Under the Eye: “Unknown Caller”

Note: I’ve harped on this before, I know, but there were and are viewers who believe The Handmaid’s Tale represents an analogue of current Western culture; that somehow we’ve gone back to the dark ages, and we’ve brought back female subjugation in a big way. I’d just like to direct my readers to events unfolding in Afghanistan at this very moment. This is what The Handmaid’s Tale would look like in 2021. What women and girls endure in Gilead is nothing compared to the real-life atrocities and true insurrection being conducted right now in Afghanistan. Our “progressive” government and President turned their backs on these women. I just thought everyone should know that.

“Well, I do my best to understand, dear
But you still mystify
And I want to know why
I pick myself up off the ground
To have you knock me back down
Again and again
And when I ask you to explain, you say

You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind in the right measure
Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign
Cruel to be kind means that I love you, baby
(You’ve gotta be cruel)
You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind”*

Just because you want something so bad, and it doesn’t matter what you do to get it does not make the inverse of what you have accomplished palatable. Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) is childless; her womb, an empty, rotting vessel incapable of bringing forth life. When her ambitions for motherhood fall in line with the creepy, practicing virtues of Gilead, it’s only inevitable that she could force a fertile women to bear a child that she will steal and then call her own. When she sheds tears for Nichole, the tears exist only in the world of her vivid imagination. This is a world of her design. This is a world she can control. What does a powerless woman (or any animal) want but to control just one thing in her life. This is what you would expect in any creature, but Serena is a more complicated beast.

She knowingly consented to Nichole being spirited away to the freer environs of Canada. Maybe she even wished that one day she would be reunited with her. In this episode, she is required to lie to Gilead. It is a broader brushstroke than the lies of the first four episodes. She is required to say that Nichole was abducted (forcibly) and taken away to Canada by a murderer (presumably Emily), but it then becomes harder to support the lie when she would rather believe her subjective truth. As a result of the final minutes of the previous episode, the Waterfords instruct June to contact Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) by way of a monitored phone call. When she gets him, she makes it quick. Serena and Fred want to see their baby. Luke agrees, but he doesn’t want to see Fred.

Serena is shuttled to Canada by the American operative, Tuello (Sam Jaeger) from the previous season, where she meets with an enraged Luke (and Nichole). This is one of the best played scenes of not only the 3rd season but the show as a whole. Luke doesn’t know how to contain his anger at this person he doesn’t even know, while Serena tries her best to keep a smile on her face. This is the closest I’ve seen to humanity in Serena. She almost feels like a real person. Unfortunately the scene is over all too quickly. She gives Luke a gift for Nichole; a locket in addition to a concealed audio tape, recorded by June from Lawrence’s private collection of mix tapes.

June found the mix tapes in the basement after a talk with Lawrence’s wife, Eleanor (Julie Dretzin). Eleanor let it slip that Lawrence wasn’t always what he is now. He used to make his wife mix tapes. It’s cute when you think about it. June pops in one of the tapes, which leads off with Leo Sayer’s, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.” I wanna dance the night away! “Unknown Caller” is a veritable feast of needle-drops, and that’s saying something for this show. I have to assume “Cruel to Be Kind” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” were also on the Joseph Lawrence mix tape. It’s an interesting, eclectic mélange. She lets Leo Sayer play for a couple of bars, and then leaves the message for Luke. His reactions are wonderful.

Once “safely” back in Gilead, the Commanders step up their game in terms of looking like the victims of a horrible tragedy. They drape June in handmaid gowns made of the best materials and put her and the Waterfords in front of a camera where they make an impassioned plea to have Nichole returned to them. I don’t know how anybody could do this with a straight face, but we are dealing with a gaggle of neurotic isolationist xenophobes convinced of their own moral superiority. They don’t see any of their actions as criminal.

While Fred makes his pitch, June in seen in the background with her head bowed. They need a good director. They need a good drama coach. Rather than engendering sympathy of any kind, the video comes off more like a ransom note, and it seems like it was produced primarily for Luke’s benefit. Gilead wants to turn the “Nichole Situation” into an international scandal, and they’re essentially holding June hostage in return for Nichole. When June realizes this (easily Moss’ best moment this season), she treats us to another in a long line of Kubrickian psycho-gazes as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” plays us out.

“How long, how long must we sing this song?”**

*Nick Lowe/Ian Gomm. “Cruel to Be Kind.” 1979. Labour of Lust. Columbia Records Inc., 1979
**U2. “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” 1983. War. Island Records Inc., 1983

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