Published On: Wed, Jun 19th, 2019

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Attempts to Bridge Distances in “Unknown Caller”

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The Handmaid's Tale Unknown Caller Review

With pouts flickering behind her self-assured facade, The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Yvonne Strahovski is good at raking pity for an egotistical privileged power-starved Serena Joy. For all her monstrous deeds to her Handmaid June, Serena Joy’s point of sympathy is her maternal love for baby Nichole because it plays to a universal understanding that maternal bonds are sacred and allows her to care for someone outside of her ego.

However, maternal attachment does not exempt Serena Joy from being an architect of the totalitarian Gilead. There are moments the series borders on over-sympathizing with Serena Joy, investing in her emotional turmoil, while not condoning how myopic her maternal reach is. While June (Elisabeth Moss) anticipated that coaxing Serena Joy back into power might help matters, perhaps re-stationing her in rule only made the Wife comfortable once again in Gilead.

It barely occurs to Serena Joy that June is mourning for baby Nichole too. There, “Unknown Caller” stretches the circumstances for two characters who never met to have a meeting. The Waterfords pressure June to contact Luke in Canada to arrange Serena Joy to see Nichole, who is now in arms of June’s husband Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) in Canada.

Before June is pressured into contacting Luke, she bites down on Serena Joy’s entitlement to see a child that she has essentially stolen from – and shared with – June. It matters shit to June that Serena Joy has grown softer toward June’s concerns. June gives one condition: “I want you to owe me.” June, with Moss holding a rigid stone-faced countenance, can feel no elation when speaking to her long-lost husband through the phone line because of the muddled affairs that lead to the contact.

Of course, looking into the eyes of the woman who held your wife down while she was raped, Luke gives some satisfactory invectives at Serena at the Canada airport. Serena tries for empathy while rationalizing the circumstances, using choice words of cordiality. She also talks to Luke like he’s the ingrate, remarking that she protected June (minimally at least). Although it indulges Serena Joy’s grief, it is pity that compels Luke to momentarily hand his child to her.

While it is off-screen, Serena Joy had enough of a conscience to smuggle June’s secret gift into Luke’s hands. So June reaches Luke on her own terms through a cassette tape from Lawrence’s basement. In a drenching impassioned speech, June confesses Nichole’s parentage and the baby’s real name Holly. It’s a heartbreaking confession because June does not have to apologize for her affair with Nick but the human mind easily feels guilt for a perceived transgression when navigating a stormy dystopia. While her truth to Luke can never redeem the horrific ordeals, her words to Luke reclaim a part of her humanity that Gilead has stolen from her.

For all the communication contrivances, “Unknown Caller” deals with how mourning for bygone company can wear the soul. Serena Joy longs for Nichole and her privilege allows her grief to be alleviated to some extent. June mourns for her baby, as she pines for Luke, but understands the necessity of leaving her be in Canada. Mrs. Lawrence (Julie Dretzin) also discusses lost days in the Before time, suggesting a past where Commander Lawrence wasn’t as cold and callous when he made music for her through mixtapes.

Supporting players unravel some dimensions, reclaiming a part of their identity. Mrs. Lawrence finds autonomy by confiding in June about how her husband has faded from her. It leads to June’s affecting counsel: “It’s okay to take a sliver of somebody and hold onto that, especially if it’s all you have.” It’s a declaration of self-preservation that illustrates why, despite her expectations being thwarted constantly, June permits herself to entertain goodness even in oppressive figures like Serena Joy, sometimes Fred Waterford, and Commander Lawrence.

In addition, June also discovers that deep down, not unlike the late second Ofglen/Lillie, Ofmatthew (Ashleigh Lathrop) held her own subversive thoughts beneath her smiling pious-Handmaid shell even if she’s not the mode of an idealized survivor. I suspect they were going to background Ofmatthew’s meek disposition and hope her story will unravel.

But June overestimates how much good can remain in a person’s conscience when Serena Joy and Fred broadcast a “give back our stolen child” plea to the world, shanghaiing poor June to stand at the couple’s side as they are filmed live. With Serena Joy reclaiming sliver of power in Gilead, she would easily forgo empathy and sense to wield power and privilege to get back the old days with the baby, forgetting her revulsion over Eden’s execution as well as the maternal instincts that drove her to send the baby to Canada in the first place.

You don’t want the show to go that far yet wonder how far it would go.

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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Attempts to Bridge Distances in “Unknown Caller”