Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team gather to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Emily VanDerWerff and staff writer Constance Grady discuss “Unknown Caller,” the fifth episode of the third season.
Emily VanDerWerff: I watched the first five episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season three over the course of an afternoon, and it was the fifth, “Unknown Caller,” that truly made me think this show still had plenty of life left in it.
It is not, by any means, a perfect episode, and I’m really uncertain about the show’s ability to make me care about Nichole as something more than a plot device. (This is to say nothing of how I feel about the idea that the Waterfords would miss Nichole so much that they would seemingly prod Gilead toward provoking an international incident.) But there’s something really effective about the way this episode finds a way to explore questions of the political and the personal as performance within the show’s typical confines.
Take, for instance, what is probably the most effective close-up this season so far, in which June talks to Luke for the first time since she left him behind in the woods way back in the very first episode of the show. Director Colin Watkinson (the show’s Emmy-winning cinematographer) holds tight on Elisabeth Moss’s face as she, trembling, gets her message to Luke out. She is merely a vessel to deliver a message she’d rather not convey.
Both Watkinson and Moss capture the divide between the enormity of this moment and what June is able to actually say. The show’s close-ups long ago became a stylistic tic, but this one nicely captures just how good June has gotten at performing Gilead, more or less.
It’s taken a while, but this episode finds a great way to make Canada part of the main storyline
“Unknown Caller” also does a solid job of knitting Canada into the main action, something that season two often struggled with. And even if I don’t entirely agree that Nichole is worth potentially starting a war over, I like the way that this setup teases how likely it would be that, once Gilead has gotten rid of the last pockets of American resistance, it would turn its eyes northward.
But pulling Canada into the storyline more completely also allows the show to reconfigure the story’s different scene partners. Seeing Serena and Luke onscreen together, for instance, is a treat, because it’s a character pairing the show hasn’t wrung every last ounce of tension out of. Similarly, the mere presence of Sam Jaeger’s mysterious American diplomat Tuello instantly adds intrigue to the Canadian scenes.
It all culminates in a scene that I simultaneously didn’t buy and completely adored: the Waterfords going on television to demand that Nichole be given back to them, a move that wraps every single regular character into the story at the same time (including the absent Emily, who is the “dangerous fugitive” accused of taking the child). The scene is so overwrought and over-the-top in ways that I’m not sure the storytelling has earned, but that’s also why I loved it.
Margaret Atwood’s book always sort of suggested that the Waterfords came to be well known as televangelists, and this nods toward that idea, while also allowing Gilead to present itself as it wants to be seen — as austere, beautiful, and strikingly domestic. Going from the show’s frequent darkness to the harsh lights of live television is another nice touch, and Watkinson makes the most of the contrast.
What did you think, Constance? Are you as into this wild turn for the show as I am? And can I suggest that Commander Lawrence, with this barely restrained contempt for women and love of offbeat pop music choices, is the show itself personified as an award-winning and beloved character actor?
Constance Grady: Commander Lawrence is 100 percent the ethos of Handmaid’s Tale given flesh, and nothing confirms that fact more than the way I still have zero way of understanding what I think about him at any given moment. Is he an interesting cipher or a copout deus ex machina of a character? Is this show a sophisticated examination of misogyny and power, or is it a silly dystopian fantasy that keeps indulging in unearned trauma porn? Who the fuck knows at this point!
I do think I like that final reveal of the Waterfords making their video a lot, though. I mostly buy that Gilead would go all out for a missing child: Its leaders have consistently built their society around the idea that children are the scarcest and most valuable resource in the world, and it makes sense to me that they’d be willing to make a big deal over Nichole, both in order to bring her back and deter future child liberation movements.
But what I find most interesting about that sequence is that it puts June in a position that emphasizes her powerlessness. She knows how to work the Waterfords, sure, but they still have considerably more hard power than her, and they’re flexing it here. And June’s relative weakness is only emphasized by the creepiest moment in the whole thing, which is when Aunt Lydia dresses June up in her shiny new Handmaid’s uniform, with a perfectly pressed crease on the little capelet.
Costumes are doing a lot of work in this episode, actually. When Serena goes into her meeting with the Commanders, she’s wearing a variation of the standard Wife dress with lapels on the bodice, so that it looks almost like a suit: very business-like, very quietly powerful. And when we see Serena in Canada, with her hair down and in her civilian clothes, there’s a moment of jarring shock. She looks so much more vulnerable in those jeans and flats than she usually does, with the soft cowl neck of her sweater hanging down.
But of course, Serena isn’t just a vulnerable mother mourning her lost child. She’s also a terrible person who was actively complicit in the destruction of democracy and who held June down while her husband raped her. I really recognized that for the first time in a while in Serena’s scene with Luke, and I think that’s because of Luke’s greatest strength as a character: He’s a perspective machine.
We talked about this a bit after the Canada episode last season, but Luke’s the only character on the show who isn’t completely desensitized to the crimes of Gilead at this point, because he’s the only one who doesn’t have to live with them. That means that he still has the emotional energy to react to the Commander and Serena with the horror and outrage that their crimes would logically deserve. And every time he does it, it’s a nice reminder that, sure, the Waterfords are maybe sometimes sympathetic monsters with motivations that we understand, but they are still monsters. They’ve still done terrible, terrible things.
