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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Even the great Ann Dowd can’t salvage a baffling, infuriating The Handmaid’s Tale

Ann Dowd
Ann Dowd
Photo: Sophie Giraud (Hulu)

What the hell was that?


Ann Dowd is an incredible talent. To the extent that “Unfit” works, it works because she (and Elisabeth Moss) can make just about anything work. As a collection of scenes, the Aunt Lydia portions of this episode tell a reasonably interesting story; the idea of exploring how the roots of a person’s religious fundamentalism can be linked to entitlement, rage, and especially shame makes a lot of sense for this show, which has sometimes neglected to dig into what led to the creation of Gilead, not in terms of story, but in terms of the world. (Serena Joy’s inability to get pregnant and/or getting shot in the lower abdomen does not count.)

Why they’re in this episode, however, is unclear. What dots are meant to connect the woman who reports the struggling mother she befriended to a pre-Gilead (but post-present day) child services organization, and the woman who stares down the barrel of Ofmatthew/Natalie’s gun? Is the idea really that the idea of an “unfit” mother is so enraging to Lydia that she loses all semblance of humanity and begins to act both vindictively and illogically? And if so, how does that connect to June and her pack of mean girls, who react to Ofmatthew’s undeniably violent and vengeful act (which it now seems we’re meant to interpret as the act of a true believer, an idea floated far more effectively with Sydney Sweeney’s Eden last season) like a troupe of bonnet-wearing 15-year-old assholes? We’re supposed to think they’re assholes, right?

I’m not sure The Handmaid’s Tale knows what it wants us to think. In the moment, sure, most of the time anyway. But this is one piece of a larger story, and I’m not sure what that story is meant to be. If it’s the story of how easily people (especially white people, and here white women in particular) can put their needs above even the basic humanity and even the physical safety of others—and it is that, both in this episode and in the series as a whole—then mission accomplished. But what is that final shot of June? Are we meant to think of this scene? Because I sure thought of this scene:

Lydia’s backstory is more straightforward, and until the end, you can sort of see how that story echoes with the present. Lydia, a teacher, finds herself befriending the mother of one of her students, a young woman clearly struggling to care for her kid and pay the bills at the same time; that friendship leads to her connecting on a more personal level with a co-worker, which leads to a heated moment of physical intimacy, a step taken too quickly for the man in question. He asks her to slow things down, and she takes it as a rejection and some sort of condemnation and judgment of her human weakness. That shame sours and curdles, and suddenly she’s sending it outward, condemning the woman with whom she’d found an unexpected kinship and even something like a family and sending her child into a foster home and to some other “worthy” family more in line with the moral standards of the soon-to-be Gilead.

In the present, she’s mulling things over: What handmaid is best suited to the angry racists who need both a docile handmaid and a white one? What’s gone wrong with June? (Her conclusion that it’s “the barrel,” and that the barrel is the Lawrences, and not the Waterfords, is baffling.) How best to discipline a woman who might be needed for more bizarre propaganda videos and thus cannot be marked? What to do with the suddenly traumatized pregnant handmade who June accuses of not wanting her baby?

The answer, inexplicably, seems to be to further traumatize her. Two issues here: First, almost nothing we’ve seen of Ofmatthew/Natalie indicates she’d react this way, but since the series never bothered to develop her at all, that’s perhaps to be expected. She could do almost anything and it would seem out of character, because so far her character, such as it is, has been defined by smug moral superiority and a few brief moments of obvious emotional struggle relating to her pregnancies. The second issue is that this is the second week in a row in which June makes decisions that result in the violent death of a black woman, an issue I’m not confident that The Handmaid’s Tale is raising deliberately—and if it is deliberate, it’s not clear what the point it’s attempting to make could be.


Last season, Gilead brought both Emily, who drove over a Guardian’s skull with a stolen car, and Janine, who stood on the edge of the bridge with a “stolen” baby in her arms, back from the Colonies, because they needed women who were able to get pregnany. This season, a pregnany Natalie turns her gun on Aunt Lydia after June makes some faces at her, prepares to pull the trigger, and is shot from behind. Is the point that, in Gilead as in the present-day United States, a black person is more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than a white person? Really, is The Handmaid’s Tale going to tackle issues of race after two seasons and change spent hand-waving it away? I’m not sure. But if they are, this is a bad way to go about it.

Ann Dowd is terrific. So is Elizabeth Moss. So, in her brief scenes here, is Madeline Brewer. So is Ashleigh LaThrop, who does exactly what’s asked of her here as Ofmatthew, bewildering and inconsistent though it may be. And this is the point where I’d normally praise the cinematography and direction, but not this time. Bonnet-cams and gun-barrel POVs can’t keep this from being a near-disaster of an episode. It’s possible this is all building somewhere great, and if so, I’ll eat some of these words—but not all of them. As one story, it’s a huge misfire. As one piece of a larger story, it might fare better, but that’s one loaded might.


Stray observations

  • How is Lydia’s response to “Ofmatthew doesn’t want her baby” not “It’s not her baby, it’s the family’s baby”?
  • How are the Aunts allowed to drink?
  • Why do they need a Lazy Susan to move files?
  • Why on earth are they scrutinizing the Lawrences and not the Waterfords?
  • Hey, here’s an upside: No Waterfords this episode.
  • Applicable:

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!