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The Handmaid's Tale - Unfit - Review

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The Handmaid’s Tale “Unfit” was written by Kira Snyder and was directed by Mike Barker. This episode is a bravura performance by Ann Dowd as we finally get Aunt Lydia’s backstory. Elisabeth Moss also delivers another amazing performance as we see June tipping back into madness, only this time that madness is directed outward. Finally, the episode also sees a brilliant performance from Ashleigh LaThrop as Ofmatthew – Natalie – unravels under the barrage of June’s unexpected cruelty. The title works on many levels, touching on both past and present storylines.

As the episode opens, June and the other handmaids attend Ofandy’s (Kelsey Falconer) birth. June stands apart – from the birth and from directly inflicting the shunning of Ofmatthew. But it’s clear that the shunning is at June’s direction. It’s a testament to LaThrop’s performance that we feel sympathy for her. At the same time, if the handmaids can’t trust each other to support each other, they are lost. The cost of telling Aunt Lydia about Frances. June’s anger is fueled by her own guilt. In voiceover, June tells us that in “the time before,” Frances was a Sales Manager, tutored kids after school, and was saving up for a trip to the Galapagos. Telling us that she tutored kids after school just underscores that Frances liked children and we know she loved Hannah. June blames Ofmatthew completely for the failure of her plan, Frances’ death, and Hannah’s disappearance.

Janine (Madeline Brewer) is the only handmaid comforting Ofandy by touch – remember how that worked for her baby. She is also the only one to tell June that she’s being “so mean” to Ofmatthew – to feel sympathy for her. June tells Janine that Ofmatthew got Frances killed and should have kept her mouth shut. Janine tries to excuse it by saying that Ofmatthew was only doing what Aunt Lydia told her to. June knows this and doesn’t see it as an excuse. But Janine has learned to live with the rape and slavery of their existence by trusting in God – and Aunt Lydia. Janine would never tell on the other handmaids, but her coping mechanism is the same as Ofmatthew’s and makes her uniquely empathetic to her.

When Ofandy’s contractions stop, Aunt Lydia releases the handmaids. She may have been concentrating on the birth, but Aunt Lydia knows exactly what’s going on. She tells June to tell her “friends to cool it.” June has found a new sense of power. She asks Aunt Lydia if she wants to take out her tongue or burn her arm? What if she has to appear on television again to help with baby Nichole? June thinks that she is untouchable – but Aunt Lydia proves that she has many ways to break a handmaid. She tells June to get on the bus – they aren’t all going home just yet.

Aunt Lydia sets up a shaming circle in the basketball court with June at the center. There are the usual beautiful crane shots with the “sinner” at center court. June shows zero remorse for Frances’ death. Aunt Lydia sees it and reminds them that “testifying is where you unburden yourself of sin.” June gives all the right answers – no one is without sin.

       But Aunt Lydia knows June’s real weakness. And she sees June’s selfishness – which I actually commented on in my last review. Aunt Lydia goes right for June’s soft spot by telling her that the one she’s hurt the most is that little girl Agnes – Hannah. Aunt Lydia is not wrong. How will Hannah deal with being ripped from the person she’s been closest to, who’s cared for her, and from her home – a second time?! This was hard enough on her the first time, but can only be that much worse the second time.

As Aunt Lydia talks, the camera zooms in on June and Aunt Lydia, filling the screen with their faces alternatively. We see Aunt Lydia hammer away at June and Moss’s face crumbles, turning red, June is barely able to contain her tears as the truth cuts through her defenses. But her face hardens again at Aunt Lydia’s mention of the Godly, obedient, and joyful among them. Those who do Aunt Lydia’s bidding.

      June’s face is once again an expressionless mask as she tells Aunt Lydia that she has something else to testify. She smiles before composing her face to one of sorrow, and turning to say that Ofmatthew doesn’t want her baby. Ofmatthew is horrified. She never said it out loud – but then, could she expect June to keep her confidences? There’s a terrific shot of Janine – who says, “Oh shit” – behind Ofmatthew. Janine knows that this is one of the most grievous things a handmaid can be accused of – but she also knows what being at the center of the shaming circle is going to do to Ofmatthew.

