The Handmaid’s Tale: A Primer for Season 3

All Photos Courtesy of Hulu

The third season of Hulu’s hit “The Handmaid’s Tale” begins June 5th. To get ready for the season premier, we’ve compiled a list of the major characters, where they’re at in the story, and how they have gotten to that point. 

June/Offred (Elizabeth Moss)

The main character and the Handmaid whose tale is being told, June Osborn has experienced the violence and trauma of living as a handmaid

in Gilead, having her daughter removed from her and housed with another family, and making multiple escape attempts. Between seasons 1 and 3, June (whose Gilead “name” is Offred) attempts to escape and is recaptured on a couple of different occasions. As she fights for her survival, she slowly starts to see the cracks appear in Gilead. It starts with her Scrabble games with Commander Waterford, which then leads to her reunion with Moira at Jezebel’s. She empowers herself where she can, challenging Serena whenever she gets the chance — sometimes they form a tenuous understanding, but it is typically dissolved just as quickly as it’s created (because Serena is terrible). June eventually becomes pregnant by the driver, Nick, who then helps arrange her escape from Gilead at the beginning of season 2. June is recaptured after more than 2 months of separation from Gilead, and decides to return to the Waterfords as a handmaid rather than being executed after the birth of her child. After a frightening near-death experience where she nearly loses both her life and the baby’s, June’s resolve to escape is reinvigorated. She experiences much turmoil before her child is actually born, including an emotional journey with her daughter, Hannah – first seeing her from a distance and enduring Serena’s threats against her, then to actually reuniting with her briefly, and a horrifying rape by Commander Waterford for the supposed purpose of inducing labor. She finally gives birth alone, and is forced to stay away from her daughter, who she names Holly but is called Nichole by Serena. June is finally allowed to back to the Waterford’s house so that she can nurse more effectively, where she finally escapes during a coordinated attack. In a big twist, though, she chooses to give the baby to Emily – who is also escaping – and go back to Gilead. The last time we see June, she is making her way away from safety and back to the city from which she has worked so hard to leave. 

Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski)

Serena Joy is one of the most dynamic characters in the series. It’s revealed slowly that she was a major player in the creation of Gilead, but ironically cannot take any credit or get any recognition for it because of the very laws she helped write. She begins in season 1 as a pious and implacable wife, but that facade fairly quickly melts away. Her suggestion that June have sex with Nick to try to get pregnant demonstrates her willingness to subvert the law in order to have a child. Her treatment of

June is based on that in season 1 – when she believes June is pregnant, Serena is kind and accommodating; upon learning that she is not, Serena turns cruel and violent very quickly. The layers of her character are revealed slowly, starting with the revelation that she helped to create Gilead in season 1, and then allowing the audience to see a little bit of the resentment she carries during the conversation with the Mexican delegation. Her capacity for cruelty and her commitment to having a child comes to a sharp point in the first season with her threat against Hannah , June’s daughter. They strike an uneasy agreement; Hannah stays safe as long as “Serena’s” unborn baby stays safe after learning that June is pregnant (and slapping Fred for taking June to Jezebels). 

This kind of taciturn behavior continues and intensifies in season 2. Once June returns to the Waterfords, Serena grabs her by the throat and makes it clear that the baby June is carrying is the only thing that is keeping Serena from committing murder. She also pushes Fred to give Nick a wife during the Prayvaganza episode. When that ends in Eden and Isaac’s execution, however, she softens toward June for a time, letting her nurse the baby (Holly/Nichole) alone. She is clearly resentful of June during the baby shower, but she also lets June take the baby during the escape. She allows June to have brunch with her Handmaid friends, but then torments her when June asks to see Hannah. The big break for Serena comes after the attack on the Rachel and Leah center; when Fred is injured, Serena gets to taste some of the power she once had, reading and giving orders as Commander Waterford. This makes the return to her subservience unbearable when Fred is healed, so her forgery of his signature to help Janine’s baby that ends with his beating her with a belt spells the end of her ability to remain in the status quo. She attempts to get the men in charge of Gilead to allow women and girls to read the Bible, and she loses a finger for it. This all culminates in her decision to let June take Holly/Nichole to freedom. 

Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes)

One of the founding members of Gilead, Commander Waterford begins as a seemingly complacent and somewhat corrupt member of the theocracy, but it’s revealed that there is a deeper malevolence beneath the surface. In season 1, he lets June play Scrabble with him, look at magazines, and do other small things to “make her life bearable”; however, he also seems to think he deserves some kind of exchange for those small gifts. He takes June to Jezebels, and then brings her back to see Moira, thinking that the two women were attracted to one another. He often seems to

 be…trying?…to help make June as happy as possible considering the circumstances, but he still engages in the Ceremony and ultimately is not concerned with her well-being outside of her Handmaid status. His arc gets interrupted by the attack on the Rachel and Leah center, which leaves him injured and incapable of working. He is extremely displeased to find out that Serena Joy has been sending orders and posing as him on paper, and he beats her in front of June because of it. The relationship between him and his wife is clearly contentious in the beginning of the show, but season 2 brings that tension to the fore on a number of occasions. In the flashbacks of the history of Gilead, it’s clear that Commander Waterford is devout in his beliefs; the Commander we see in the show seems less devout but maybe just as pious; he’s more interested now in keeping his power than he is about serving God. His decision to have Serena’s finger cut off after she reads in front of the meeting is a shocking one, but not altogether surprising, just like his attempts to engage in illicit sex with June outside of the Ceremony on multiple occasions (bleh). The last we have seen of him is Nick holding a gun to his face in order to help June escape with Nichole. 

Nick Blaine (Max Minghella)

Nick is Commander Waterford’s driver, but, like a Transformer, there’s more than meets the Eye (that’s like a triple pun, I really went for it). Nick is quiet, stern, and always dressed in black. After Serena suggests June have sex with him in case Waterford is sterile, a little bit of his facade starts to be swept away. As the relationship develops between him and June, it’s revealed that he is an Eye, a spy for the theocratic leaders in Gilead. Clearly he is breaking the rules of Gilead by engaging in the relationship with June, so it’s clear that his loyalty may not be as devout as it at first seems. He clearly cares for June and for the child they create together. As June is taken away in what appears to be an Eye’s van, Nick tells her to trust him. There is no doubt that he has helped arrange June’s escape; he manages to keep that a secret from everyone else, though. Even though he tries to end the relationship that he has with June after Waterford takes her to Jezebel’s, they reconnect. 

Season 2 takes Nick down a complicated and painful path. After watching June get recaptured, he points out to Serena that she might be depressed. Serena gets suspicious of the concern and tells Waterford, who then arranges Nick’s marriage to Eden. Nick is not the ideal husband: in love with another woman, significantly older (at least it looks like it) than his wife, and generally kind of a loner. It is clear that Eden is unhappy, and it takes June’s admonishment for Nick to begin to attempt to act like a husband. Of course, this doesn’t really work out for either of them, as Eden falls in love with Isaac and the two are executed for their affair. While he’s losing the loyalty of his wife, Nick is demonstrating again his lack of loyalty to Gilead, finding Luke while the delegation is in Canada. He gives Luke the letters

from various handmaids, describing the nature of their enslavement. He also tells Luke that June is pregnant…by Fred. Granted, looking at the husband of the woman you love more because of circumstances than anything and saying that you are the father of her unborn child would be pretty awkward. Nick is also present while June visits Hannah, driving her there and then accidentally leaving her alone when he gets taken and presumably interrogated. He’s back with the Waterfords after Nichole’s birth, however, and ultimately stands against Fred to help June escape once again.

