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Revolution is in the air and while still a dark show, Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale boasts a lot more hope than ever before. And this is for the best in a show that is certainly not the easiest watch, but rewarding in terms of acting and story. Be warned, spoilers may follow.

We pick up where Season 2 left off, with June(Elisabeth Moss) having given her newborn daughter to an escaping Emily( Alexis Bledel). She has decided to stay in Gilead to save her other daughter Hannah, who was cruelly taken from her years before. Plus, she’s still got an axe to grind with the horrifying regime that governs what was once America. She briefly returns to the house of slimy Commander Waterford( Joseph Fiennes)and his wife Serena Joy(Yvonne Strahovski), who was the one who handed the baby over to her in the hope that the baby will get a better life in Canada. Serena is starting to chafe at the system and in retaliation burns down her house, possibly setting the stage for her switch of allegiance. She’s in deep morning for her ‘child’ which could easily make her return to her normal cruel self though. June is sent to the home of Commander Lawrence(Bradley Whitford), who helped engineer Emily’s escape but whose true purpose and sense of trust are questionable. June however has her eyes set on rebellion and though some of her actions are questionable, she’s mainly playing the game in order to survive. She attempts to get Serena on side and persuade Fred to let her have a bit more power than women in Gilead have. But can either be trusted? Can Aunt Lydia( Ann Dowd) who begrudgingly seems to admire June’s opposition, be of any help? And can with an ongoing political struggle in sight can June ensure the safety of both her daughters? Plus, a visit from high powered and nasty Commander Winslow(Christopher Meloni) sets the scene for more shocks and horror as she exerts power and Fred craves it. June is somehow caught in the middle that leads to desperate circumstances. Meanwhile, Emily makes it to Canada with the baby and finds Luke( O. T. Fagbenle) and Moira( Samira Wiley), who offer support. Though things get difficult as Luke is having to raise another man’s child and still terrified about whether he’ll see his wife again. Emily is also struggling when she reunited with her wife and son as it’s been so long and they’ve been a part for what seems like eternity. This coincides with June becoming even more reckless and at times selfish, though she’s brought to her senses once more, thanks to Janine( Madeline Brewer) and the other Handmaid’s. This is where she really ramps up her campaign of striking back.

While continuing the story set up in the first two seasons, Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Take feels like something a bit different while still including the DNA that made the show connect with so many in this topical time. Some fans took issue with June’s last minute decision to stay in Gilead and not run to escape. While I can understand the gripes and though it was a surprise, on reflection it made a lot of sense. The thought of Hannah was what kept June going through her hellish ordeal of institutionalised rape and servitude that was punishable by death if not obeyed. I never believed June would just abandon her as she has been so key to the show and June’s voyage to rebellion. And the spirit of rebellion is shot through this season that still retains the starkness and darkness of what we’re used to, but embeds it with a feeling of underlying optimism that it has only hinted at in previous ventures. Don’t be fooled, this show still has its share of brutality, violence and horror and on those levels it delivers. I just couldn’t help but notice the building feeling of something good about to happen and action about to be taken. It’s a slow burner for certain but I like that about this season. It’s dialled back on some of the overriding gloom that perpetuated the first two seasons but not completely forgotten it. Everything is in the deliberate pace that convincingly lays the building bricks of revolution and how it’s going to occur from the inside. Some may find it slow going( there are some spots where a shot of quickness might have worked), but overall the burning feeling and realisation that revolution is nearing is impressively depicted.

The standout episodes are as follows. In ‘Unknown Caller’, the fallout begins when it’s discovered that Luke has Nichole and June is forced to identify her husband. We get June making an emotional phone call under duress to Luke, Serena seeing Nichole one last time and then falling prey to the manipulations of her husband and finally June’s glare to the camera when she realises she’s been stabbed in the back. It’s a rollercoaster of an episode that grips with how it unravels and the surprises of motivations and actions displayed. Following that is the topical ‘Household’ which deals with subjects of children’s rights, political agendas and the nature of possession. Secrets are also unearthed as June travels to Washington D.C.( which has been made over into a dictatorship) and discovers that lover Nick(Max Minghella) was not the man she thought he was and that he can’t help her in her hour of need . Plus, we are shown the horrifying extremes of Gilead as all the Handmaid’s are silenced by three piercings that keep their lips closed. It’s an often unexpected episode backed up by arresting cinematography, amazing set design that captures a world gone mad and excellent storytelling. Plus, in ‘Unfit’, we finally get some backstory on Aunt Lydia before the rise of Gilead. I’ve been waiting to discover the woman behind the brutality and it delivers. She was once a teacher who was dedicated to her young students and wanted the best. She befriended a young wayward woman whose son she taught and tried to help. After taking her advice and trying to seduce the principal, she was left mortified when he rejected her. I think her breaking point was the fact that in her mind she violated her religious beliefs and gave in to temptation. In retaliation and feeling embarrassed, Lydia phoned the social services on the young mother and the child was taken away.

