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Sunday, 7 July 2019

REVIEW - The Handmaid's Tale delivers frustrating fifth episode.

With the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale’s current season having boasted an exciting new direction — complete with its own fresh tone — and the fourth instalment having elaborated a bit further on the laws on Gilead, Bruce Miller and his team of writers managed to accomplish what many thought to be an impossibility: convincing us that there was more of Margaret Atwood’s chilling tale left to tell.

While the fifth episode, ‘Unknown Caller’, does carry on this tradition in multiple ways, certain narrative decisions resulted in this being the first outing of the dystopian drama that had me questioning the writers’ choices.


The Handmaid’s Tale is no stranger to repeating certain storylines over and over again. June (Elisabeth Moss) trying to escape from Gilead, for example, is a narrative thread that has been explored twice — three times if you include her excursion with Moira (Samira Wiley) during the Red Center days prior to her arrival at the Waterfords. The reason why we never questioned the repetition of this particular storyline, however, is because the strong writing managed to justify why it was done more than once. Each time June tried to escape she learned something new.

Unfortunately, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) turning her back on June yet again in ‘Unknown Caller’ so that she can aid Fred (Joseph Fiennes) in his quest to return Nichole to Gilead is a bit too left-field to be believable. Sure, it’s understandable that the Waterford mistress is grieving the loss of her child — and her visit to Canada no doubt made these feelings of hurt deeper — but this doesn’t change the fact that Fred had her finger removed for reading. None of this changes the fact that Nichole won’t be able to learn the word of the Lord because she won’t be allowed to read. None of this changes just how awful Gilead is.

Serena has always been one of the most brutal characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, but we’ve been led to believe if there’s one thing she would bend the rules for, it’s the safety of her own child. Yes, she’d put the interests, health and well-being of her beloved daughter above those of everyone else’s, which is why her desire to return Nichole to Gilead — a location which is no place for children or women, as she came to learn for herself last season — makes absolutely no sense.

What’s more, it undermines and erases not only all of her excellent character development, but it also ruins the superb relationship that has been built between her and June. We’re literally back to square one here. And I can’t shake the feeling that this narrative decision was executed simply to take up a few more episodes — which begs the question why the season needs to be 13 episodes in the first place. Like the first season, 10 would’ve more than sufficed.


Before this contrivance occurred, however, ‘Unknown Caller’ gave us some great stuff. The phone call between June and Luke (O.T Fagbenle)— and the evident awkwardness that came with it — was truly great. What’s more, Serena’s visit to Canada provided some great material for Strahovski to sink her teeth into, and she was as superb as always. These moments were full of subtext in regards to Serena’s conflict. She could’ve stayed put in Canada and escaped Gilead forever — and perhaps have been in Nichole’s life. But ultimately she stuck to her guns — which is also why her 360 on Nichole’s safety didn’t really work. If she was grieving for her daughter that much — and had no desire to rekindle a romance with Fred — why was returning to Gilead of such importance to her? Surely staying in Canada would’ve been a better choice for her?

June managing to get Luke a message via Serena was a really neat move on writer Marissa Jo Cerar’s part, and the heart-warming scene in which Luke hears his wife’s emotion-filled voice on the cassette tape was also very special. Informing Luke that Nichole — or Holly, as she refers to her on the tape — was born out of love and that Nick (Max Minghella) is her father was an interesting decision, and one that was no doubt meant to signify June once again taking ownership of her own narrative — and for her to do so in an instalment where Fred and Serena called most of the shots was truly magnificent.

‘Unknown Caller’ certainly offers a lot, and leaves viewers with plenty to ponder, but for a show that often produces bulletproof scripts, there were simply a few too many holes in the fabric of this one. Let’s just hope the narrative issues are exclusive to this instalment and that they resolve themselves soon enough, because “good” simply isn’t good enough for a show that’s so often exceptional. 

Contributed by Stephen Patterson 

             The Handmaid’s Tale continues Sunday at 9pm on Channel 4.

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