'The Handmaid's Tale' Season 3 Ended With A High Note, But Can That Salvage A Flawed Season?

The Handmaid's Tale season three finale "Mayday" is miraculous in believability as the rebellion against Gilead pulls off its own Great Escape. 

Let's talk about spoilers for the episode, along with some overall thoughts about the season.

After June allowed the death of Eleanor Lawrence, June (Elisabeth Moss) and the Marthas proceed with their mission to rescue 52 children. Handmaids smuggle supplies into June's shopping bag. There are touching over-the-head shots of June and the Martha packing a bounty of meals and filling water bottles so no child will go unnourished, unfurling the scope of the mission's peril and humanity. To make things more complicated, a Martha and a child arrive sooner than expected. The Martha panics and nearly snatches a Gilead child refugee back to her Commander's home. In the frenzy, June points the gun at the Martha and the girl. June breaks down, realizing her desperation has demoralized her mission. She goes against Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), in a seemingly all-should-be-lost defeat for their mission, knowing she had a moment of serious failure by losing her temper and aiming a gun at a child, and not to mention a rogue Martha out there that can be caught. But she also rises to override Lawrence's authority—or assumed authority, just because he possesses power in Gilead doesn't make his leadership in Mayday certain–knowing she cannot surrender to his patriarchal command because of her fuck-ups and her charge still matters in this insane world. She continues to acquire more children and Marthas.The outcomes are almost good to be true and furthered by convenience of circumstances—perhaps the point is that survival does rely on luck. When the enormous party of 52-plus kids starts on the 5-mile trail to the plane, only one, not a battalion, of Gilead's gun-toting Guardians happens to stand between the plane to freedom so June and the Marthas can fling stones at him, guerilla-style in the night. It's a savior fantasy that June gets to run off and shoot a Guardian to ensure a smooth transition for all the children into the plane.Physically unscathed, Rita, other Marthas, and the children behold a promised land in Canada and talk with survivors on the other side. June's husband Luke (OT Fagbenle) still looks to the plane hoping June and Hannah would emerge, but he makes peace in the fact that June has saved children. Lawrence never becomes—or plays—the hero that June suggested he could be, but he humbles into a helper of sorts. The ending opts for a conclusion so buoyant it is almost a fantasy in a show so usually full of drudgery.It's easy to be swept into the reunification scene and take joy in the image of refugees in haven. It's also satisfying to see karma for Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), dragged away from the baby she had stolen on the charge of organized rape. But I also have troubling buying into the near-wholesome framing of June's savior fantasy-come-true. Despite the result of her mission, I struggle to believe in June's phrase "it all has to mean something" when she contemplates the body count to Lawrence. Her optimistic spirituality is not entirely out of her character, but the fact that she applies meaning to the series' most senseless deaths makes me believe in it less than the show wants me to believe in. The show doesn't expect you to be 100% behind June's decisions and permits deconstructions of her moral slippages, but it hovers around her headspace so closely that its supporting players surrounding story can orbit her world more than exist as individuals from the distance. This stands out with June deciding to leave Eleanor to die and the treatment of Natalie/Ofmatthew – a black woman who gets to be a prop for June's epiphany.

Season Overview

Strong seasonal arcs include the precarious alliance between Serena Joy and June flip-flopping in intriguing and frustrating ways, flirting with progress and regression in Serena Joy's soul, where grudge and camaraderie cohabit. There's also, fractional as it was this season, Emily's reunion with her family and her rehabilitation as she almost catatonically navigates a less oppressive environment. Even then, messier arcs include the aforementioned thorny dynamic between Ofmatthew/Natalie and June. Aunt Lydia's origin story felt misplaced and not as hard-hitting as it wanted to be. While Strahovski is stellar as usual as the pouty tormented and privileged Wife locked in her maternal myopia, there is need of a more visible indication for why she made her final decision.The standout supporting cast includes Christopher Meloni as the amiably authoritative Commander Winslow, even if the character is wasted by the writers using him as a wild card to push suspense. The off-kilter Whitford, an ally also gratified by being above it all, is also transfixing. Julie Dretzin as the frazzled Eleanor, when allowed to exercise autonomy in her fraught shut-in state, is a scene stealer. Ashleigh LaThrop, as the pious and tragic Natalie/Ofmatthew, works well with what she had even if the writing degraded her character.Unlike the two previous seasons, June has her arc end in light instead of dark, with her staring up at the sun, hauled away by her sisterhood, perhaps to fight another day or pass away in this holy sensation, even if a wound is left unresolved and her firstborn's fate remains unsolved. Maybe June's story should end on that (relatively) rewarding high. If The Handmaid's Tale is going to drag out more seasons, another Gilead survivor deserves the storytelling baton.


  • Plenty of the Marthas were shot. For a series that does seek to give any dead their due, be it Natalie/Ofmatthew (flawed as it was), Lillie/Ofglen, and Eden, I wish the finale had the time to honor them. This may or may not be assuaged in season four.