improve in Episode 6, as June/Ofjoseph is summoned to Washington, D.C., and the home of the high grand poobah Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni). At last we see the Gileadean version of the capital, where handmaids have it a lot worse than even Aunt Lydia could have imagined.
And wait until you see what those bastards have done to Union Station, the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. It recaptures that unique combination of dread and outrage that “The Handmaid’s Tale” originally meant to convey. It’s also the sort of thing that might inspire one to dust off the protest bonnet and head for the Mall.
The Handmaid’s Tale (13 episodes) returned with three episodes Wednesday on Hulu. A new episode streams each week, beginning June 12.