Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale, “Under His Eye”
The Handmaid’s Talehas never been the easiest show to write about. Its bleak subject matter has always proven tricky to navigate and do justice, even at the best of times. This third season has come with its own brand new set of challenges, though. Part of which is the fact that, with each passing week, it’s become increasingly more difficult to find something positive to say about what we’re watching.
During previous seasons, there was always at least one aspect (though usually more) of a given episode where I could give credit where it was due. Hell, most of the time I was praising the show for its acting or esthetics, and, at times, its writing. Though it was depressing in its own right, at least season one had an underlying sense of hope. It also benefitted from being the first in the series, meaning everything we saw still had a freshness to it. Even when season two started to decline in places, it still managed to be a heavy-hitter in terms of performances and cinematography.
“Unfit” has left me at both a loss for something wholly positive to say, and also introduced the additional challenge of having to sort out new methods of discussing the show’s shortcomings. I mean, there are only so many ways to sayThe Handmaid’s Talehas become a shadow of its former self. That the emotional depth it once overflowed with has pretty much dried up. That its main character – who has, to be fair, always been a little problematic – has become so deeply unlikeable it’s hard to truly care about her trajectory. Too bad I can’t just cut to a close-up of Elizabeth Moss’ face, cue a jarring musical choice, and fade to black.
I’d love to know how the show repeatedly gets away with that, almost as much as I’d love to know how June still manages to have so many privileges in Gilead. It’s not that I don’t wish for her, and all the Handmaids and Marthas, to start a revolution and burn the place to the ground, but the writers keep making her go about it in such silly ways. Nothing is calculated or thoughtfully planned out like it was in the earlier part of the series. Her acts of rebellion feel disjointed from the reality of the show and it cheapens the stakes in general.
For instance, why is she allowed to stand back from the birthing ceremony while the other Handmaids are forced to take part? Why are the other Handmaids acting like June is their Top Dog, icing out Ofmatthew – whose real name we learn later is Natalie – in clear view of Lydia and the other Aunts? How can she still get away with so much shit, while it seems almost every woman she interacts with (or at least, the few women of color on the show) are killed or otherwise brutally punished, for lesser crimes or one that June has equaled in her recent past? Even the shaming ceremony turns out much worse for Natalie than June.
Part of the problem with that last point, is that the show clearly doesn’t know how to handle race. Characters of color never seem to last very long on The Handmaid’s Tale, making it difficult to explore the subject. What’s more, these characters always seem to take a much less rebellious stance against Gilead, which immediately puts them at odds with June, and, therefore, should technically put them at odds with the audience who also sees Gilead as the enemy. I don’t think this is what we – fans, critics, etc. – had in mind when we asked for more diversity.
Though “Unfit” made mention that a certain Commander and his wife didn’t want a Handmaid of color in their home, it was far from what constitutes a worthy exploration of race. I guess that’s just not what this show is going for. I guess it would have been too easy to give Janine or some other Handmaid the task of keeping their eye on June, allowing Natalie to develop as a character and perhaps even become an ally of her walking buddy. Instead, we lose Natalie in one of the show’s most bizarre scenes to date. Part first-person shooter, part action movie scene, the sequence at Loaves and Fishes felt like it came from an entirely different show. Or maybe even from a video game – the merchandising of which I’m sure would be disturbing yet asinine.
At one point I actually wondered if June was mind-controlling Natalie, because of the way the scene kept cutting between Moss’ facial contortions and Natalie’s out-of-nowhere violent actions. Okay, maybe her snap wasn’t completely out of nowhere, but it certainly happened at a strange time. Where was this rage during the shaming circle? Or when the other Handmaids were alienating her? I’m not sure we were given reason enough to understand that Natalie, a woman who has been depicted as faithful to Gilead, had been pushed to her limits in that moment. In lieu of any discussion about it – even brief – the episode closes with about forty five seconds on June’s smug face. It was infuriating, to say the actual least.
Of all its faults, though, and there are many, the episode’s biggest blunder comes in the flashbacks to Aunt Lydia’s life before Gilead. Lydia’s backstory had been long-awaited by both fans and critics, even if only to give Ann Dowd more screen time. We all wondered how she managed to get such a top position (at least for women) within Gilead, and how much of the Aunt Lydia we know now existed before the pulled back hair and brown outfits. Turns out, it may not have even been worth exploring.
It’s not that I expected some kind of grand reveal, showing us how Lydia used to be a huge feminist protesting laws that restrict reproductive rights or something. I didn’t even expect her backstory to garner sympathy for the character, since I’m not sure that would even be possible at this stage in the game. However, it would have been nice to be given some context within which to understand her current motives a little better. To see some of how her history shaped the woman she is now. Or, honestly, just something more compelling than learning Lydia was once a family law attorney, who then became a religious school teacher.
The only thing these flashbacks conveyed was that Lydia is insecure, vengeful, and petty, the latter of which most of us had already determined anyways. Normally I might say that Ann Dowd did the best with the material given to her, which she did, and that at least her performance elevated the scenes, but it didn’t. Does knowing all of this give a more sinister edge to her telling June that she wants to “help” her Handmaids? Sure. But that’s not quite enough to warrant the trip down memory lane. Especially this late in the season.
We’re well beyond the halfway point now, with only five episodes left to go, and I can’t help but wonder what he hell has even happened so far? Oh, right…
The Handmaid’s Tale S3E8 Review Score
The Handmaid’s Tale – S3E8 – Unfit
The Handmaid’s Tale – S3E8 – Unfit | Starring: Bradley Whitford, The Handmaid’s Tale, Ann Dowd, Elizabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Max Minghella, Yvonne Strahovski , Alexis Bledel