[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the Season 3 finale of The Handmaid's Tale. Read at your own risk!]
A lot happened in The Handmaid's Tale Season 3, and yet after all the pain of this bleak slog of a season, it feels like we're practically back where we started. June (Elisabeth Moss) has managed to smuggle people to Canada again -- in this case, dozens of children who'd been stolen by or born in Gilead -- but her own escape still eludes her. In the final moments of the season, which linger on June's characteristic half-smize of determination, she's carted once more back to the land where she'll be Of-someone, if not put on the wall. And Hannah, June's entire reason for staying in Gilead in the Season 2 finale, is still very much a prisoner of this regime -- worse, we have no idea where she is.
The events of the finale necessitate the already-announced fourth season -- we have to find out what happens next for June and for Gilead after the evacuation of so many children. But we're here to wave the white flag and suggest that Season 4 should be the finish line for The Handmaid's Tale. This torture party can't go on much longer -- certainly not for the seven more seasons a Hulu executive once suggested. Apart from a few small wins that served as bright spots, this season was inconsistent and full of despair. Even the handful of victories our heroine(s) managed to eke out pale in comparison to the vastness of the oppression and betrayal the characters endured.
We're already dreading what's ahead in this story. Things are bound to get worse for June and the other women involved in this rescue mission -- they can't possibly return to the system like nothing happened -- and as morose as this season was, it's hard to imagine sitting through too many more setbacks. The Handmaid's Tale isn't meant to be a fist-pumping good time, of course, and it would be naive to expect a happy ending from a narrative landscape where misogynist zealots toppled an entire political superpower to oppress women for their own gain. Yet as the show continues to expand upon Margaret Atwood's vicious vision of Gilead, it's becoming more and more punishing... and a bit nonsensical, too.
June's forced journey to Washington, D.C., for example, made Season 2's trip to the colonies look almost heavenly as we witnessed how horrific life could be for the Handmaids, whose mouths were literally sewn shut. Why bother with metaphors when you can just pummel viewers with nauseating imagery? And the arc that saw the Waterfords attempting to propagandize Nichole's "kidnapping" in order to retrieve her from Canada was so pointless it was ultimately abandoned with little explanation. Most of the season's filler plotlines were thin and mean spirited. Aunt Lydia's (Ann Dowd) backstory undermined the depth she had without it; it was more interesting to imagine something truly haunted in her history than it was to find out that she allied with a tyrannical regime because of a date gone wrong. And the supposed-to-be-shocking revelation that Nick (Max Minghella) played a key role in Gilead's formation was revisionist history that treated him as more important than the show ever has before.
It also requires some serious suspension of disbelief to accept that June has managed to survive in Gilead this long, let alone spearhead a grand escape. Season 3 stripped June of all her savvy and replaced it with recklessness, turning sass into her first line of offense. Consider her slipshod attempts to barge in on Hannah (twice), her obvious grocery store chats (which led to the execution of a Martha but no penalty for her), or her misplaced vengeance quest against another Handmaid (a sycophantic one, but a victim of Gilead nonetheless). By the time she suddenly decided to get more kids out of Gilead, her mistakes made her ambition seem almost laughable. Yet somehow June pulled it off -- and won in a rock fight against heavily armed Eyes along the way.
The most redeeming aspect of the season was the emergence of the network of Handmaids and Marthas, women whose whispered efforts at rebellion finally got results. The Commanders, Wives, Eyes, and Aunts can do their worst to instill fear, but as this network of women shows, hope is still stronger.
This season also pierced Gilead's veil of strength a bit. In addition to freeing so many little ones from their "parents," the third season delivered some precious comeuppance to Gilead's authority figures. The death of Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni), who was basically a caricature of the banality of evil, was cathartic; we watched a Martha clean up the bloody scene as blithely as she would a coffee stain on the carpet. And seeing Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) led into an arrest trap by Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) was shockingly satisfying, made even better when Serena was stripped of her parental claims over baby Nichole due to her unforced participation in crimes against humanity. For the first time all season, it feels like that baby is safe from the Waterfords and like justice can indeed be served.
Those moments of absolution are not only significant to June but have much larger implications as well. Canada might finally be ready to take a stronger stance against Gilead; if they could bring war crime charges against the Waterfords, who can't they prosecute? And while it was worth barely a mention this season, the ailing American forces are still out there fighting to maintain some cities, so maybe that puzzling subplot about Nick will pay off with him leading Gilead's troops astray in the battle for Chicago. And there's always a chance that the news of kids smuggled across the border will inspire mini resistance networks around Gilead. Season 3 may have been endlessly dreary, but the series has set up some dynamics that could bear interesting fruit down the line.
Whether The Handmaid's Tale is meant to end on a hopeful or hopeless note, the most recent season proved that the already-difficult show is downright miserable when it's delaying the endgame. Whatever happens, let's just get there already.
The Handmaid's Tale Seasons 1-3 are available to stream on Hulu.