Each week, a couple of members of the Vox Tradition workforce collect to speak out the newest episode of The Handmaid’s Story, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at giant Emily VanDerWerff and workers author Constance Grady talk about “Unknown Caller,” the fifth episode of the third season.
Emily VanDerWerff: I watched the primary 5 episodes of The Handmaid’s Story season three over the course of a day, and it was the fifth, “Unknown Caller,” that actually made me assume this present nonetheless had loads of life left in it.
It isn’t, by any means, an ideal episode, and I’m actually unsure in regards to the present’s potential to make me care about Nichole as one thing greater than a plot system. (That is to say nothing of how I really feel about the concept the Waterfords would miss Nichole a lot that they’d seemingly prod Gilead towards upsetting a global incident.) However there’s one thing actually efficient about the way in which this episode finds a solution to discover questions of the political and the private as efficiency throughout the present’s typical confines.
Take, as an illustration, what might be the simplest close-up this season up to now, during which June talks to Luke for the primary time since she left him behind within the woods manner again within the very first episode of the present. Director Colin Watkinson (the present’s Emmy-winning cinematographer) holds tight on Elisabeth Moss’s face as she, trembling, will get her message to Luke out. She is merely a vessel to ship a message she’d fairly not convey.
Each Watkinson and Moss seize the divide between the enormity of this second and what June is ready to really say. The present’s close-ups way back grew to become a stylistic tic, however this one properly captures simply how good June has gotten at performing Gilead, roughly.
It’s taken some time, however this episode finds a good way to make Canada a part of the principle storyline
“Unknown Caller” additionally does a stable job of knitting Canada into the principle motion, one thing that season two typically struggled with. And even when I don’t fully agree that Nichole is value probably beginning a struggle over, I like the way in which that this setup teases how possible it might be that, as soon as Gilead has gotten rid of the final pockets of American resistance, it might flip its eyes northward.
However pulling Canada into the storyline extra utterly additionally permits the present to reconfigure the story’s completely different scene companions. Seeing Serena and Luke onscreen collectively, as an illustration, is a deal with, as a result of it’s a personality pairing the present hasn’t wrung each final ounce of stress out of. Equally, the mere presence of Sam Jaeger’s mysterious American diplomat Tuello immediately provides intrigue to the Canadian scenes.
All of it culminates in a scene that I concurrently didn’t purchase and utterly adored: the Waterfords happening tv to demand that Nichole be given again to them, a transfer that wraps each single common character into the story on the similar time (together with the absent Emily, who’s the “harmful fugitive” accused of taking the kid). The scene is so overwrought and over-the-top in ways in which I’m unsure the storytelling has earned, however that’s additionally why I cherished it.
Margaret Atwood’s e-book all the time kind of urged that the Waterfords got here to be properly generally known as televangelists, and this nods towards that concept, whereas additionally permitting Gilead to current itself because it needs to be seen — as austere, stunning, and strikingly home. Going from the present’s frequent darkness to the cruel lights of reside tv is one other good contact, and Watkinson makes the many of the distinction.
What did you assume, Constance? Are you as into this wild flip for the present as I’m? And might I recommend that Commander Lawrence, with this barely restrained contempt for girls and love of offbeat pop music decisions, is the present itself personified as an award-winning and beloved character actor?
Constance Grady: Commander Lawrence is 100 p.c the ethos of Handmaid’s Story given flesh, and nothing confirms that reality greater than the way in which I nonetheless have zero manner of understanding what I take into consideration him at any given second. Is he an attention-grabbing cipher or a copout deus ex machina of a personality? Is that this present a complicated examination of misogyny and energy, or is it a foolish dystopian fantasy that retains indulging in unearned trauma porn? Who the fuck is aware of at this level!
I do assume I like that last reveal of the Waterfords making their video lots, although. I largely purchase that Gilead would go all out for a lacking youngster: Its leaders have persistently constructed their society round the concept kids are the scarcest and most useful useful resource on this planet, and it is sensible to me that they’d be keen to make a giant deal over Nichole, each as a way to carry her again and deter future youngster liberation actions.
However what I discover most attention-grabbing about that sequence is that it places June able that emphasizes her powerlessness. She is aware of how one can work the Waterfords, positive, however they nonetheless have significantly extra laborious energy than her, and so they’re flexing it right here. And June’s relative weak point is simply emphasised by the creepiest second in the entire thing, which is when Aunt Lydia clothes June up in her shiny new Handmaid’s uniform, with a superbly pressed crease on the little capelet.
Costumes are doing a whole lot of work on this episode, really. When Serena goes into her assembly with the Commanders, she’s sporting a variation of the usual Spouse costume with lapels on the bodice, in order that it seems to be virtually like a go well with: very business-like, very quietly highly effective. And once we see Serena in Canada, together with her hair down and in her civilian garments, there’s a second of jarring shock. She seems to be a lot extra susceptible in these denims and flats than she often does, with the smooth cowl neck of her sweater hanging down.
However in fact, Serena isn’t only a susceptible mom mourning her misplaced youngster. She’s additionally a horrible one that was actively complicit within the destruction of democracy and who held June down whereas her husband raped her. I actually acknowledged that for the primary time shortly in Serena’s scene with Luke, and I believe that’s due to Luke’s best energy as a personality: he’s a perspective machine.
We talked about this a bit after the Canada episode final season, however Luke’s the one character on the present who isn’t utterly desensitized to the crimes of Gilead at this level, as a result of he’s the one one who doesn’t need to reside with them. That signifies that he nonetheless has the emotional power to react to the Commander and Serena with the horror and outrage that their crimes would logically deserve. And each time he does it, it’s a pleasant reminder that, positive, the Waterfords are perhaps typically sympathetic monsters with motivations that we perceive, however they’re nonetheless monsters. They’ve nonetheless achieved horrible, horrible issues.
