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“Unfit” is the worst episode of The Handmaid’s Tale yet

The series delves into the past of Aunt Lydia. But its biggest problems all have to do with its supposed hero.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Aunt Lydia is sad we gave this episode a bad review.
Hulu

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 “Unfit,” the eighth episode of the third season.

Emily: I will give The Handmaid’s Tale this: It is a pretty bold move to deliberately turn the text of the show into, “Yeah, the protagonist should probably be dead.” When Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) aimed a gun at June at the episode’s end — for reasons the show doesn’t bother trying to make emotionally resonant — I was so totally fine with June dying that I was a little surprised. But “Unfit” makes clear that the show wants me to have this reaction, at least on some level. I cannot, for the life of me, fathom why.

On a purely structural level, “Unfit” is the “Aunt Lydia episode,” wherein we dive into her backstory and figure out who she was before the rise of Gilead. The flashbacks are kind of inelegant — it turns out she didn’t always have the best interests of children in mind, if you can imagine — but they mostly get the job done. And they return the show to a political theme it’s still capable of handling well: the gentle viciousness of evangelical Christianity.

But I’m not sure why they’re sandwiched into this episode, other than the fact that what finally sees Ofmatthew killed by guards is the fact that she pulls a gun on Lydia. I’m not sure what happened to the sense of dread season one conjured so effortlessly, when anything would be done to save a Handmaid (much less a pregnant one!), leading to several fates worse than death. I’m not sure why Ofmatthew does anything she does in this episode. I’m not sure why Bradley Whitford was made a series regular to occasionally say ominous things and then leave. I’m not sure why the show is leaning into the criticism that it has no idea how to talk about race. And I’m not sure why the show seemingly wants me to hate June.

I still maintain that if the show is going somewhere with this June plot — if she’s eventually going to realize how much her own self-centered needs punished others around her (a.k.a. the Ol’ White Feminism Special) — the ends could justify some of the means. But they’re not going to make “Unfit” a better episode, because “Unfit” is just all over the place, with a few things that work, far more things that don’t, and no sense of why those things belong in the same episode of television.

You know that I can forgive a lot of things, Constance, but I cannot — cannot — forgive an episode with no internal, coherent sense of itself! I want to talk a little bit more about the flashback structure and why the show maybe needs to bring it back, but I can feel your rage from three time zones away, so I want to let you rant for a bit first.

In which Constance argues the show has fundamentally betrayed Aunt Lydia’s character

The Handmaid’s Tale
She’s just sad about a guy?
Hulu

Constance Grady: Emily, you know me so well. What is a Handmaid’s Tale roundtable at this point if I am not ranting at all of the wasted potential in this once brilliant show? And this week, the wasted potential in Aunt Lydia just jumps out.

We talked a few weeks back about what an odd and incoherent character Aunt Lydia has become, and how the show doesn’t seem to know how to give her sympathetic qualities without also assigning her beliefs that don’t fit with the rest of what we know about her.

An Aunt Lydia who is a true believer in Gilead and who genuinely thinks she’s doing the best she can for the women in her care, even while she is also satisfying a clear but unacknowledged sadistic streak at their expense, is interesting to me. She has more or less sympathetic motivations, but she’s also clearly doing evil things, which is the Platonic ideal of a satisfying villain. That’s who I thought Aunt Lydia was for the first couple of seasons of this show. But it’s increasingly obvious that here in season three, that’s not the show’s understanding of who Aunt Lydia is.

So in “Household,” we saw her getting misty-eyed as she told June that she doesn’t want to “silence” all the Handmaids, even though everything we know about Aunt Lydia would suggest that she considers silence to be a virtue for women and that by silencing her Handmaids, she is helping them in the best way she knows how.

And now in “Unfit,” we dig a bit into Aunt Lydia’s motivation for doing some messed-up stuff pre-Gilead, and it’s … because a man rejected her? Seriously? How is that not the least interesting motivation you could ever give a woman villain?

Look, I get the theory here. Aunt Lydia is someone who responds to pain by hurting those over whom she has power, and in both Gilead and the flashbacks, those people are women and children who have less social capital than she has. These flashbacks establish that her tendency to lash viciously out at whoever she has the power to hurt is a clear pattern for her. That all makes sense.