Ofmatthew denies it at first, but Aunt Lydia forces her to the center to testify. Ofmatthew immediately admits that she only felt that way for a second. Aunt Lydia has June trade places with Ofmatthew. She continues to say she only felt that way for a second. She says that the pregnancy feels different – and maybe I was completely dim, but I was surprised when her concern is not that the baby isn’t healthy but that it’s a girl. She tells them that she was scared what “her” life would be. Aunt Lydia tells her only God knows that, and then says that thinking you know better than God is a sin. And rejecting a baby is also a sin. Ofmatthew crumbles under the barrage of pointed fingers and chants of sinner. After all, we’ve seen how devoted she is. Aunt Lydia tells her not to be a crybaby. She completely misses the damage being done to her. She enjoys seeing her suffer – until she then tells her she’s her good girl, asking her if she feels better now. Ofmatthew, of course, says that she does. It’s clear that Aunt Lydia harbors deep resentment for women, especially those who have children.

The first flashback goes immediately to a very different Aunt Lydia. She’s an elementary school teacher, staying late with Ryan (Ian Ho), one of her students whose mother hasn’t come to pick him up yet. She looks completely different, wearing her hair down, and she’s clearly happy playing a game of 20 questions with the boy as they wait. It’s also pretty clear that she’s got a thing for her Principal – Jim (John Ortiz) – when he comes to check on her – it’s already 6pm. It becomes clear quickly that they are also both religious as Jim identifies the religious passage she quotes at him. Lydia is concerned about the boy, whose mother, Noelle (Emily Althaus) doesn’t send him with a proper lunch – a bag of chips – and doesn’t answer her calls as to where she is.

At 6:15, the school’s security guard (Lara Mrkoci) reminds them that the school is about to be locked up. I don’t think schools regularly have armed guards – do they? Isn’t this an indication that this is pre-Gilead, but starting that slide. Lydia decides that she’s going to take Ryan home and give him a decent meal. Before they can leave, Noelle rushes in. Lydia says he’s hungry and she suggests fast food. And since when does a kid not want McDonald’s! When he insists that he wants chili, Lydia quickly jumps in to say that that is her fault as she suggested it, quickly making sure that Ryan doesn’t get in trouble. In the end, Lydia insists that they both come home for dinner with her, taking mother and child under her wing.

Noelle is the exact polar opposite of Lydia, who seems a bit na├»ve. Noelle swears, which Lydia clearly disapproves of and works in a bar. She asks Lydia if she has a boyfriend – or girlfriend – and Lydia looks disturbed. We do learn that she was married – and it was a mistake. We never learn why it was a mistake – and I’m hoping for more backstory! When Ryan guesses that he’s Thomas Edison as the answer to the 20 questions game, Lydia declares Ryan is very special and that Noelle is blessed. Noelle agrees and says that Ryan deserves better and more – meaning out of life – but Lydia tells Noelle that SHE can be better. Is this her first chance at molding another woman?

Aunt Lydia dismisses the handmaids one by one. Aunt Lydia seems genuine when she thanks June for telling what she knew about Ofmatthew. June tells her that she’s welcome. June is clearly self-satisfied about it. She’s found a way for Aunt Lydia to do her dirty work for her.

When June returns home, she immediately goes to Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) to ask if he’s found out anything about where the Mackenzies have gone. He tells her no – and not to ask again. He doesn’t know anybody who knows, and he tells her to go to her room. He shuts the door in her face, and there’s a beautiful shot of her eyes, framed in the decoration of the glass that looks like teeth. He watches her finally turn and go – he clearly recognizes the danger that she’s become. She does as she’s told, but she’s furious. She stops to claw the door jam and gather herself. Is she angry just with Lawrence? It seems likely at this point.

