by Transmute Jun
Warning: this article contains multiple spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3, through Episode 13.
The season 3 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale was full of action and suspense, more so than any episode of the series thus far. June’s ability to survive in Gilead was literally put to the test, Fred and Serena faced tribulations that they could not have imagined, and Luke’s heart was broken again (Hasn’t this poor guy been through enough?). While there was no cliffhanger at the end, this is clearly only a break in the story, leaving viewers eager for the recently announced season 4.
June’s journey this season has been an emotional seesaw. At the end of season 2, when June gave Baby Nicole to Emily, staying behind in Gilead rather than escaping to freedom, the expression on her face was both resolute and vengeful. It was clear that June was determined to remain to find and save her daughter Hannah, regardless of the consequences to her own safety. That determination was clearly evident in season 3, as June relentlessly pursued her daughter, often past the point of reason. Her single-minded drive was not always logical or rational, causing her actions to swing violently between clever and outright foolish. June was so dedicated to finding Hannah that she became unhinged when she realized that ‘OfMatthew’ had turned in Martha Frances, causing the Mackenzies to move away. June nearly killed ‘OfMatthew’ with her bare hands then, out of rage, and later again, as a result of the insanity that overtook her with her enforced solitude, praying over her comatose former walking partner.
Despite her single-mindedness, June encountered challenge after challenge in season 3, from losing her daughter once again, to gaining the dubious trust of Commander Lawrence, to months of what amounted to solitary confinement in the hospital, to attempted rape. Even in the final episode of the season, June’s plan to transport the children of the elites out of Gilead is far from foolproof, and encounters obstacles she had not foreseen.
The story of The Handmaid’s Tale is obviously about June, and her journey this season was one of trying to find and fulfill a purpose. Realizing that Hannah was beyond her reach, June was re-invigorated when she found a new purpose; if she couldn’t rescue her own daughter, she would rescue other children in Gilead. Yet the ruthlessness of June’s actions caused some to question both her sanity and her motives. Janine accused June of being selfish, of making everything about her. To the viewer, this seems natural, as the majority of the series is from June’s point of view. Yet Janine was right; June had few cares for others’ problems, and willfully ignored any complaints or reasoning put forward by anyone else. In a way, June needed the children to be free as much, or possibly more, than they did themselves. She was willing to sacrifice herself, if necessary, to get the children onto the plane, because she wouldn’t have been able to live with herself if she hadn’t. While her motives were obviously in part altruistic, she also understood the personal insanity that would result from not being able to do anything, from feeling helpless, just as she experienced in ‘OfMatthew’s’ hospital room. It will be interesting to see in season 4 how June moves on from this, and what new (possibly unattainable) goals she will set for herself.
While The Handmaid’s Tale was created from a novel, a compelling aspect to the series is what was not in the novel, specifically, the events surrounding the other characters. Unlike the literary version, many other characters are fleshed out and had their own development this season. In particular, I found the character of Commander Lawrence intriguing. He began as a mysterious figure in season 2, perhaps somewhat eccentric, but clearly sympathetic to Emily’s plight. In the beginning of season 3, he took June into his home, leading viewers to think that he might be simply a kind man. Yet there was far more depth to the character, which was revealed over the course of the season. He embodies the classic totalitarian architect: someone who creates laws, yet thinks that the rules don’t apply to him. Joseph Lawrence was one of the founders of Gilead, designing a system for society and the roles that everyone else was to play, but doing so on paper, never thinking about the consequences. Now, five years later, when faced with those consequences, he finally understands what he has created. The ultimate realization for him was when June’s Ceremony was being ‘witnessed’ and he realized that he had to ‘perform’. June’s clinical advice regarding how to get through it was so telling of what she had experienced that Joseph was horrified, and it was at this point that his outlook changed dramatically. At the end of episode 12, it seemed as if Joseph had realized that June somehow had a hand in his wife’s death, yet he did not act on this information in episode 13, even when June, clearly unhinged, insisted that the escape plan continue, despite the significant risks involved. Joseph is too smart not to have connected the dots, and I am looking forward to seeing what he does with this knowledge, as well as his newfound outlook, in season 4.
The most disappointing character this season might well have been Serena. It seemed as if she was developing a conscience, understanding the plight of others in Gilead, at the end of season 2, yet in season 3 she reverted back to her selfish ways. Fans who had hoped to see Serena and June join forces were denied, as Serena fell back to her most basic character aspect: her desire to be a mother. Yet in a way, Serena’s ruthlessness in pursuing Baby Nicole, even to the point of sacrificing her own husband, mirrors June’s obsession with her own children. It will be interesting to see if Serena ever comes to regret her actions, outside of any impact that they might have on her potential motherhood.
While the events of the original Handmaid’s Tale novel were primarily covered by season 1, fans of the book were pleased to see the nods to the original story this season, including the reference to “Mayday” and June’s use of an audiocassette to record her message to Luke.
Season 3 ended on a high note, yet there were a couple of odd things that will hopefully be explained in future episodes. First, why were the children so quiet when escaping through the forest? Obviously the older ones, such as Rebecca, might have had memories of things being different before Gilead, of having had different names, and might want to return to such a society. Yet the younger ones would not understand what they were doing, or why they were being taken from their parents. In a world where children are a rarity, many of them were likely spoiled, and it seems as if some of them should have been complaining or crying or unhappy to leave the only homes that they had ever known. Even so, the sight of their plaintive faces inside the dark plane was heart-breaking.
My other nitpick is that June wasn’t found in the forest overnight. While she forced the Guardian to make a ‘all clear’ call, the gunshot as she killed him should have been heard. Additionally, the Guardian didn’t report in, and his truck was still on the road; why did no one investigate? The only explanation seems to be that the other Guardians were occupied with the search for the ‘missing child from Lexington’.
Regardless of these points, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to be a compelling view of a world where nearly all freedoms are taken away from its population. Given the increasing restrictions and curtailing of freedoms placed upon American society today, its relevance has never been more significant. For those who cannot wait for months until season 4 is released, there is the upcoming publication in September of Margaret Atwood’s Testaments, the sequel to the original The Handmaid’s Tale novel. Given Atwood’s deep involvement in the show, it will be interesting to see how much crossover there is with the later seasons.
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