A haunting hour is found in ‘Heroic’ which has June confined to a hospital as punishment for her treatment of a fellow Handmaid who now lies in a coma . The atmosphere is comparable with Kubrick in terms of how clinical and psychological everything looks and feels. It crucially brings June back to her usual self after she lost her way and became selfish and cruel. It’s an undoubtedly disturbing watch but one that starts the wheels of change again after she was at the point of near collapse. And the last few episodes are nothing short of exhilarating as plans are finally put into action and the tension rises. Though the first half of the season is the slow build, the last half is everything getting going and strike back beginning that will change everything. Pay particular attention to the finale ‘Mayday’ which is hands down one of the best episodes of the entire show. Though a show that is tough going, The Handmaid’s Take is gorgeously shot with dark hues but a more prominent brightness than before to reflect the burgeoning fire within June and the others who will help her. The trademark use of shallow focus especially when focusing on June and birds eye view shots of the Handmaid’s in ranks are stellar and cinematic in execution. Fine and often ironic song choices and a chillingly electronic score compliment the aura of eeriness and evinced hope.

Elisabeth Moss continues to excel as our main character. Those eyes and that face once more work miracles with the slightest of movements. She is a masterclass in emotion and revealing how June is both flawed(sometimes dangerously so and close to cracking) and driven by everything she’s experienced. It’s a layered performance that just keeps impressing upon every episode as we watch seething rage, hope, trepidation, questionable choices and bravery commingle . And it’s all down to the dedication with which Moss plays June that we are so enthralled by her presence. Yvonne Strahovski continues to vacillate between sympathetic victim and desperate yet icy madam. She straggles the two considerably and displays that Serena could both be an ally or an enemy to June and her mission. I liked seeing Strahovski expand on Serena and watching her both fight against and embrace Gilead. Complimenting her is the on form Joseph Fiennes who knows how to play a nasty piece of work. Commander Waterford is one of those characters who is completely up themselves so it’s nice to see him start squirming and becoming a little subservient to those higher than him. And watching Fiennes show the emotion of his power slipping away is more than a tad satisfying.

Anne Dowd is once more knocking it out the park as Aunt Lydia, who is explored with depth. The dichotomy of kindness and viciousness is sublimely acted and we never quite know which incarnation we will get. Kudos to Ann Dowd for her complex portrayal of someone following shocking orders and thinking they are doing the right thing in their own warped mind. In Canada, the series regulars are just as impressive, even if they are seen less than the Gilead counterparts. Standing out is Alexis Bledel as the now free Emily, whose adjusting t her new life with a mix of relief and trepidation. You feel immense sympathy for her as she’s now escaped but still has a certain cage in her mind from everything she’s been through. Bledel sells these varying feelings with sincerity and conviction. And although they aren’t as prominent as before, O. T. Fagbenle and Samira Wiley give personality and heart to survivors of the regime, building some form of normality for themselves. By far one of the most interesting characters is Commander Lawrence as he’s pretty inscrutable and Bradley Whitford is a masterful actor taking delight in exploring the contradictions of the part. One moment he’s helpful and rebellious, the next he’s shut off and cruel and that’s what is so fascinating as he could either be ally or enemy. Christopher Meloni brings considerable strength and sliminess as a high powered Commander. There’s something in the way he speaks and moves that immediately intimidating and nasty; Meloni is obviously enjoying being really able to explore a most vile character in detail. She’s been in the background and occasionally been popping into something substantial, but here Amanda Brugel is given more to do as the Martha Rita. Her quiet dignity and immense strength in playing the game that Gilead has started is admirable and I loved seeing her come into her own. Madeline Brewer is again impressive as the vulnerable Janine, who seems to be everyone’s punching bag of late but who still finds a way to muddle through the pain. The main person who isn’t given a lot to do is Max Minghella, who appears in the first half of the season and is then missing. We do learn something interesting about Nick as a character, but I’d like it if he’d been in it a bit more. This is a minor gripe though in a season that’s incredibly well acted.

A far more hopeful but still bruising and stark season that starts slow and builds to a powerful finish, Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale is extremely well acted and thought provoking viewing.