The Handmaid's Tale -- "Unknown Caller"
Credit: Sophie Giraud/Hulu

Oh, Serena. Just when you’re ready to start rooting for her, The Handmaid’s Tale reminds you of just how complicated and destructive she remains. But, even so: “Unknown Caller” ends with a gut-punch for June that felt as inevitable as it did devastating. Let’s break down the biggest moments of the episode, which dropped Wednesday.

Serena gets into the room

“Unknown Caller” picks up right where we left off last week and very tightly focuses on the matter of Nichole’s life in Canada. As the episode begins, Serena is reeling from the discovery of her Gilead daughter’s apparent safety, desperate to see her again. A key but quiet moment early on finds Fred bringing Serena into the room of commanders — whereas last season he rejected her pleas to have a voice in Gilead, nearly destroying their marriage, here he’s evidently trying to make strides.

In the room, the men break down the situation for Serena: The baby is healthy, Luke works menial jobs to support her, and they are prepared to do “whatever it takes” to return Nichole. The men eventually leave the room, leaving Fred and Serena alone. The former is puzzled by the latter’s sudden interest in a “rescue operation.” He thought he wanted Nichole safe and far away. So he asks her what she wants. “I want to be with her, but that’s impossible,” she says.

Serena and Fred, June and Joseph

That question of impossibility propels “Unknown Caller,” as Serena and Fred find ways around a challenging situation of their own making. First things first is a visit to Commander Lawrence’s home, where Joseph summons June, and the four have a “conversation.” Fred cuts right to the chase: They want to arrange a visit with Nichole to give Serena a chance “to say goodbye.” Fred assures everyone will be protected. But June says no — prompting Serena to ask the men to leave the room.

She handles this with uncommon shrewdness; Serena plays her loaded dynamic with June shrewdly, moving to sit beside her on the couch and very earnestly, tenderly appeal to her. “I just want to be something to her,” she says. Given the progress they’ve made in their relationship this season, June listens closely to Serena, giving her more latitude than she would’ve even a few episodes ago. (The revelation about Hannah’s school certainly helps in that regard.) And so June agrees — on one condition. “I want you to owe me.”

June and Luke’s 2 minutes

Amid all of this craziness is the opportunity for June to have a sustained conversation with Luke, the man she’s been pulled away from indefinitely, over the phone. This is the way Fred and Serena propose doing it: Away from the mechanics of Gilead, keeping this a private matter. It’d also help in convincing Luke to go through with it. When June finally calls him though, with a literal 2-minute countdown clock behind her, along with Joseph, Fred, and Serena — all watching, closely — the experience is not quite what she expected.

Luke is floored to be getting a call from her at all, not even picking up the “unknown caller” number the first time. They exchange “I love yous” and “I miss yous,” but strikingly, Luke breaks down on the phone while June tries her hardest to keep it together, giving him the information he needs — she’s okay, Hannah is okay — before diving into what he needs to do. He is, of course, skeptical, but eventually agrees — on one condition. “Not him,” he says. “Just her.” The call disconnects. June says “I love you” just as she gets cut off. And she sits, still.

Serena and Luke face off

Luke had a very memorable encounter with Fred the last time the Waterfords were in Canada, so safe to say this encounter is even more tense than it normally would. Serena is put into “normal” clothes to blend in upon her arrival in Toronto, escorted around the airport into a public spot in the terminal, where Luke is waiting with Nichole. Before she’d left, Serena had taken with her a gift for the baby, as well as a tape of some kind smuggled in for June, which Rita kept out of Fred’s sight.

Serena thanks Luke upon meeting. He responds, “F— you.” She beams at the baby. He asks if June is OK, and she says yes — that she’s been reassigned. Pressed, she even gives up Commander Lawerence’s name. But despite Serena’s efforts, Luke doesn’t buy anything she’s selling. She repeats her line of just wanting to be “something” to Nichole; Luke tells her, sternly and intently, “You’re never going to be anything to her.” Reluctantly, he takes the gift Serena brought. A little resentment creeps in when she tells him, “I protected your wife.” But as he’s walking away the iciness between them thaws, if only briefly and slightly. He lets her hold Nichole and really say goodbye. “Every child has a right to their own story — even if it’s complicated,” Serena says. She’s eventually escorted out where, when finally left alone, she just completely loses it. You see how heavily this weighs on her, how much she’s struggling. You see she won’t be able to let that feeling of agony go.

Live from Gilead, it’s Fred and Serena… and June

And indeed she does not. Finally we return to Gilead after that long journey to Toronto. June is in a grocery store, just learning that her new walking partner, Ofmatthew, is pregnant — again. It’s a painful moment, where suddenly she seems less sure of herself. But then June is found by an Eye and walked out of the store. She’s put into a van — something we’ve seen repeatedly. Once more, she doesn’t know where she’s going.

When the van doors open we see Aunt Lydia, apparently cheery again after last week’s brutal turn of events. She walks June into a dressing room and instructs her to change in a more formal handmaid uniform. What is going on? It’s hard not to sense Serena and Fred are involved. She’s walked out of the room and into what appears to be a television studio. Suddenly she’s on a stage and bright lights are on her, blinding. Fred appears. Serena appears. They sit on a couch while June stands to the side, Lydia correcting her posture and warning her not to make a scene. Serena will not look at her.

A juxtaposition of joy and despair to end “Unknown Caller,” then: We see Luke listening to the mixed tape that June smuggled in — produced on advice/inspiration from Joseph’s wife, Eleanor — but the music quickly develops into a message from his estranged wife. It’s a heartbreaking revelation of Nichole’s parentage, with June saying, “I need you to know that Nichole was born out of love.” She mentions Nick. And through tears, she tells him to find love himself. But then, back to the TV: Fred and Serena are addressing the world — even Luke and Moira are watching in Canada — positioning themselves as victims of a senseless kidnapping, and pleading with the entire globe to bring Baby Nichole back. “We expect the government’s full cooperation,” Fred says. “This is a family matter.”

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