As June lies on her bed, with her hair hanging down, she continues to claw at the floor, running her finger through the carpet in straight lines. She muses that no one really remembers pain, it remains as a shadow in the flesh. Pain marks you too deep to see. Pain is clearly marking June and changing her – and not for the better. Her reverie is interrupted by Sienna (Sugenja Sri) coming to tell her that Ofandy is back in labor. The Birth Mobile is waiting.

Once again, we get a beautiful crane shot of the ritual – which is just creepy. As the wives surround the “mother,” she sits behind the actual mother who is surrounded by the handmaids. From above they all swing back and then forward, looking like the opening of a mouth – or possibly a vagina giving birth. Once again, June stands apart from the others. She’s cut herself off from this society. She refuses to care about anyone – she continues to be selfish. She muses about the skipping game children used to play that mused about what their children would grow up to be. Of course, even then, the list was for men.

      June muses that the list is a lot shorter now: Martha, jezebel, handmaid, wife. Interestingly, she leaves out Aunt. She refuses to be a part of such a society – but at the expense of supporting the other women trapped there. She doesn’t hurt merely the wives or Aunts, she also doesn’t help Ofandy. The other handmaids haven’t lost the ability to feel compassion for the handmaid or joy at a birth.

The birth ends in tragedy as the baby is stillborn. It looks to me like the umbilical cord was twisted around the baby’s neck. It highlights that giving birth without the benefit of doctors and a hospital comes with its own cost – this should have been a highly preventable death. Both mothers are distraught, as are the handmaids and even Aunt Lydia, but June is completely impassive. Ofmatthew is also freaked out. June doesn’t comfort Ofandy, she goes to look closely at the dead baby.

It’s not until she gets home that she realizes what she felt was actually relief. Better dead than a slave in Gilead. Lawrence comes to her room to find out if the baby was a boy or girl as Eleanor will ask. June tells him dead. Lawrence says that Mrs Lawrence shouldn’t have to know that, and then he asks June to spend some time with her the next day. He concedes that June is good with her. He even concedes that June is good for his wife!

Once again, we get a brilliant shot with a mirror as June stands up and verbally attacks Lawrence. She tells him it looks like he cares about his wife, but in reality, he’s killing her by keeping her in this world that he’s helped create. She taunts him that with one phone call, he could have her out. Lawrence is affected by her words, but he also sees where they’re coming from. He says “I bet that felt good.” He simply turns and leaves. June turns her back to the mirror, and smiles. But it’s not a genuine smile, it looks more like an animal barring its teeth. With her back to the mirror, this is not a real reflection of June. At least, I hope it isn’t and that she will once again find her humanity.

We get some insight into the lives of the Aunts as well. Aunt Lydia sits around a table – with a lazy susan in the middle to aid in sharing files. I loved this little homey addition to work that is so completely not homey. They discuss which handmaids should go to which family. They have clearly assessed both handmaids and families as they decide that Carvers are quick to anger and need someone quiet and calm. Aunt Lydia discounts the suggestion of Sonia – as they don’t want a handmaid of color. Gilead is much more racist in the novel, though the show has been criticized for its treatment of race as well, particularly in this episode, in fact. Aunt Elizabeth (Edie Inksetter) suggests Vivian, and Aunt Lydia declares it a good match.

The discussion turns to Ofandy. Her current home won’t want her back – and it’s going to be difficult to place her once word of her “failure” gets around. How is this her failure? Clearly, no one else is going to take responsibility – even if the failure is in how the birth itself was performed. What will happen to her? Will she simply be sent to the colonies? Aunt Lydia bemoans that the Lord would withhold his blessing from an obedient girl like Ofandy while giving two healthy children to someone like June. She bemoans the fact that she has tried with “that one.” Again, completely negating her own role in creating June as she now is. The freedom that the Aunts enjoy – based on being traitors to their own gender – is underscored by their sharing a glass of sherry over their work.

Aunt Elizabeth declares June a bad apple, yet we know how long and hard her journey has been – and the June that existed before. Aunt Lydia is prepared to simply blame the Waterfords. She insists that environment cannot be underestimated as an influence. She declared that sometimes it’s the apple and sometimes it’s the barrel. She’s prepared to take June out of the Lawrence’s. Will he object?

