Elisabeth Moss no longer needs to prove just how fully she’s mastered the art of the silent scream, but The Handmaid’s Tale episode “Unknown Caller” ramps it up a notch, even for a show that’s all about shouting into the void of totalitarianism. There’s also the cast, who always manages to rise to the occasion during the show’s most cringe-worthy moments, and this time it’s one of the most underserved members who finally gets a moment in “Unknown Caller.”
June is quietly riding something of an emotional high since she saw proof of her daughter Nichole as a healthy and happy child in the arms of her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle). It’s more than that though. As she quietly muses, she was the one who actually managed to defy Gilead and get her out of a country intent on using her. But now that Gilead is aware of Nichole’s location, they are hellbent on imposing consequences.
Serena’s (Yvonne Strahovski) reaction to the news is more complex. She’s allowed to be in the room while Nichole is discussed, and to her credit, she wants Nichole to remain in Canada as much as she wants this whole thing over and done with. She had a very real desire to be a mother, and her bond with Nichole has been actively encouraged, not just from the authorities and her own husband, but from June, who’s understandably grateful that Serena let Nichole go. The bare minimum can feel like a blessing in such bleak circumstances.
This bond results in one of the stranger reversals The Handmaid’s Tale has pulled. Previously, June has been the one to beg Serena for any news or sightings of her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), but this episode has Serena begging June to call Luke so he’ll allow the Waterfords some quality time with Nichole, even as June warns Serena that it’s going to be far less helpful than she thinks. June doesn’t have much of a choice, but the fact that she somewhat willingly makes the call seems less due to pressure than some residual gratitude towards Serena.
The resulting conversation with Luke and the subsequent meeting he has with Serena is mostly a long delayed showcase for Fagbenle. He hasn’t just been relegated to the sidelines in previous episodes, he’s been confined emotionally, mostly limited to small but powerful bursts of emotion in response to faraway events. “Unknown Caller” finally shows just how much he’s been wasted, with Luke effortlessly carrying the episode as a man torn between trying to protect the child he’s committed to raising, as well as the wife he was forced to leave behind.
So while it makes little sense for Gilead to allow Serena to journey to Canada alone, it is Fagbenle who convincingly sells it. His very real sense of rage against Serena is a welcome relief against the episode’s cloying sentimentality, which has Serena practically looking like a rapturous angel when she’s allowed to hold Nichole. Unwittingly or not, it’s also a commentary on how the men of Gilead have been twisted by their own creation, even as it supposedly uplifts them. Their system may be built on family, yet their own loved ones can no longer recognize who they’ve become. It is the men outside Gilead who show real love and real sacrifice for their wives and families.
When the show returns to Gilead and leaves Luke behind is also when the episode quality dips yet again. Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) has been worse than her usual self in “Unknown Caller,” then, suddenly, extends her sympathies towards June because… motherhood. Yep, she thinks she’s pregnant, so now she and June take tentative steps toward understanding each other not due to any sense of shared experiences as Handmaids, but because motherhood once again acts as a kind of magical bonding agent. Although Ofmatthew probably should’ve known better than to say, “I really think everything’s going to be okay.”
As sure as a declaration of love on Game of Thrones, June is whisked away for yet another moment of devastation, as she’s given a stylish, sexy Handmaid outfit to put on and taken to a film set, where Fred (Joseph Fiennes) offers a heartfelt plea for Nichole’s return. We all know the drill by now. Things look up, Waterfords betray June, Moss sells it. Superb is the only word for how Moss makes this latest development feel fresh. As June rages, the spotlight in her eyes might as well be bonfires. No doubt, there is worse to come, but I wouldn’t bet against either Moss or June’s ability to rise to it.