Luke Bankole (O-T Fagbenle) 

Luke is June’s husband, who has successfully escaped to Canada without his wife and daughter. June does not know this for a long time, however, and learning that he is alive helps to keep her grounded during some of the more intense moments of the story. Luke’s story of escape is harrowing, including a lot of narrow misses and his meeting up with other refugees including Erin, the former handmaid who is too traumatized to speak for much of the time she is on screen. There is a lot of trauma working on Luke

 as well, who doesn’t know if his wife and child are alive, and feels somewhat powerless to help them. In season 1 we learn a lot about the relationship between Luke and June, its somewhat licentious beginnings, which is further explored in season 2, and the contentment of their lives prior to Gilead. Luke’s story catches up to the present timeline a little more than halfway through season 1, when he receives the note from June – this galvanizes him into more decisive action. He is reunited with Moira at the end of season 1, and the two of them begin to process their collective and individual trauma while attempting to figure out how to bring down Gilead for June’s and the rest of the world’s sake. They attend the protest of the Gilead delegation’s visit to Canada, where Nick recognizes Luke and later finds him and gives him the letters. Luke has them published to try to make the rest of the world see the reality of Gilead. 

A few of the major/minor characters

Emily/Ofwarren (Alexis Bledel)

Emily is a Handmaid who in her former life was an acadamic who was

forced from academia because she was a lesbian.  As a handmaid, things didn’t work out super well for her so she was sent to the colonies where she became one of the nurse like figure. That doesn’t prevent her from poisoning   She was later recalled to act as a handmaid.  She may be a key figure in resistance moving forward. 

Moira (Samira Wiley) 

Moira was best friends with June before the revolution.As a lesbian life was especially hard for Moira during the transition from the U.S.A to Gilead.  She is the one of the only known handmaids to successfully escape. In season one, we see that Moira and June were trained together along with many of the other recurring handmaids in their area. She and June incapacitate an Aunt at the training facility, but June is detained just before the moment of freedom. Moira reluctantly escapes without June, after June signals to her that it’s okay. She becomes involved with the resistance, but is recaptured and reunited with June at Jezebel’s, where Moira is a whore for high powered men. She manages to escape again by killing her client and taking his clothes. Moira manages to make it to Canada, where she is reunited with Luke. She finds out that her fiancee has been killed in Gilead, and struggles to process the trauma that she has experienced. Moira is committed to bringing down Gilead, even though she seemed resigned when June asked for her help at Jezebel’s. After Nick gives Luke the letters from the handmaids, Moira helps them get published. She also goes to the protest of the Gilead delegation and is recognized by Commander Waterford. This is the last time we see Moira – holding up a sign to the Waterford’s car that says “My name is Moira”.   

Janine (Madeline Brewer)

Janine is a handmaid who is identified by her missing eye.  Her eye was removed when she told Aunt Lydia “fuck you” in response to a directive given by the woman.  She also suffers from some sort of mental illness.  This illness was exacerbated when she became pregnant with Commander Warren’s baby.  She becomes distraught when the baby is seperated from her and she abducts the child and flees to a nearby bridge.  Once on the bridge she gives the baby to June and attempts to kill herself by jumping off the bridge.  She is unsuccessful and her punishment is to be stoned by the other handmaids.  The handmaids refuse and she shipped to the colonies.  After the explosion at The Rachel and Leah Center she comes back to Gilead as a handmaid, because so many were killed that they need all available wombs.  Once there, she demonstrates how contact between mother and child can help the baby flourish.  

Alma (Nina Kiri)

Alma is handmaid and a member of the resistance known as Mayday.  She has been a key figure in linking June to the rest of the organization.  She has been a great source of information for June, and gives her the assignment to retrieve a mysterious package. 

Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd)

Aunt Lydia is one of the main trainers of soon to be handmaids.  She also is the main disciplinarians when the handmaids rebel.  Often seen as an antagonist season 2 saw her ally with June to protect June’s pregnancy and eventually the baby.  She exists to help make babies for Gilead.  Nothing more and nothing less. She is a complex character whose various facets are revealed slowly throughout the show. 

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