Warning: Spoilers ahead for the season three premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The much-anticipated Season 3 premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale picks up right where the second season left off, but it doesn’t take long to heat up and focus on moving forward. While some shows rely on new seasons to answer questions posed in past episodes, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t afraid to burn bridges and create new complications for its characters from places the audience could not have anticipated. The new beginnings offered by season three are wrought with pain but they also present plenty of possibilities for hope.
Season 2 ended with June (Elisabeth Moss) giving her baby Holly to Emily (Alexis Bledel) and staying behind in Gilead to find her other daughter, Hannah, before escaping to Canada. June is confident she has a foolproof plan when the Season 3 premiere picks up: she will get her daughter from the Commander’s house and leave the country. Nothing goes as planned in this show, however, and she must walk away from her child once again. It seems like a dead end, but the show doesn’t let the past get in the way of taking June’s story in new directions.
The first bridge burned comes not from June, but from Serena (Yvonne Strahovski). After she finds out that June gave her baby to Emily, she no longer believes that her sacrifice to send her daughter to Canada was a good decision. Not only was she lied to about what would happen to her baby, but she has no support from her husband Fred (Joseph Fiennes) for her choice. He berates her for the decision and tries to conceal what really happened to other Gilead officials.
Serena may not be as much of a risk-taker as June, but she still believes in doing the right thing without regrets. When most characters expect her to be passive and allow her husband to make decisions for her, she refuses to and takes matters into her own hands. To belittle Serena, Fred tells her that he is the head of the household and even though she successfully went behind his back to send their daughter to Canada, something like that will not happen again. She was triumphant in saving her daughter, but Serena herself is still stuck in the horrific patriarchy of Gilead.
It’s impossible for Serena to go back to being the docile woman that society expects her to be, so she cannot see any way out other than attempting suicide. Using the substance that she’d been cleaning her amputated finger with, she lights her bed on fire. It’s a visually gorgeous scene, but it’s devastating to watch her look at the flames engulfing her bed with a longing to end her life. She likely would have if not for June, who notices the smoke traveling through the house and coaxes Serena to come out.
They watch their home go up in flames from the street, and it feels like everything that happened in the past two seasons in that house is gone. The baby they tried so hard to create is no longer there with them and so the one reason for Serena to comply with Fred is gone. He told her that he was in control of the house, but with the mansion in flames, Serena finally has a chance at the upper hand. She might leave with him, but she was able to get out of that creepy house without ending her life. As depressing as the situation feels, it could still mean a new chance for Serena.
The destruction of Serena and Fred’s house also creates a new beginning for June. Instead of trying to figure out how to escape from their home, as she’d done in the past, June is sent away and disciplined. She takes each punishment with a straight face, knowing things will never go back to the way they were. The relationship that she built up with Fred is shattered now that he no longer trusts her and won’t be of any use to her. Even though June is having her feet lashed, it is a beneficial change of pace to get out of that house and seek out new connections that could get her and her daughter to Canada. For once, the show may be working in her favor, as the new home she is sent belongs to someone we’ve met before: Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford). He may be shady, but Joseph has power that June plans on using in the future.
While June and Serena are going in different directions in Gilead, Emily navigates the woods between Gilead and Canada. The scene is brutal to the audience, tricking them twice into thinking that Emily and the baby are doomed. Just when it seems like they were caught by Gilead police, it turns out to be Canadian border officials there to save them. The moment strikes viscerally, especially when the show conditions viewers to expect the worst for each character. It feels unbelievable that Emily could actually make it out because it’s the outcome Gilead convinced everyone couldn’t happen.
Emily’s escape is certainly a breath of hope in this first episode, the kind that the audience needs in order to continue watching such a dark show. It’s brutal to watch the women of The Handmaid’s Tale get beaten down week after week, but these moments of relief are why people will continue to want to follow their stories. Now that Emily is in a new country and given asylum, there will be new things for her to worry about, but her life will still be better than the trauma she endured in Gilead.
Starting off the season by pushing its characters in different directions should be how every drama approaches premieres. However, The Handmaid’s Tale especially benefits from this because it can feel hopeless when it seems like the characters have nothing to look forward to. June, Serena, and Emily have changed so much since season one, but this episode proves they have a lot more left in them and that the audience should be excited to see where they’re headed.
Episodes 1 and 2 of the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale are available to stream now on Hulu.