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The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3: Stagnant Sensationalization

Like many strong women, I love Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Elisabeth Moss plays a captivating June, and the first two seasons were equally enthralling and disturbing, a prophetic look into misogynistic dystopia and female oppression. The first two seasons set the bar incredibly high, and season three is already falling short.

At the end of season two, June sends her baby to Canada with Emily, a handmaid who successfully escapes. June stays behind to track down her first born daughter, Hannah, before they make their own escape. I was frustrated when June did not get on the van with her baby and Emily, desperate to see her out of Gilead once and for all. But before the season’s finale, June glares at the camera with a determination that says, “I will burn this place to the ground. I will get my baby back.”

I was immediately impatient for the next season, anticipating June’s escape, a revolt, and a welcome departure from the oppressive and suffocating Gilead.

So far, however, we’ve seen much of the same as the previous season. June is still in Gilead, reassigned to another household, and still a handmaid in a nauseating red dress. Nearly every episode ends with June glaring into the camera, breaking the fourth wall with the same look of determination-- but it is falling flatter with each episode. Her determination remains untapped, and June is still oppressed day in and day out. We were teased with the hope of her escape, as she is placed in the initially seemingly benevolent Commander Lawrence’s house, but he too disappoints--stepping into the role of a misogynist--despite his refusal to rape his handmaids and his help sending both Emily and June’s baby away from Gilead. Now Commander Lawrence’s character is baffling, both seemingly aloof and disinterested in Gilead while grasping his power by refusing to help June again.

Commander Lawrence is one of several characters who have lost their edge and become morally ambiguous. We were trustful of Serena Joy briefly, keeping her cruelty in our minds but hoping she’d help June again. But in the two most recent episodes, she seems to have lost her backbone and integrity entirely, choosing instead to fight to bring the baby back--succumbing to her own desire to be a mother. The one moment of exhalation occurs when we see baby Nichole safely in Canada with June’s husband. However, her refugee status is threatened by the Waterford’s efforts to bring her home. It seems we cannot escape Gilead anymore than June can.

Lately, the show has become as oppressive as Gilead itself. The more we see June in this horrific world, the less shocking the misogyny, violence, and general terror Gilead seems to be. The consistent sensational depictions of women being oppressed, raped, and most recently, silenced with rings in their mouths, comes across as more exploitative than artistic or moving.

The more of Gilead’s horror we consume, the less shocking it becomes. Normalizing this violent dystopia is a dangerous game. In this increasingly dystopian world we crave stories of justice, and without even a hint of a positive resolution, the show risks losing viewers.

Though The Handmaid’s Tale successfully warns of what we can become if society doesn’t protect all people and promote equality, the insistence on keeping both June and the viewers trapped in Gilead is beginning to feel like grotesque sensationalism. At this point, it is hard to see any hope of a successful resistance in scenes full of dark and routine violence.

Season 3 needs to offer more hope and less prolonged eye contact with the camera. June’s untapped determination is a true disservice to her character, and the insistence that Gilead is inescapable is defeatist, exploitative, and exhausting. As a viewer, I don’t want to watch these women suffer anymore. It is no longer a productive shock or a display of feminist activism, but a suffocating and over-the-top stagnancy in a storyline that is begging for a revolution of its own.

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