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The Handmaid's Tale Discussion: 'Unfit' makes a major misstep
The Handmaid's Tale is nearing the end of its third season, and Episode 8 marks a major misstep for a show that prides itself on its forward-thinking feminism.
In "Unfit," we explore Aunt Lydia's (Ann Dowd) past as a school teacher before she took to grooming handmaids for Gilead. We also witness June's descent into cruelty with her treatment of a fellow handmaid, an arc that ends in tragedy and makes us question the direction this series is going in, and the point of this episode in particular.
We're Jessica Toomer and Alyssa Fikse and we are pissed. Join us in our latest recap to find out why.
Martha, Jezebel, Handmaid, Wife
Jessica: I should’ve known from how this episode began that it would be one of my least favorite in the entire series. First, we peek in on a handmaid giving birth — always such a surreal, completely gross ritual in Gilead — before we pivot to talk of birth-mobiles (Goddess help me if I ever have to ride in one of those) and the shunning of Ofmatthew. June is a total Regina George this episode and I hated it. I understand Ofmatthew betrayed the code of sisterhood or whatever, and that her Nosey Nellie-ing got someone killed, but aren’t things bad enough in this patriarchal regime? Do we really need to start tearing other women down?
Alyssa: They are making June short-sighted almost to the point of villainy, honestly. I understand that Ofmatthew was a traitor, but how much power does she really have? None. This is not the woman that June should be focusing her efforts on. Plus, if June had any ounce of self-reflection at all, she would realize that her own decisions are to blame for Hannah being further from her than ever. She gave up a chance to go to Canada, where she would have had the freedom and resources to actually make a difference. She manipulated Mrs. Lawrence and alerted the McKenzies to her plans. She isn’t strategic at all, and that is costing her. But, sure, let’s blame Ofmatthew.
Jessica: As interesting as it is to see the power dynamic shift in June’s favor — this episode really hammered home the idea that June, not Aunt Lydia, is now ruling the handmaids — it literally boiled my blood to see how Ofmatthew was treated by these women. She drank the Kool-Aid, sure, but give the girl a damn break and funnel your rage in a more productive way. Following the birth experience, which ended in tragedy, the handmaids were shuttled to a gym where they sat in a circle and basically nun-shamed each other. June obviously could care less at this point — she knows she’s safe from any physical threat because of how important she is to the Waterfords’ negotiations with Canada — but seeing Ofmatthew break down after these women bullied her over her fears for her unborn child broke me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Maybe it’s because she’s about to be a mother for the third time to a child she knows she’ll have to give up, maybe it’s because we just saw another women suffer through a terrible stillbirth, or maybe it’s because, as a woman of color living in Gilead, she’s been through more than June and most of these other handmaids can ever comprehend, but I really felt for Ofmatthew this episode. And, I really hated June.
Alyssa: It was awful. Plus, I really don’t understand how June is getting away with so much while simultaneously accomplishing so little. June is waltzing around being insolent to absolutely everyone, and she’s just getting away with it? Because Canada? It doesn’t make sense to me. She isn’t that pivotal in the negotiations. I feel like she could easily “have a terrible accident” and things would continue exactly as they are. We’ve seen handmaids punished for much less than what June has pulled, and we’re really reaching the limits of plausible plot armor.
Aunt Lydia’s Past
Jessica: Speaking of plot, where the hell did it go this episode? After witnessing June’s Mean Girls campaign, we pivot to a glimpse of Aunt Lydia’s past as a pretentious schoolmarm because… I guess the show wants us to know she’s a person too? Really, I have no clue what argument the writers are trying to make by making us witness Lydia’s life before Gilead. She seemed just as much of a judgy b*tch pre-oppressive theocracy, she was just forced to hide her disdain for young mothers and women who enjoyed their sexual agency and personal freedoms better than she does now. I can’t believe the show was able to do it, but The Handmaid’s Tale has made me loathe seeing more of Ann Dowd on screen. I’ll never forgive them for this.