But what makes Aunt Lydia interesting in Gilead is that she’s responding to systemic, impersonal, political oppression by becoming complicit with that oppression wherever she possibly can. Turning her into some weirdo parody of a woman scorned whose cruelty is motivated by romantic disappointment means taking her whole operating procedure out of the realm of the political and into the realm of the personal, and this show is not good enough at fleshing out its characters’ personal lives to make that move interesting. It ends up implying that the only part of Lydia’s personal life that matters enough to motivate her is her romantic life, I guess because she’s a woman, and all that matters to women on this show is men and babies. (Other women are there to be catty mean girls to!) It feels reductive and trite and insulting and so, so, so boring.

What a waste of a solid character foundation, and what a waste of Ann Dowd, who is throwing everything she possibly can into those flashbacks.

I have not yet even gotten into what happens with Ofmatthew and the racial politics therein! But Emily, tell me about the flashback structure. Do you think that, if done well, it could provide the scaffolding this show seems to need?

Emily: Wow, I can’t believe this roundtable is going to be so much about the Aunt Lydia flashbacks, but I had a totally, totally different read of them than you did, so I guess we’re gonna do this!

I read her sadism cropping up as less because of anything that happens in her connection with Character Actor Superstar John Ortiz and more because she hates herself for giving in to emotional connection at all. Thus, she blames the young woman who made her acknowledge this part of herself that was always there but that she had successfully starved to death. The presence of John Ortiz is just the most proximate reminder that she has a whole human self she hasn’t been feeding. (I will admit that, yes, filtering all of this through a man is about the least interesting, most clichéd way to handle this.)

At my most charitable to season three, this flashback sequence is kind of what I think the season is doing in a microcosm. Gilead might have worked for a little bit (“worked” meaning “was a somewhat stable if brutal society”), but it’s starting to splinter apart at the blatant hypocrisy encoded into its core. You can deny those parts of yourself for a little while, but eventually, they keep knocking at the door until you acknowledge them. And if you don’t acknowledge them, you can become catatonic or unbelievably cruel. This season of Handmaid’s has shown us examples of both.

Now, granted, I’m reading heavily my own experiences into this idea. But as a trans woman who grew up in the evangelical church and got really, really good at internalizing a lot of the church’s logic about defeating the desires of the flesh in the name of purity — hey, I get Lydia’s dilemma on a visceral level. I said above that I think Handmaid’s Tale still generally gets evangelical culture right, and I’d say that’s also true of “Unfit” (which I will remind you is probably my least favorite episode of the show to date).

I do think the show has lost something without the flashbacks popping up in every episode. There have been so few in season three, but they’re such a useful pressure release valve from Gilead and I think they’re often useful as a way to show how Gilead was already present in America before Gilead technically existed.

The two shows with the most obviously similar flashback structures — Lost and Orange Is the New Black — generally stuck with that structure through thick and thin because of how useful it was to keep the claustrophobic nature of the shows’ settings from becoming overpowering.

Without the flashbacks, we become stranded in Gilead without a real sense of the place emotionally or psychologically. Thus, we keep applying our own modern standards to it, even though “our own modern standards” apply less and less to a dictatorship in freefall. The flashbacks kind of force a comparison between then and now that works to reorient our minds, while also giving us a break from Gilead on a storytelling level. (I think the show is trying to use Canada as our break this season, but it doesn’t have the same effect.)

I read a fascinating fan theory this week that much of what this season is talking about is presented in the epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which some academics talk about Gilead’s eventual fall with several centuries’ worth of remove. So I’m at least somewhat intrigued by the idea that the season is trying to present the internal contradictions in both Gilead and June and show how they come to consume both alive.

But that also requires the show to be more self-aware than it’s been so far, particularly when it comes to June. I’m more convinced than ever that the series wants us to be disgusted with her. I’m less convinced than ever that it has a reason for doing this beyond needing to have a storyline to occupy a few episodes. (Seriously: It’s very hard for me to imagine that what’s been going on in these past few episodes won’t lift so cleanly out of the season as to have basically no bearing on the larger stories the first several episodes built up.)

Remember when June was going to blow stuff up? Yeah, me neither. To think I thought that would ultimately be the show’s undoing, when I would give anything to see her, like, unrealistically being really great at building bombs or something!

Okay, okay, okay, let’s talk about race, because yeeesh.

The racial politics of this show have never been this clumsy or bad

The Handmaid’s Tale
Too bad about how we barely got to know you, Ofmatthew!
Hulu

Constance: So the standard critique on race in The Handmaid’s Tale started way back in season one, and it was most elegantly laid out by Angelica Jade Bastién at Vulture: Essentially, The Handmaid’s Tale consistently presents Gilead as a “post-racial” world in which racism is really just not a big problem, as though racism and misogyny are not interrelated systems of oppression. It treats racism as a problem that is not worthy of the kind of serious analysis this show aspires to give to systemic misogyny.

