Season 3 of "The Handmaid's Tale" is driven by June's...

Season 3 of "The Handmaid's Tale" is driven by June's (Elisabeth Moss) resistance to the dystopian regime of Gilead and her struggle to strike back against overwhelming odds.  Credit: Hulu

SERIES "The Handmaid's Tale"

WHEN|WHERE Season 3 starts streaming Wednesday on Hulu.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT At the close of the second season, June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), with the help of Nick (Max Minghella) and Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), had managed to escape with her baby and fellow handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel). But at the last minute, June stays behind while Emily (and her baby) head to the Canadian border. June has plans. Big plans.

This season, you'll find out what happened to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), last seen taking a heavy tumble down a flight a stairs. Plus, expect a pair of notable newcomers: Christopher Meloni — who plays Commander Winslow, and Elizabeth Reaser, as his wife, and described by Hulu as someone who "becomes a friend and inspiration to Serena Joy."

MY SAY Like "Game of Thrones" over its last couple of seasons, "Handmaid's" has also had to prove that there's life-after-book — in this case, Margaret Atwood's book. The onus remains for the third season. Yet it may come as a surprise that a few fans and a lot of critics decided last year that there may not be much life after all.

There was a spirited critical backlash against the second season, which may have cost both show and Moss some more Emmy love. But why that backlash, exactly? There were easily a handful of episodes that ranked with the best of the celebrated first season. Nor did Moss phone in her performance. Her plight more desperate, her flight the same, June was in constant motion last season, and finally gained agency over her tortured life. Moss' performance was terrific. What was there not to love?

Maybe this: "Handmaid's" had turned into a gigantic bummer in the second, and a relentlessly dark, grim, cold trek through the worst hell that Gilead has to offer. Watching, you could almost feel the driving snow come out of the screen and hit you in the face, along with the screams of the tortured handmaidens.

At least in the early episodes, the third seems a study in contrast. This certainly hasn't turned into a sunnier show — ha, as if — but a marginally more optimistic one. June hinted at the reversal in the closing seconds last season, with that determined middle-distance deadeye stare. She was in control now. She was on a mission. She had a plan. That forward momentum carries into the third.

Obviously, June could have headed into Canada with her baby and Emily — the better course of action — but Canada is the place where narrative tension and formerly interesting characters go to die. 

"The Handmaid's Tale" couldn't send the newly empowered Robo-June up north. She had to stay in Gilead, where she can foment rebellion and ultimately revolution. But that's seasons away, and in the meantime "Handmaid's" still needs to stoke narrative tension without repeating itself. How? Here's how:

June becomes a handmaid to Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), and must now go by the sordid appellation, "OfJoseph." If Joseph seemed almost sanctified by the close of the second season, "Handmaid's" disabuses you of that lingering impression by the third. There's something sinister about Joseph, something snarky about him, too. 

As always, Whitford is skilful at making us guess: Is his Joseph a little more Josh Lyman ("The West Wing") or a little more Dean Armitage ("Get Out")? Idealist or the guy who pulls wings off flies?

Meanwhile, Robo-June has her own secrets, too, which she confides to no one other than herself: "We watch the men, we study them. We can make them strong or weak. We know their worst nightmares [and] with a little bit of practice, that's what we'll become — nightmares."

"A little bit of practice": That's your theme and tagline for this third season.

BOTTOM LINE If not much sunnier, not as relentlessly grim as the second, while June is slowly, methodically, morphing into the Robo-June we know she must become. So far, so good.

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