When Hulu's The Handmaid’s Tale debuted in 2017, it was a critical darling — a shock-to-the-system drama perfectly timed for the dawn of the Trump administration. Three seasons later, I think its fair to say the bloom is off the rose, as the show has begun to grate on critics’ and fans’ nerves alike. The Season 2 finale was the straw that broke many a camel’s back, what with hero and titular Handmaid June (Elisabeth Moss) — aka Offred, aka Ofjoseph — bailing on a safe escape from fascist theocracy Gilead in order to stay and save her daughter, Hannah. Instead, she sent her infant daughter along with her friend Emily (Alexis Bledel), off to Canada without her.
On one hand, June’s decision made sense; she would have felt tremendous guilt escaping a totalitarian regime while leaving her own flesh-and-blood behind. On the other, who knows how much more power June would have outside Gilead, no longer an indentured servant made to procreate. She could use her deep knowledge, assembled after significant time spent with the powerful Waterford family — Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) — to work with others in Canada to try to bring the government down. And from a meta perspective, we could see the series shift away from Gilead in its third season, and focus on what happens when someone escapes a dystopian world.
Instead, The Handmaid’s Tale has chosen to try to have its cake and eat it too this season. While June holds down the fort in Gilead, enjoying an unbelievable amount of freedom for a Handmaid whose child suddenly disappeared (more on that later), the show is also following Emily in Canada as she readjusts to life outside Gilead. Except “following” feels like too strong a word. “Occasionally glancing at,” maybe? “Keeping an eye on,” perhaps? “Following” implies an attentiveness that isn't there, at least not to date.
From her first reemergence into the normal world, Emily’s journey has been a fascinating one. There was her welcoming into Canada, as doctors and nurses in her hospital gave her a standing ovation for having survived Gilead. There was her first meeting with Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) and Moira (Samira Wiley), June’s husband and best friend, which was as disorienting and uncertain as meeting your sister-in-surviving’s closest living people should be. There was her check-up, in which she found out that her cholesterol is a little high — a truly ordinary problem after years of extraordinary difficulties. And there was her reunion with her wife, Sylvia (Clea Duvall) and their child.
But it’s been five 50+ minute episodes so far this cycle, and that’s all we’ve gotten of Emily. She didn’t even appear in the third and fifth episodes of the season. When we have seen her, it’s been in slivers — a few minutes here and there before shifting back to Gilead. And considering how arresting nearly every moment of Emily’s Canadian reemergence has been, it’s frustrating that The Handmaid’s Tale seems content to parcel out her plot in crumbs.
For me, the three truly indelible moments of season three have been Emily’s high cholesterol diagnosis — so mundane but so real — and her reunions with wife and child. The latter was handled so beautifully in episode two: After several days in Canada, unable to reach out and let her wife know she’s out of Gilead and safe, she finally gets up the courage to make the call. When Sylvia receives it, she’s in the middle of traffic, trying to make a difficult turn around an 18-wheeler. The call stops her in her tracks; we don’t hear their conversation, merely see Sylvia’s car from above, halting traffic. It’s a beautiful image, and requires no heavy exposition or too-close-up reaction shots to sell.
In the fourth episode, Emily coming back together with her son made me sob several times over. Emily’s reactions are perfectly paced; she’s overcome with emotion seeing the child she never thought she would see again, but is also deeply traumatized from Gilead and needs time. When her son says he knows he’s not supposed to hug her until she’s ready, you can feel both her pain and relief. When he asks her to read a book to him before bed, she’s overjoyed, but also can’t make it through without crying. (Beautifully, he reads to her instead.)
These small moments do so much more with so little than any of the Gilead plots, largely because they’re grounded in human emotion and reaction. Whereas June is tied up in an unwieldy resistance plot that no amount of time could properly explain, Emily is making a big impact in small doses. While June’s unfettered access in Gilead contradicts everything we know about the harsh theocracy and its punishment of dissidents, Emily’s plot feels all too real. Gilead may be the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale, but it has become something of a narrative dead-end at this point.
While I carry lesss affection for the show than in season's past, I continue to watch The Handmaid’s Tale every week. Part of me thinks it’s solely for Emily, and for Bledel (who is truly marvelous this season). While the series itself continues to struggle, Emily is strengthening. Here's hoping the show's producers will recognize this, and give her the focus she deserves.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.