And at the same time that The Handmaid’s Tale posits that racism is just not going to be a thing in our dystopian future, it consistently underwrites its characters of color. Look at how little material we get for Moira compared to, say, our beloved Emily, even though Moira is a much bigger part in Atwood’s novel and even though Samira Wiley can clearly handle anything this show’s writers care to throw at her.

In response to this critique, showrunner Bruce Miller spent basically the entire hiatus between seasons one and two of Handmaid’s Tale telling anyone who would listen that they totally planned to deal with race in season two, and then that basically just … did not happen at any point.

Given all of this backstory, it is concerning, to say the least, that “Unfit” ends with Ofmatthew, who is black, going into a rage and grabbing a gun out of nowhere, and then being brutally shot down and having her lifeless body dragged out of the grocery store.

That ending plays into a few different racist tropes. It gives us the black person who just randomly becomes a violent menace out of nowhere, which is the same idea that you can see lurking within, for instance, the testimony of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown in 2014. (Wilson on Brown: “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”)

The show then uses Ofmatthew’s rage as a justification for her death, making her the second woman of color in as many episodes to die violently onscreen. And it links her death to June’s bullying, making Ofmatthew the second woman of color in as many episodes to die as a result of June’s actions in her quest to be reunited with her daughter. That’s a pattern that suggests the show is essentially treating its supporting characters of color as pawns who can be killed off whenever the stakes need to go up, while the white supporting characters who surround June remain untouched.

And finally, there’s that lingering close up on Ofmatthew’s body being dragged away, that shot that has nothing to do with Ofmatthew as a person and everything to do with Ofmatthew as a signifier of horror. That shot reduces her body to a prop, to an it.

Now, there are plenty of arguments we can make to justify a lot of those creative choices. We’ve seen other Handmaids snap and do violent things out of nowhere, for instance (ILU, Emily!), so maybe we’re meant to read Ofmatthew’s grab for the gun as more of the same, even though I would argue that the buildup there is nowhere near as thought through and elegant as what we got with Emily. And sure, maybe the show is going somewhere with the repeated choice to have June’s actions lead to the death of women of color, and we’re eventually going to get some trenchant racial commentary out of it.

But nothing about this show’s track record in dealing with race inspires confidence in me. It’s very hard for me to give Handmaid’s Tale any benefit of the doubt on that ending, given everything that has come before. Do you feel differently?

Emily: I highly doubt we’re going to get trenchant racial commentary out of this storyline. But I do think the show may be setting us up for June to get some sort of comeuppance.

The one scene I unquestionably liked in “Unfit” involved Lydia and some other aunts planning out which Handmaids were going to go to which houses and being a little mouthy and unguarded when among peers. It was the one scene in the episode that sounded like how human beings in this situation might actually talk, and it got at something this season has talked about a lot, but rarely convincingly: June must survive for “reasons.”

But what I liked about the scene is that it suggests the show at least has a clearer eye about June’s actions than she does. Lydia might be evil, but she’s also a pragmatist, and a pragmatist would see June’s journey this season for what it is: a woman slowly spiraling and taking a whole bunch of people down with her.

Again, I’m not sure we’re going to get anything out of this — the next episode is called (full-body shudder) “Heroic,” so boy, am I not sure. But the show is at least cognizant of it, and that’s weirdly more credit than I was ready to extend it in last week’s episode, which was probably “better” than this one but also seemed a lot harder to parse in terms of how aware it was of what it was doing.

What’s ultimately most disappointing about Ofmatthew is that she existed as a character solely to be killed. She could have been a window into why women of color might be as fully into Gilead as she was. After all, plenty of people of color exist in modern evangelical churches, often for wildly different reasons. She might even have been a window into the more subtle racism of the show’s world, where people of color are welcome so long as they are completely fine with a system that upholds the white male hegemony.

But we didn’t know anything about her, and now she’s dead. That she turns the gun on Lydia after seeming like she might shoot June is meant to suggest, I guess, that even those who have drunk the Gilead Kool-Aid know who the real oppressors are in the end. Had we known who Ofmatthew was, Lydia crying, “Natalie!” could have had the power it was supposed to.

But “Unfit” never earned that scene or that moment, due to its inability to better develop either the woman holding the gun or the woman she was pointing it at.