The Handmaid's Tale recap: season three, episode three – inexplicable meanness

Things are emotionally grim in Gilead this week, as people turn against each other in all sorts of ways, but could hope be on the horizon?

Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford
Total nightmare: Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford. Photograph: Elly Dassas/Hulu
Total nightmare: Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford. Photograph: Elly Dassas/Hulu

Last modified on Mon 24 Jun 2019 05.40 EDT

Spoiler alert: this recap is for people watching The Handmaid’s Tale, series three, on Channel 4 in the UK. Please do not add spoilers for later episodes in the series. You can find recaps for previous episodes here

“They’re starting to smell,” remarks Janine as she and Ofjoseph (June) gaze up at the dead Marthas hanging from the trees like macabre Christmas baubles.

This episode, apart from reminding us of the consequences of transgression, sets up the Serena/June axis of power we all hope is now going to form. June tells us she needs allies in powerful places and Serena, despite her current separation from Fred, still has a direct line to the regime.

This week, Commander Lawrence appears to have transformed from self-sacrificing lovely-chops into full-blown nightmare. He is short and snappy with Beth and Sienna, his overly solicitous Marthas.

They buzz around him as the house prepares for the visit of the local commanders. He delights in humiliating Sienna as she cleans up a spilled drink and that moment where he asks June if she knows the penalty for opening a front door, suggests he is just in it for the cruelty and head games now. If I were Bradley Whitford, I would have asked some serious questions about my character’s motivation. I can only hope he is revealed to be nicer than he currently seems in a later episode and is just keeping up a front to avoid detection. Hmmm.

June (Elizabeth Moss)
Getting above herself? June (Elizabeth Moss). Photograph: Elly Dassas/Hulu

Once the commanders arrive, June is given a brief opportunity to interact with both Fred and Nick again. She thanks Fred for his “mercy” – the fact that she is still alive is down to him. Fred and Joseph also have a little moment as the two men seem momentarily possessive of the handmaid: her former and current breeding stallions having a little nostril flare at each other.

In his now relentless campaign of inexplicable meanness, Joseph is intent on humiliating June for getting above herself, forcing her to pour the drinks at his little party while he jokes with the boys about what women are really good for. It’s the one scene I felt really lacked the subtlety and lightness of touch of former series.

After her mortification, June sits in another room and fumes into the camera lens, two white-hot coals where her eyes had been. It is always an incredible performance to watch but they are spreading Elizabeth Moss thin in this episode. How many times can this poor woman express her utter disenfranchisement and coruscating rage with just her eyes?

Serena by the sea

Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski)
Frocky horror: Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski). Photograph: Elly Dassas/Hulu

The scenes between Serena and her mum show us a new side to the icy regime queen. She’s smoking like a teenager living back at home. “I don’t wanna hang out with your friends, Mom,” she says between puffs. It’s the full Bridget Jones. She has to borrow one of her mum’s dresses for a prayer gathering. (It’s just missing the turkey curry buffet.) I guess all of her frocks burned in the Waterford inferno.

We learn from the prayer circle that Serena and Fred are currently separated. No wonder his mates are ribbing him. Cut to a lewdly pink-lit bedroom where Fred is practising his “take me back” speech. To a prostitute. Lovely guy.

Serena’s fraught defence of her leaving Fred is met with disapproval from her mother and mirrors the scene where Joseph admonishes June for wanting her own agency. These women and their ingratitude. As the patriarchal nuts tighten, we know what’s coming. But do they?

Ofjoseph’s wrong turn

Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford)
A bit thick? Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford). Photograph: Elly Dassas/Hulu

“I’m not proud of myself,” she tells us as she knocks on Joseph’s study door, preparing to seduce him and get him on side. As she turns her face up towards his, waiting for the kiss that never comes, he snarls: “Did this really work on Fred?” Ouch.

He asks her why women use their bodies when they don’t wish to be defined by them. He’s got the horse and cart the wrong way around there. In Gilead, it’s literally all they have, you dim-bulb. He isn’t really this thick, surely.

His angry response to her tirade about morals is to put her in a moral dilemma of her own. He gives her the power of life and death, telling her to choose five people from the group destined for certain death in the colonies.

Then she has her longed-for reunion with Nick, so at least poor June experiences some tenderness in this otherwise emotionally grim episode. I loved that moment in the doorway where her hand reaches for his and they disappear back inside.

“Blessed be the fruit,” says Serena at their meeting the next morning. “Hi,” says June, shutting the door. She wants this woman on side and employs all of her emotional skill. Serena is obviously there because she wants some sisterhood too. Is she ready to listen? “They hate us, Serena,” says June. “Maybe we’re stronger than we think we are,” she concludes, mustering a smile through her tears.

The sound of music

To the sound of How Does It Feel by Roy Harper, June completes Joseph’s appalling task, choosing five new Marthas and, in the process, five new recruits for the resistance.

Meanwhile, Serena wades into the sea. We’re not sure if this is a suicide or a baptism. She turns to the shore and walks back with new purpose, completely ignoring Fred who is waiting there on the sand.

“We’re coming for you. Just wait,” June tells us in VO. Roll titles.

One cannot start a clock on a revolution, but some actual patriarchal heads need to start rolling and soon because I am finding this all great, but a bit frustrating. How about you?

Under his eye

Elizabeth Moss as June
‘We’re coming for you.’ Elizabeth Moss as June. Photograph: Elly Dassas/Hulu

Darwin’s The Descent of Man is a controversial text for Joseph to have on his bookshelf. In it, Darwin talks about sexual selection in nature and how it is the female who chooses the male she wants to mate with.

Rita’s gift to Serena of the small turquoise leather sheath for her stump is so thoughtful and a powerful symbol for the unification of the women. They are circling one another, offering little signals of unity.

“You gave that baby away. And it wasn’t even yours,” says Serena’s mother, intending to wound her already miserable daughter. What a bitch.

Quick Guide

The Handmaid's Tale: all our episode-by-episode recaps


Season 3

Episode 1: Night
Episode 2: Mary and Martha
Episode 3: Useful
Episode 4: God Bless the Child
Episode 5: Unknown Caller
Episode 6: Household
Episode 7: Under His Eye
Episode 8: Unfit
Episode 9: Heroic
Episode 10: Witness
Episode 11: Liars

Season 2

Episode 1: June
Episode 2: Unwomen
Episode 3: Baggage
Episode 4: Other Women
Episode 5: Seeds
Episode 6: First Blood
Episode 7: After
Episode 8: Women’s Work
Episode 9: Smart Power
Episode 10: The Last Ceremony
Episode 11: Holly
Episode 12: Postpartum
Episode 13: The Word

Season 1

Episode 1: Offred
Episode 2: Birth Day
Episode 3: Late
Episode 4: Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum
Episode 5: Faithful
Episode 6: A Woman’s Place
Episode 7: The Other Side
Episode 8: Jezebels
Episode 9: The Bridge
Episode 10: Night

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