Freedom Remains a Distant Dream in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 3 Finale

Continuing to expand Margaret Atwood’s novel, Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” has become a work of pure aesthetic force. What has stood out in its third season is the stream of potent images that seem to embody our growing social anxieties. Never has a fictional series captured a vision of American theocracy quite like this series. This is what keeps the show engaging even when the plot feels like it’s beginning to stretch thin.

The finale, “Mayday,” begins to culminate the key story threads of this third round. June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) is moving forward with plans to smuggle about 52 children out of Gilead via airplane. She is still under the protection of Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), who remains shaken by the sudden death of his wife Eleanor earlier in the season. June carefully exchanges messages with other Handmaidens such as Janine (Madeline Brewer) and almost gets caught by the ever unsavory Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). As the girls who will be smuggled out arrive with their Marthas, June checks every gate and pathway in Lawrence’s house. Fellow plotters Beth (Kristen Gutoskie) is starting slightly lose her cool while Sienna (Sugenja Sri) keeps her strength. Meanwhile across the border in free Canada, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) is planning to testify before the ICC and the repression inside Gilead while husband Fred (Joseph Fiennes) is going to share what he knows about Gilead’s system of government. But neither should trust the other. Back in Gilead when night arrives and it’s time to move, June decides she may have to make the ultimate sacrifice to make sure the girls find freedom.

By now “The Handmaid’s Tale” has its format strictly set. “Mayday” opens with more flashbacks to the terrifying early days of Gilead, as June is hauled into a truck with other women by armed guards, pleading to know where her daughter is. It’s an example of how this show now works best as dystopian aesthetic. Earlier this season striking images like handmaids in Washington, D.C. with caged mouths and the Washington monument turned into a cross out of Pat Robertson’s daydreams made for memorable statements. In “Mayday” the suspense that is generated is largely superficial as the story becomes another chase thriller. Of course it makes sense that women will want to flee Gilead, and that eventually smuggling routes would be formed to do so. But there’s not much nuance left or even layers to the plot structure. What remains strong is the show’s sense of atmosphere. It’s more powerful to see the escapee children huddled in Lawrence’s basement, listening to him read literature or huddle with June as armed guards scour the streets. Another moment that actually contains some noteworthy symbolism is when the Marthas and fleeing girls hide in the woods and the older women throw rocks at roving Guardians, distracting them but also releasing contained rages. Since its beginning, “Handmaid’s Tale” conjures the aura of a very relevant nightmare, presenting moments deep down we feel could very well happen sooner rather than later. It is sci-fi tailor-made for the uncertainties of the Trump era.

Yet by the end credits of “Mayday” you can only roll your eyes a bit at how the writers keep finding ways to block poor June Osborne from ever leaving Gilead. It’s not a cynical observation because we’re aware she must stay in the U.S., now turned theocratic regime, so there can be a fourth season. She is also slowly being transformed into a guerilla combined with Harriet Tubman. When one of the Marthas gets cold feet and tries to flee with a girl, June promptly aims a gun at her, almost killing her to protect the mission. It’s a decision that has bitter consequences when Lawrence informs June that the Martha was caught by the Guardians but the child managed to flee. Later during the escape itself June becomes a revolutionary martyr figure, staying behind in the forest. When the Guardians get close she runs, takes a bullet and goes so far as to kill a Guardian who finds her point blank, after making him emit a radio signal saying all is clear. She lays down on the ground and smiles as the plane with the girls flies off in the night sky.

The final moments of “Mayday” are designed to inspire sighs while throwing in a few, low-level twists. Serena is informed by Mr. Tuello (Sam Jaeger) that she’s under arrest for crimes against humanity, including sexual slavery for arranging June and Nick (Max Minghella) to have sex and conceive baby Nicole. Turns out Fred snitched on his wife on this matter. In Canada old faces like Emily (Alexis Bedel), Moira (Samira Wiley) and Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) are waiting at the airport where the plane full of smuggled girls arrives. One of the children, Kiki, asks Moira if this is the place where you can wear whatever you want. Again, this show keeps working as artistic statement more than anything else. 

It seems June is to become a saintly figure of resistance. Right before the end credits she is carried off the ground by several handmaids, her face serene and determined. Where “The Handmaid’s Tale” goes from here is pure uncharted territory. Having gone beyond the original novel after the first season, the show is left to create as it goes along. Maybe there will finally be revolution in Gilead and whole rotten structure will come down or maybe not. June has chosen to remain in her prison and the quality of this show suggests we will continue choosing to follow her journey. 

The Handmaid’s Tale” season three finale begins streaming Aug. 14 on Hulu.