“You do something to me that I can’t explain.” A lyric from popular song ‘Islands In The Stream’ (which Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) sings during a flashback scene in tonight’s episode) that I feel once described my relationship with The Handmaid’s Tale. Yes, with excellent scripts, brilliant performances and an overall spectacular narrative, the dystopian drama has before, on plenty of occasions, made me feel more emotions in a single sitting than I ever thought possible. Unfortunately, the downside of experiencing such a high level of brilliance is that the only way to go is down and — in spite of its stellar opening instalments — the third season has taken a noticeable dip in standard as of late, as the plots are being watered down in order for the story to stretch to 13 episodes.
Mind you, tonight’s episode — ‘Unfit’ — is an improvement on last week’s narratively frustrating instalment, but the lack of direction for June (Elisabeth Moss) continues to prove problematic. I guess the biggest issue is June’s goal — or, rather, her lack of one. What is it that she is currently fighting for? ‘Unfit’ doesn’t do much in the way of clarifying that. We know she can’t leave Gilead without Hannah, so it’s not freedom that she’s chasing as of yet. Hannah was the reason she couldn’t abscond at the end of the previous season so, logically, we’re inclined to believe that it’s Hannah’s safety that’s driving June forward, right? Well, I find that incredibly hard to buy following the events of last week’s episode, as she blew her one chance at rescuing her daughter via a badly planned — and poorly executed — last minute trip to visit her — a trip which endangered plenty of others’ lives. I feel like the writers have very much lost sight of their protagonist’s goal, and her bullying of Ofmatthew’s (Ashleigh LaThrop) is further proof of this.
Yes, following Ofmatthew’s betrayal, June has made it her mission to make her walking partner’s life a living hell. All of the other handmaids have alienated the young woman too, and they even go as far as to get her into trouble in front of Aunt Lydia. Harsh. I understand that June is angry at her, but surely she should be focusing her attention on trying to track down her daughter’s new location? Surely she could be quizzing Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) or something? Instead, she’s playing games with her new enemy — and endangering her life as a result. Reckless and complacent — two things which June was never prior to last week.
Yes, due to her odd characterisation as of late, I’m really struggling to like June, and I’m finding it very hard to root for her. Perhaps that is the writers’ intention but, I’m more inclined to believe that it’s simply just another stalling tactic.
Hailed as the big Aunt Lydia episode, ‘Unfit’ takes us back in time to show what Lydia was like before Gilead came to pass. However, in spite of all the promotion that went into this episode beforehand, I’m not really sure why this instalment, in particular, was chosen to be the one to explain her backstory. I mean, narratively, the flashbacks feel so out of place. Present-day Lydia isn’t in a reminiscing mood, and none of her actions appear to be reminding her of a time before Gilead so, as a result, the flashbacks feel as if they’ve been shoehorned in at random moments throughout the episode. It’s structurally uneven.
Although the material included in these flashbacks provided Ann Dowd with plenty of opportunities to showcase just how sensational an actress she truly is, I’m not convinced they accomplished what they set out to do. Are we expected to believe that she’s as evil as she is because she gave into temptation and the man rejected her? Apart from being a bit of a cliché — and not a very good one at that — this isn’t really a great backstory for one of TV’s most multi-layered characters, is it?
I’m not sure what ‘Unfit’ accomplishes, and the closing scenes in which Ofmatthew snaps and pulls a gun on
June and Lydia — after attacking Janine (Madeline Brewer) — is rather confusing. Are we supposed to be rooting for her to pull the trigger? Is June giving us her the go-ahead to do so? I’m honestly not even sure.
While ‘Unfit’ is an improvement on last week’s almost-but-not-quite-entirely filler episode, there are some pretty huge issues with the show at the moment, and — in addition to its protagonist problems — it’s ultimately down to the bloated episode count of the third season. Mind you, I can’t blame the number of episodes on the disappointing backstory for Aunt Lydia, as U guess that would’ve been explored nonetheless. I still have faith that Handmaid’s will pull it out of the bag in the countdown to the season finale, but right now it just feels as if the narrative is stood firmly in place as opposed to moving forward.
By Stephen Patterson
The Handmaid’s Tale continues Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4.