In another flashback, we join Lydia at Christmas, which she is enjoying with Noelle and Ryan. Noelle has clearly quit the bar where she was working and is now working in a store. She brings Lydia make up as a present, encouraging her to get out there and find someone special. As Noelle applies the make up to Lydia’s face, there is definitely an element of sexuality to it. Is Noelle coming on to Lydia or has Lydia been so harsh with Emily in the past because of her own latent feelings? Lydia is clearly appalled when Noelle tells her about her current boyfriend – who is in IT – a good job – but is married. Noelle admits that she’s not as far along as they’d like her to be, but she’s trying. Lydia admits that that’s what counts. Noelle insists that if she’s going to try harder so is Lydia.

Lydia does try harder, and we next see her out for New Year’s Eve – with Jim! It’s a little awkward, but the two share champagne, karaoke, and a dance before heading back to Lydia’s. Dowd is terrific here as we see a completely different side to her. We also learn that she used to be a Family Law lawyer! She comments that things are better now because it’s all privatized – what does that mean? There are no courts or lawyers involved? No due process?

Back at Lydia’s, Jim confesses while looking at her Christmas tree that he spent the holiday alone – his son couldn’t make it home and his wife passed almost three years ago. Lydia says she would have invited him if she’d known, and he says next Christmas. He’s clearly thinking long term. She has nightcaps and invites him to sit on the sofa with her. The two kiss and things start to heat up. When he pulls back, however, that’s it for Lydia. She feels completely rejected and nothing he says can make it better. He wants to see her again, but she completely cuts him off.

Again, there’s a beautifully shot sequence of her in the bathroom, removing her makeup. We see in through the doorway as she sits on the side of the tub, away from the mirror. She then gets up and looks at her reflection in the mirror before breaking it by pounding on it with both her fists. It’s the end of the person she sees in the mirror – and her next actions make it clear who she blames for the pain she’s endured – almost all of which is due to her inability to empathize with Jim’s feelings – or anyone else’s.

We are back at school – and here is the Lydia we know. Her hair is now up as she favors wearing it. She has triggered an emergency removal of Ryan. Jim tries to stop her. Lydia tells him that they are required by law to report moral weakness – and she’s turned in Noelle and ripped Ryan from her care. The CPS Agent (Daveed Louza) tells her that there are many families wanting to adopt – and here’s Lydia’s first chance to help one of those families. There’s another great shot of Jim in shadow as the light’s behind him in front of the window of Lydia’s classroom. On the window is a sun and flowers – the idyllic life that Lydia might have had?? But her behavior is not Christian, and Jim wants no further part of her now. He’s disgusted by her actions. Noelle arrives and she’s furious. Aunt Lydia is utterly unmoved by Noelle’s distress. She tells her that this is her fault. Aunt Lydia is the master at shifting blame and shifting her pain onto someone else. This too she has taught June.

  Back in Gilead, we get another gorgeous shot of the handmaids heading in twos in the snow with their red umbrellas to Loaves and Fishes. There’s yet another beautiful closeup of June’s face, framed by her coronet. She slowly turns to see Ofmatthew coming through the snow without an umbrella. It’s the first sign of her unravelling. We’ve already seen the toll the still birth had on her as Aunt Lydia had to take her away from the dead baby – too soon after her shaming. Ofmatthew is surrounded by the edge of June’s coronet. June has tunnel vision where Ofmatthew is concerned.

In voiceover, June tells us that she hurt her. She also says that she enjoyed it. She also enjoyed the grieving aunts and wives over the dead baby. She enjoyed lashing out at Lawrence. She feels that they all deserved it. She also tells us that it’s an acquired taste, seeing others in pain. She compares it to a smokey scotch that Luke got once as a drink that she also grew to like. We are supposed to be appalled that she’s reducing human suffering to the same as liking a scotch. The two exchange the ritual greeting, but Ofmatthew is clearly terrified of what June may be going to do next.