However what I’m actually enthusiastic about right here is that within the scene with the tape deck, we’re lastly beginning to gesture towards the body narrative of Atwood’s e-book! Within the novel, we discover out on the finish of the e-book that Offred has been recording her story on cassette tapes, and that what we simply learn was a transcript.
Do you assume we’re going to get into the body story at any level on the TV present, Emily? Will we ever see the convention of Gileadean Research from Atwood’s epilogue?
Does this episode’s twist set the season on firmer floor? Or is it nonetheless too quickly to inform?
Emily: I believe I’ve pitched my dream ending for the present in these very recaps, and it stays that we observe June by way of the chaos of some decisive victory within the struggle in opposition to Gilead. She’s on the lookout for her daughter. After which, by way of the smoke, she sees the define of somebody who seems to be like Hannah, who must be —
After which we minimize to a whole bunch of years sooner or later, the place a bunch of men at a tutorial symposium are debating what we’ve simply watched. Dealt with poorly, it might be slightly just like the ending of Psycho (during which a psychiatrist tells us what’s up with Norman Bates in a protracted, grueling scene that tanks the movie’s momentum). Dealt with properly, it might have a number of the jarring thematic resonance of the identical concept throughout the e-book — irrespective of how a lot the e-book model of Offred needs to reclaim her story, it is going to all the time be filtered by way of the perceptions of males.
Your level in regards to the fetishization of infants/childhood is well-taken, and it’s one I most likely ought to have considered. In our actuality, the kinds of people that would possibly develop into the Waterfords are, in fact, endlessly eroding all method of social and international establishments — to say nothing of the local weather itself — within the identify of bringing an finish to abortion rights in our nation.
The present’s depiction of the fertility disaster crucial for its world to exist has all the time been slightly fuzzy (which is likely to be why a few of this fetishistic therapy of the younger doesn’t land for me). However on a broadly conceptual degree, it does make a point of sense that everyone in Gilead would have gone up to now over-the-top in attempting to finish mentioned fertility disaster that the lifetime of a single youngster (significantly the kid of a few highly effective white folks) could be prioritized over a terrific many different issues. It’s not like you possibly can’t level to one million examples of this taking place on a smaller scale in our personal actuality.
I agree with you that the scene that includes Luke and Serena’s dialog is likely one of the higher ones this season. It’s one thing the present has wanted for a very long time. It’s laborious for us as viewers to cope with Gilead changing into normalized for lots of the characters, even when we intellectually know that complete parable about frogs and boiling water. We need the catharsis of seeing Gilead minimize down, maybe as a result of the miniature Gileads in our world perpetuate themselves with out a lot regard for our opinion of them.
The stress throughout the present between “Gilead is evil” and “For this to proceed being a TV present, Gilead has to live on” is what I like greatest about it, however it’s additionally what has brought about many viewers to tune out, maybe as a result of they’re not as into sophisticated feats of narrative juggling as I’m. That’s what makes the scene between Luke and Serena such a terrific effort of narrative pretzel logic. I don’t actually purchase the entire twists and turns required to succeed in that time, however the emotional payoff is so crucial that I’m keen to forgive the present these twists and turns.
This additionally cannily reorients the present on the parallel observe to actuality it ran on for a lot of the primary two seasons. Sure, what’s taking place this season is extra disconnected from no matter contemporary horrors our 2019 serves up than the present has usually been. However on the similar time, its use of Luke is just like each time a Twitter thread about, say, kids being held on the US/Mexico border crosses my visual field. I get upset about it, after which I don’t know what I can do.
By easy advantage of the place I reside and the time limit at which I reside, I’m complicit in horrible issues (which is true of each human who has ever lived, in fact — shout out to The Good Place). However discovering a solution to finish these horrible issues, even in a democracy, is tougher than it must be, as a result of the programs set as much as abuse the powerless are constructed to strengthen themselves.
Which is to say, when the digital camera lastly dollies in on June on the finish of this episode, stranded off to the aspect of a picture-perfect TV household in mourning, she would possibly as properly be all of us: trapped, however complicit, however attempting to combat again, however figuring out she most likely can’t, however nonetheless complicit. And nonetheless trapped.
Constance: Is it sick to say that the sense of being trapped is the factor I miss most in regards to the first few episodes of this present? I’ve by no means seen something onscreen earlier than or since that made me absolutely really feel the claustrophobia of dwelling underneath patriarchy like the primary three episodes of Handmaid’s Story did, and that’s why I all the time really feel disillusioned when the present provides into the simple catharsis of letting June speak again to whoever she needs to.
That second the place June tells her new procuring companion to chunk her is a living proof. What occurred to the ever-present and horrifying concept that June’s fellow Handmaids may inform on her for her lack of piety at any second, and that they have been in reality inspired to take action with rewards and particular therapy for the informant? Keep in mind how that was an enormous supply of stress in June’s relationship with Emily?
It’s not that I don’t need June to have company, as a result of I do. However I need her to search out that company throughout the established energy construction of Gilead. Not simply because she’s the protagonist, so she will be able to do no matter badass factor she seems like, and everyone knows she’s not going to undergo too many penalties for it. That’s the one manner her company will really feel utterly earned and satisfying to me.
However I felt that claustrophobia come again, just a bit, in that shot of June trapped on the nook of the set with Aunt Lydia pushing her head down. And though I’m sure that the decision to this drawback will really feel slightly bit low cost, as a result of that’s what this present’s observe report has established, it’s good to know that it could possibly nonetheless seize that distinct and explicit feeling of horror when it needs to place within the effort.