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The Handmaid’s Tale rewinds the tape, then hits record on a bewildering episode

Elisabeth Moss
Photo: Sophie Giraud (Hulu)
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There are moments of ambiguity in “Unknown Caller,” another beautifully filmed, well-acted episode of The Handmaid’s Tale that falls apart like tissue paper in the rain the second you attempt to look beyond those things. Those moments are like signal flares. (Here! Here’s the show, over here!) Some of them even hold up to scrutiny, at least for the present. But the events of this episode are so bewildering when considered in the context of the rest of the series that it’s hard to focus on what works.

It’s as if the writers are treating the characters like pieces on a chessboard, but in a game that allows both switching sides, take-backsies, and baldly ignoring the rules as needed. It moves Serena to one place, then another, then back to the first; It plops Fred around the board to wherever’s convenient, a pawn for the writers, if not the other characters. And it treats the laws and realities of Gilead—in this somewhat tortured metaphor, the rules of the game—like optional guidelines, to be applied if they feel like an extra challenge.

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It’s that last one that rankles the most. The problem, if you’re The Handmaid’s Tale, with having great actors is that they make it so easy to buy into the vast, complex histories of the characters, even when the show seems to forget them. So when Serena walks into that room full of Commanders because she “has a say in this”—though of course she doesn’t get a say, just a medical file—we remember that the last time that happened, she lost a finger, because Yvonne Strahovski makes us remember. In that case, it works out.

But the same woman is then allowed to not only travel, but cross a border without her husband, which is contrary to what we know both of Gilead and Fred Waterford, and she doesn’t seem to think that’s unusual at all. (It also makes no sense: He could have waited on the plane, or on the tarmac, or in some kind of holding area, and passed it off to the government, his wife, and even himself that he was doing it to support her.) She considered the “treason and coconuts” offer before losing her finger, and before opening her mind ever so slightly to the idea that she helped to create a monstrous, oppressive system. Strahovski does a lot of work in making that make sense—there’s an almost “this is what I deserve” energy to her declaration that she only has one home—but we’ll have to wait until next week’s installment to see if she can make Serena’s choice to try to bring Nichole back to Gilead make sense.

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(She is a very good actor, and it’s possible. People, and characters, can regress, so there’s a version of this story where Serena’s second or third time tiptoeing toward doing the right thing collapses because she places her own needs before Nichole/Holly’s; it’s just contrary to everything we’ve seen so far this season.)

Still, there’s good acting, and one of those terrific moments of ambiguity, as Serena blurts out that she helped June to a quietly furious, confused, and frustrated Luke (O-T Fagbenle does his best work by a mile in this episode, perhaps because he’s given big, active, complicated things to play.) Her delivery, and his reaction, makes it a loaded and unresolved moment. Is it a threat? A flailing attempt for traction in a meeting gone wrong? Both? Does she believe the help outweighs the incalculable harm, or is that self-disgust that makes the assertion come out wrong? Does he take it as a threat, or an admission of treason (and humanity), or both? Does he believe her?

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I don’t know. I don’t think the characters do, either, and that’s why it works so well. That moment has a twin in June’s conversation with Mrs. Lawrence (one of several predictably great Elisabeth Moss scenes in this episode), which might be composed of compassion and reminiscence, might be driven by self-reproach, might be manipulative, and most likely is a combination of all those things. Like the airport scene, it stands out precisely because it’s rife with complexity, contradiction, and possibility. Like the terrific scenes between Emily and Lawrence in season two, it allows these characters to be as unwieldy as the time, place, and situation demand.

Those moments are loaded. Most others are not. There’s no ambiguity in Fred’s actions, he’s just suddenly acting like a totally different person—up until the final scene, at least. The person we see play-acting at grief on a set designed to look like a generic rich person’s house—that person seems like Fred Waterford. The guy who docilely believed a medical chart was going to make his wife all better—Fred Waterford. The guy in between? No idea who that was. (Frustratingly, Joseph Fiennes seems much more at home with whoever the hell he’s playing in those scenes than he ever has with the comically sniveling and petulant guy he’s played for the last two seasons and change.)

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If next week’s episode arrives and is rife with ambiguity, I will eat every one of my words, but the most frustrating thing about this very frustrating episode is that ending which, while brilliantly designed and produced, contains not a single ounce of ambiguity. There’s no universe in which Gilead lets that video, as we see it, get to Canada; June’s glowering alone is so transparent as to be almost comic. Then there’s June, staring into our eyes with undisguised rage as “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” of all songs, plays. We’re back to the place Handmaid’s always goes when it wants to hit the reset button on the Waterford story (as opposed to just letting it end, which seems overdue.) Serena and Fred, allied against June; June, righteously angry and ready to fight back. Who cares what’s happened before? Why move subtly when you’ve got a broad brush in your pocket?

That “Sunday Bloody Sunday” choice is actually, in a way, the perfect Handmaid’s musical moment. If you listen only to the lyrics, it’s perfect: “I can’t believe the news today,” Bono wails, as June stares, seething, on a broadcast her husband is watching on the news; later, we arrive at:

And the battle’s just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart

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Also perfect. But “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is a song of a specific time and place, and is definitely not a song that says (as June’s face does) that there’s going to be hell to pay. Quite the opposite, in fact. But it’s not ignoring the subtleties in favor of the broadest strokes possible that make this such a perfect Handmaid’s moment. It’s that just as viewers might be thinking, “Good lord, we’re putting June and Serena at odds again, huh,” we arrive at the chorus: “How long, how long must we sing this song?”

Stray observations

  • It is totally possible that no one in the government but Fred knew about that trip, and that actually seems like the most likely scenario, but there was nothing secretive about the manner in which she arrived or departed. Just the wardrobe, and that was at the direction of the American government.
  • The phone is from... Agent Treason Coconuts?
  • Wish we’d gotten to see Serena’s reaction to putting on that comfy turtleneck and jeans, and/or putting them back in the bags, and/or deciding to wear her hair down.
  • Speaking of Lawrence: No way that guy made mixtapes in college and gave them names that benign. Someone so in love with the sound of his own voice would definitely have gone way weirder, longer, and more ridiculous with his mixtape titles.
  • Book stuff: If you don’t want information on events in the book not yet seen on the show, stop reading. On the subject of the tapes, Margaret Atwood’s novel ends with a chapter that takes place long after the events of June’s life, in which we learn that what we’ve just read—her narration—was recorded onto cassette tapes found after the fall of Gilead. If we see June start recording her thoughts on those other mixtapes, that could be pretty cool.
  • Ashleigh LaThrop’s Ofmatthew gets markedly more interesting this episode, curious to see where that goes.
  • The costumes on this show are always top-notch, but the heightened versions that June and the Waterfords wear in that final scene are among the best of them. I love it when costumers design in-world costumes.
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About the author

Allison Shoemaker

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves television, bourbon, and dramatically overanalyzing social interactions.