But what I’m really excited about here is that in the scene with the tape deck, we’re finally starting to gesture toward the frame narrative of Atwood’s book! In the novel, we find out at the end of the book that Offred has been recording her story on cassette tapes, and that what we just read was a transcript.
Do you think we’re going to get into the frame story at any point on the TV show, Emily? Will we ever see the conference of Gileadean Studies from Atwood’s epilogue?
Does this episode’s twist set the season on firmer ground? Or is it still too soon to tell?
Emily: I think I’ve pitched my dream ending for the show in these very recaps, and it remains that we follow June through the chaos of some decisive victory in the war against Gilead. She’s looking for her daughter. And then, through the smoke, she sees the outline of someone who looks like Hannah, who has to be —
And then we cut to hundreds of years in the future, where a bunch of guys at an academic symposium are debating what we’ve just watched. Handled poorly, it would be a little like the ending of Psycho (in which a psychiatrist tells us what’s up with Norman Bates in a long, grueling scene that tanks the film’s momentum). Handled well, it would have some of the jarring thematic resonance of the same idea within the book — no matter how much the book version of Offred wants to reclaim her story, it will always be filtered through the perceptions of men.
Your point about the fetishization of babies/childhood is well-taken, and it’s one I probably should have thought of. In our reality, the sorts of people who might become the Waterfords are, of course, endlessly eroding all manner of social and global institutions — to say nothing of the climate itself — in the name of bringing an end to abortion rights in our country.
The show’s depiction of the fertility crisis necessary for its world to exist has always been a little fuzzy (which might be why some of this fetishistic treatment of the young doesn’t land for me). But on a broadly conceptual level, it does make some degree of sense that everybody in Gilead would have gone so far over-the-top in trying to end said fertility crisis that the life of a single child (particularly the child of a couple of powerful white people) would be prioritized over a great many other things. It’s not like you can’t point to a million examples of this happening on a smaller scale in our own reality.
I agree with you that the scene featuring Luke and Serena’s conversation is one of the better ones this season. It’s something the show has needed for a long time. It’s hard for us as viewers to deal with Gilead becoming normalized for a lot of the characters, even if we intellectually know that whole parable about frogs and boiling water. We want the catharsis of seeing Gilead cut down, perhaps because the miniature Gileads in our world perpetuate themselves without much regard for our opinion of them.
The tension within the show between “Gilead is evil” and “For this to continue being a TV show, Gilead has to continue to exist” is what I like best about it, but it’s also what has caused many viewers to tune out, perhaps because they’re not as into complicated feats of narrative juggling as I am. That’s what makes the scene between Luke and Serena such a great effort of narrative pretzel logic. I don’t really buy all of the twists and turns required to reach that point, but the emotional payoff is so necessary that I’m willing to forgive the show those twists and turns.
This also cannily reorients the show on the parallel track to reality it ran on for much of the first two seasons. Yes, what’s happening this season is more disconnected from whatever fresh horrors our 2019 serves up than the show has typically been. But at the same time, its use of Luke is similar to every time a Twitter thread about, say, children being held at the US/Mexico border crosses my field of vision. I get upset about it, and then I don’t know what I can do.
By simple virtue of where I live and the point in time at which I live, I’m complicit in horrible things (which is true of every human who has ever lived, of course — shout out to The Good Place). But finding a way to end those horrible things, even in a democracy, is harder than it should be, because the systems set up to abuse the powerless are built to reinforce themselves.
Which is to say, when the camera finally dollies in on June at the end of this episode, stranded off to the side of a picture-perfect TV family in mourning, she might as well be all of us: trapped, but complicit, but trying to fight back, but knowing she probably can’t, but still complicit. And still trapped.
Constance: Is it sick to say that the sense of being trapped is the thing I miss most about the first few episodes of this show? I have never seen anything onscreen before or since that made me fully feel the claustrophobia of living under patriarchy like the first three episodes of Handmaid’s Tale did, and that’s why I always feel disappointed when the show gives into the easy catharsis of letting June talk back to whoever she wants to.
That moment where June tells her new shopping partner to bite her is a case in point. What happened to the ever-present and horrifying idea that June’s fellow Handmaids could inform on her for her lack of piety at any moment, and that they were in fact encouraged to do so with rewards and special treatment for the informant? Remember how that was a huge source of tension in June’s relationship with Emily?
It’s not that I don’t want June to have agency, because I do. But I want her to find that agency within the established power structure of Gilead. Not just because she’s the protagonist, so she can do whatever badass thing she feels like, and we all know she’s not going to suffer too many consequences for it. That’s the only way her agency will feel completely earned and satisfying to me.
But I felt that claustrophobia come back, just a little, in that shot of June trapped at the corner of the set with Aunt Lydia pushing her head down. And even though I am certain that the resolution to this problem will feel a little bit cheap, because that’s what this show’s track record has established, it’s nice to know that it can still capture that distinct and particular feeling of horror when it wants to put in the effort.