When they arrive at Loaves and Fishes, Janine runs to check on Ofmatthew, who clearly lies and says she’s fine. Janine has arguably suffered even more than June – she’s lost an eye and been sent to the colonies, yet she’s still maintained her capacity for empathy. June, meanwhile, muses that she now knows how Ofglen (Lily) felt when she strapped on that bomb. Has she lost the ability for self-preservation at this point too? It’s also interesting that June uses Lily’s handmaid name while in the previous scene the Aunts actually used her real name. Is this another way for June to distance herself from the real person? Yet the Aunts using Lily also negates their own taking her identity and freedom away.

Aunt Lydia immediately appears and tells June she wants a word. The Loaves and Fishes set is so white it almost glows. It’s unnaturally “clean” – and beautiful cinematographically. Aunt Lydia looks like a turd emoji in her brown outfit. As June acquiesces to Aunt Lydia’s request, her voice over tells us she now knows exactly how Emily felt before she sank the knife into Aunt Lydia’s back. And that is what June is about to do.

Aunt Lydia tells June that she’s prayed on her failing June and has decided to remove her from the Lawrence household – it’s dangerously unorthodox. June is incredulous. She tells Aunt Lydia that Lawrence personally requested her. Aunt Lydia tells her that there are Commanders more powerful than Lawrence and it comes down to the fitness of the family. It comes down to the very power that Aunt Lydia wields. No doubt, the babies are a strong bargaining chip that the Aunts use with the Commanders. She also mentions that Mrs Lawrence is ill, and Aunt Lydia doubts that the Lawrences are really a home for a child.

While Aunt Lydia talks, behind her, Ofmatthew is completely melting down. She holds a can of lobster to her face. June sees it and so does Janine. June turns her face away, smiling slightly, giving every indication that what is being discussed pleases her, rather than distressing her, making Ofmatthew believe they are talking about her. Janine rushes to try to defuse the situation, but it’s too late. When Janine tries comfort by touching her hand, Ofmatthew rounds on her, growling like an animal, with the can, beating her senseless. She then hits a guardian with a glass jar – apparently killing him instantly and takes his gun.

I loved how this was shot. The gun is clearly stationary with Ofmatthew moving behind it. June demonstrates her own power. Once Ofmatthew has the gun trained on her, rather than being afraid, she merely flicks her eyes in Aunt Lydia’s direction and nods. She’s weaponized Ofmatthew to do her bidding. Ofmatthew is confused by June not being afraid, but she also doesn’t really want to kill her – at this point you have to wonder why. She turns the gun on Aunt Lydia, who appeals to her as Natalie. It’s almost worse that Aunt Lydia doesn’t really think of her in non-personal terms – but actually appeals to her as a person.

Before Ofmatthew can shoot, she is shot. This is another beautiful cinematic moment. It’s almost balletic as the bullet catches her in the head and spins her around. Her physical spiral is merely the end of her emotional one. She’s in the center of the bulk food area which also circles her – the dead guard already on the floor to the side. She lands and June watches wide eyed at what she’s done. She seems completely emotionally detached by it – simply surprised. Aunt Lydia is horrified at the loss of a child and an obedient handmaid. It’s a hideously gruesome sight as Ofmatthew is dragged out of the store, leaving a straight line of blood on the white floor. June steps to the center of the aisle, straddling the red line and watches. And then the camera zooms into a closeup of her face as the music comes up with “Que Sera, Sera.” June’s face remains completely impassive – she is taking no responsibility for this – or does she just not care? Is she at the point where murder is justified? If you cross me, I’ll kill you – or have you killed.

June takes a particularly dark turn in this episode. I loved the cinematography in this episode and all of the very animal-like images that underscore the loss of humanity. Aunt Lydia’s backstory doesn’t really make her sympathetic. I’m curious to see how Lawrence is going to be able to keep June – or if he’ll even try. June may have lost her empathy, but she also seems to have lost any self-preservation. Being on Aunt Lydia’s bad side will not go well for her. What did you think of the episode? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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