Alyssa: Here is my issue: there is a fine line between humanizing evil and attempting to justify it, and sometimes The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t quite nail the balance. The Aunt Lydia flashbacks really missed the mark here. I didn’t think there were female incels, but I guess Aunt Lydia is one. Listen, girl. I know dating is HARD. I’ve been ghosted thrice in the last month alone. However, lashing out and getting a boy taken away from his young mother because the dude you want to bone isn’t over his dead wife yet is not the answer. We already knew that Aunt Lydia was awful to her fellow women. I don’t feel like this flashback gave us worthwhile information. Also, as an aside, can we talk about the aunt who looked judgy at the news that that one family didn’t want a handmaiden of color? Oh, so you’re totally fine with assigning women to be literal broodmares against their will, but, you know, gotta keep things PC. I don’t think you get to cast that kind of judgment anymore, lady. This was such a weird moment in an episode full of weird moments.
Jessica: Right? As much as I enjoyed getting to see how the sausage was made when it comes to Aunts assigning Handmaids, that brief look of ire earned an exaggerated eye-roll from mwah. Like, duh, Gilead is full of racists. It’s full of misogynists and abusive tyrants and genocidal maniacs, a descendant of a Klan member would fit right in. But back to Aunt Lydia’s former life, what really struck me about seeing her interaction with that young mother was the jealousy that seemed to coat their relationship. Aunt Lydia was not concerned for that little boy. She knew that woman loved him, provided for him, and prioritized him. She may not have agreed with her lifestyle or appreciated her tardiness, but she knew that kid was in no physical danger. Aunt Lydia was envious. Aunt Lydia wanted a life of her own like this woman enjoyed. Aunt Lydia wanted love and sex and desire and when she was rejected, instead of accepting another person’s boundaries, she became angry and blamed her embarrassment on a woman who she felt corrupted her morals. If anything, Aunt Lydia’s story reminds us that religions that stifle self-expression and sexual agency among women are the most toxic, dangerous weapon of the patriarchy because they convince women that desire is wrong and the blame of corruption rests squarely on their shoulders. Will we ever not be punished for Eve’s mistake?
Alyssa: That really is the crux of it, isn’t it? When the core of your religion is the idea that women are inherently creatures of temptation, that is going to manifest in toxic and horrific ways. Gilead is, of course, that kind of thinking writ large, but how many slings and arrows do women have to deal with every day in the real world due to this kind of thinking? From the early days of sexist dress codes to the erosion of reproductive rights, women are told basically from day one that a. Their bodies are sinful and b. Their bodies are not their own to control. Aunt Lydia internalized that message and instead of working through that toxic sh*t, so ruined a woman’s life. And then A LOT of women’s lives by working to uphold Gilead. Not to get all Taylor Swift up in here, but there’s a special place in hell for Aunt Lydia.
Jessica: Aunt Lydia, you need to calm down. So a guy didn’t want a handjob? Who cares? Get on Tinder or Bumble and find you a hot hookup to deal with your frustrations. Just because you’re horny and humiliated doesn’t mean you have the right to send a kid to foster care. Again, I question the point of this episode spending so much time with Aunt Lydia. Maybe there’s a parallel between her treatment of that young woman and June’s treatment of Ofmatthew? Is June becoming Aunt Lydia in a way? I thought the end of this episode might mark the end of Aunt Lydia, which would’ve justified more screen time for her character but alas, that wasn’t to be. Did the show just want to reinforce the idea that concealed prejudice can evolve into something more harmful, like a religious regime that forces women into sex slavery? Because, speaking for women everywhere, we already knew that.
Alyssa: I feel like we’re building to something big for Aunt Lydia, whether it's her death or her realization that Gilead is indeed a very bad place, but like much of this season, it feels like the show is just spinning its wheels with her. We can’t have the moment that we’re building to yet because there are still episodes to fill, so let’s throw in some background to make her semi-relatable. Except that it doesn’t. Aunt Lydia is still Aunt Lydia, and no crying over a man will make her otherwise. I really am having the hardest time seeing where this season is ultimately trying to go as so much feels like filler. I never thought that an episode featuring this much Ann Dowd would feel like a waste, but it does. It’s so wasteful that I’m annoyed.
