[Note: Spoilers follow for The Handmaid’s Tale season three, including the finale.]
Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 isn’t that, by the end of it, June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) has a body count. It’s maybe that it took her this long to stab and beat one man to death, leave a woman on the brink of dying by suicide to meet her fate, and then just flat out shoot two dudes in the head in the season finale.
She’s not the first woman on this show to kill, and in each instance, she had very defensible reasons. But any time a character pulls a trigger (literally or metaphorically), a smart drama knows that it needs to have consequences. And as Handmaid fans wait in anticipation of the in-progress season four, one hopes that the writers’ room is thinking about June’s actions — and considering whether or not they want to push them further.
At the beginning of the series, it seemed that June’s journey would be one of a woman reclaiming her power from the world that had tried to strip it from her, as signified by the final moments of the first episode, when she boldly speaks her real name in voice-over. It was one of the show’s first big changes from Margaret Atwood‘s original text, which in 2017 Atwood said on Twitter was for “many reasons… so many people have been re-named over the centuries, their original names lost.”
In short, the central character of the book was meant to be an average, anonymous woman lost to the oceans of history — hardly a revolutionary figure, as we’ve seen June become over the last three seasons. However, those choices have also changed her, and not necessarily for the better. Some situations make people into heroes. Gilead, however, has in many ways made June into an anti-hero, and while there have been plenty of female anti-heroes on TV in recent years, none of them have been women who really did start off with good intentions, who never meant to break bad, but found it happening nonetheless.
The point of using Breaking Bad as a prototypical example for anti-heroes isn’t to erase the existence of characters like Tony Soprano from TV history, but instead to highlight how that show did such an elegant job of setting up its ostensible protagonist as the hero in the beginning. How? Walter White, as created by Vince Gilligan and played by Bryan Cranston, was given a very compelling reason for descending into the criminal world; the death knell of lung cancer enough to make anyone consider desperate actions.
To be clear, of course having to deal with medical bills in 21st century America is nowhere on the level of what June has gone through as a prisoner of Gilead, and the most important way in which their stories diverge is the fact that Walt didn’t sink into this life out of pure desperation; he wasn’t all that happy before his diagnosis, and used it as an excuse to, in so many ways, blow up his life. Meanwhile, June would have likely been perfectly happy working a job and living a life with her family — she just never got the opportunity to really do so.
There are glints in Season 3, however, of how much, after being powerless for so long, the grip of the gun in her hand is satisfying for her. In those moments, it’s thrilling to see the possibilities of June leaning into her newfound power, and grappling with what it’s done to her as a person and what she’s willing to do next.