It took a long time for me to realize what about the evolution of “The Handmaid’s Tale” makes it feel so much less urgent in its third season. It’s not simply that it’s moved well beyond the confines of Margaret Atwood’s source material, which ran its course by the end of Season 1. It’s not even that the initial gut punch of the show — greenlit and developed well before Donald Trump was elected president — accidentally on purpose tapping into current events has faded into obscurity, though the political resonance of it all has certainly has become less novel with time. The overt torture depicted in the first couple seasons has noticeably dissipated, a welcome change after all the series’ many previous attempts to shock us with it. What’s strange about “Handmaid’s Tale” three seasons deep is that it keeps hammering home its greatest hits to the detriment of the possible new avenues it could explore.
Ostensibly, Season 3 is about June (Elisabeth Moss) getting deeper into the Resistance after making the choice to send her baby to Canada with fellow Handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel) in the hopes that she can eventually save her other daughter still stuck in Gilead. Meanwhile, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) does her best not to completely unravel in the wake of helping June do it. The baby — Nichole to the Waterfords, Holly to June — quickly becomes the political flashpoint around which the season forms, and Moss and Strahovski both find nuance wherever they can while depicting their respective characters’ resentment. For the most part, however, the show is stuck in a repetitive loop, both by design and accident.
June, for instance, almost immediately ends up back where she came from, albeit in a different house under a new Commander (an effectively unsettling Bradley Whitford). June’s husband, Luke (OT Fagbenle), shares parenting duties for her baby in Canada with Moira (Samira Wiley), but mostly keeps worrying through his futile rage. Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) continues to rasp his disapproval of the women around him while Serena stews in restless anxiety. Even Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), viciously stabbed by Emily on her way out of the country, bounces back to her old position. The extreme closeups director Reed Morano established back in the show’s very first few episodes have firmly become a go-to crutch, framing Moss’ steely face so much that they frequently lose whatever impact they originally had. The often literal alt-rock soundtrack choices continue to weave in and out of the narrative to jarring effect. The stabs at broadening and deepening Atwood’s mythology and the world of Gilead are disappointingly myopic. For as much as the story has changed since the beginning, “The Handmaid’s Tale” feels too familiar in its attempts to move forward.
The most frustrating aspect of all this is that, occasionally, the series still hits a worthy, specific nerve before zooming too far out. In particular, Emily reuniting with her wife (Clea DuVall) and son is, in the brief time the show allows it, heartbreaking and meaningful in a way that shows “The Handmaid’s Tale” at its best. Bledel remains a standout as she portrays Emily’s hesitation and longing, the deep grief for her former self that haunts her every move even as a free woman. Her story is the kind of intimate horror that “The Handmaid’s Tale” once excelled at homing in on, but in its determination to make June a #resistance figure, it keeps leaving its most potentially effective moments by the wayside.
New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiere Wednesdays on Hulu.