The End of Ofmatthew
Jessica: Every so often, The Handmaid’s Tale makes a storytelling choice that sparks controversy amongst fans. Whether it’s the seemingly gratuitous rape scenes or the neglect of women of color or the copious amounts of close-ups that end each episode. But never has the show made such an error in judgment as it did this episode with Ofmatthew’s story. Honestly, it’s difficult to even talk about without the rage consuming me. But to recap, after she’s bullied and shunned by her fellow handmaids, Ofmatthew makes a food run with June where she has a sort of mental break, beats Janine with canned food, kills a guard, and nearly shoots Aunt Lydia before she’s murdered in front of a completely apathetic, almost proud-of-herself June. The whole scene left me speechless and not in a good way. There’s neglect and erasure, and then there’s willful mistreatment and this show has willfully mistreated Ofmatthew. I just don’t understand why.
Alyssa: I just don’t understand what the point of this whole storyline was. To show that handmaids who are visibly all-in on Gilead (which is definitely a survival technique, but whatever, June) deserve to be punished? It’s just another example of June losing sight of the bigger picture and focusing on smaller, vulnerable fish instead. I’m mixing my metaphors, but you know what I mean. Instead of focusing on the horrifying machine that built her, June blamed Ofmatthew for what happened with Hannah, and for that, she had to die? June is certainly a flawed protagonist, but they’re honestly making it hard for me to root for her right now. She has played her cards badly, people are dying because of it, and she is still refusing to take any blame. I appreciate it when shows work to make their characters feel like real, flesh and blood humans, but this is a very bad look.
Jessica: It’s even worse when it’s a character like Ofmatthew, one of the few women of color on the show, or even a character like Janine, who suffers from mental illness and the effects of trauma. Compared to them, June hasn’t been through sh*t, so why is the show propping her up to be their judge, jury, and executioner. I literally gasped out loud when June flashed that small smirk to Ofmatthew which sent her into a rage. No matter how angry June is with this woman, there’s no excuse for what she did to her. What’s worse, I doubt we’ll see June reckon with any guilt or shame over her actions. She’ll chalk it up to trying to survive in Gilead, which is ironic because that’s exactly what Ofmatthew was trying to do. At this point in the show, I’d rather just watch a few episodes of Emily and Moira protesting in Canada and having heart-to-hearts in prison cells than see June wreaking havoc in Gilead. She’s slowly becoming everything she hates about the women who uphold this regime and it’s unbearable to watch.
Alyssa: I think the show really needs to reconsider how it is handling its villains. I’m not sure why they’re working so hard to give relatable humanity to women like Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy this season, but it isn’t working for me. These are women who are all in on the subjugation of other women for their own personal gain and religious vendettas, so spare me the sob stories and brief flashes of “feminism.” They’re a part of all of this, so if June ever gets around to actually bringing the system down instead of focusing on petty grudges, these women need to go down with it. End of story. And you’re right, I doubt June will feel any guilt over what happened to Ofmatthew, but they really need to bring some focus to her mission. They still haven’t justified her decision to stay in Gilead, and instead left her locked in a cycle of failure. They can’t keep on this way. They just can’t.
Jessica: I know I argued that June had a right to be selfish when it came to Hannah and her plan to escape Gilead with her daughter, but now that that option seems off the table, I really need homegirl to get with the program. And by program, I mean the destruction of the patriarchy. It’s what promos for this season teased endlessly and have yet to deliver. I don’t think Gilead will fall in a day, but I need to see the building blocks for that crumbling empire. I need to see June using this newfound “Give-No-F*cks” attitude to help her fellow handmaids, not hurt them. And, for the love of all that’s holy, I need to see less of this show trying to redeem problematic white women. As a white woman, I can confidently say, we don’t deserve the kind of babying and benefit-of-the-doubt bullsh*t this season is spinning. Just like no person is fully evil, no person is fully redeemable. These women have done wrong, they should be punished for it, not coddled and given backstories that try to explain away their behavior. Do better, The Handmaid’s Tale.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.