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SYFY WIRE The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale Discussion: 'Household' proves that life in Gilead can always get worse

By Alyssa Fikse & Jessica Toomer

If you thought that there was no way that The Handmaid's Tale could get more ominous, you were incorrect! After the Waterfords' decision to try to bring Nichole back from Canada, everyone heads to DC for some good old fashioned politicking. Somehow, it is even worse there than Boston and June is once again offered a chance to make a difference only to have it snatched away. 

Painful decisions and fractured alliances take their toll on everyone this week, making life in Gilead even more unstable. We're Alyssa Fikse and Jessica Toomer, and we're going to walk you through every devastating moment. 

Arriving In DC

Alyssa: While she couched it in “or she should also get hit by a bus,” June praying for Serena is kinder than I could be after last week’s betrayal, man. This whole trip to DC gave me the creeps to a degree that even previous episodes failed to reach. How are the shrouded trains even more awful than the vans?? The creepiest part, though? Aunt Lydia trying to use youth slang. Absolutely not. 

Jessica: Aunt Lydia, just stop. “Pumped” doesn’t belong to you. You’ve taken everything from us. Don’t take our millennial jargon! No, but I have to agree, as much as we’ve longed for a bigger picture of Gilead and how it operates, I was longing for the militia-lined streets and empty grocery stores of Boston by the end of this episode. First, we saw the Washington Memorial given a truly terrifying remodel as a pointed cross, and then we close the episode with a beheaded Lincoln statue. It was just too much visually for me to not be creeped out by. I guess the only plus seems to be the escalators are running smoothly in the D.C. underground? Having suffered from the New York subway for five-plus years, I know what a true miracle that is. 

Alyssa: Yeah, the imagery in this episode was anything but subtle, but it was certainly effective. I legit gasped at the Lincoln reveal. The only good thing about the trip to DC was the reunion between June and Rita. Those two may have had a rocky start in the beginning, but I stan one supportive friendship in the face of adversity. At the center of that adversity are the Waterfords, and boy, are things tense there. Serena is annoyed that Fred is treating this trip as a networking event as well as a last ditch effort to steal back Nichole. Serena? May I call you Serena? Girl, this is the life you chose. This is the society you helped build. OF COURSE your husband has become a grasping user.

Jessica: For someone as smart as Serena, I expected her to read her own husband much better. Fred is a weak man — we’ve known that for some time — and the one thing weak men crave is power and an ego boost. They often get that by aligning themselves with other powerful men. This whole trip is an excuse for Fred to get some screentime, to put his name out there for the other Commanders to take notice, and I guess, to play billiards with Commander Winslow. 

Alyssa: CHRISTOPHER MELONI! Another great character actor added to the cast, and Commander Winslow and his boisterous family is another great example of the banality of evil. Look how cute these moppets are! Look how “happy” his wife is! The Handmaid’s Tale is dedicated to reminding people that sometimes the worst villains are the people you know, everyday folks that are willing to buy into a corrupt system for their own gain and security. Again, the social commentary is almost too on the nose for me to bear. Is The Handmaid’s Tale the least comforting show of all time? Might be.

Jessica: Yeah, it’s becoming harder to watch the more involved we get with this world and how it operates. Take, for instance, the handmaids in DC. At first, I thought, “Oh, they’re wearing these structured fabric pieces over their mouths as a metaphor for the value of silence, blah blah blah” but, at the same time, it’s cold in DC. Maybe that just works as a kind of weird scarf? It was my mind’s way of rationalizing, trying to cope with such a brutal, subtle form of oppression. But then, when Commander Winslow’s handmaid removes her covering and we see her mouth has been stapled shut, we realize we can rationalize all we want; underneath, these people are just evil human beings. 

June's Deal

Alyssa: They are evil, and it’s really starting to take its toll on Serena. There is desperation behind her eyes at every moment, and I honestly cheer for June every time she has a chance to exploit it. She may not have many options at this point, but she still has the power to make Serena Joy feel shame. Her line telling Serena that the trip to Canada may have changed her, but it didn’t change the reality of life in Gilead slayed me. It seemed for a few minutes this episode that June was taking back some power, though. First, Nick returns! He’s flirty! I cracked my only smile of the episode! The Swiss ambassadors seemed pretty sympathetic to her plight, but they are still afraid of the military might of Gilead. However, they are willing to make a deal to block Nichole being taken out of Canada is Nick is willing to feed them information about the Commanders. Things seemed momentarily bright.

Jessica: Your girl was giddy — GIDDY! — when Nick popped back up to lay on some charm, make us swoon with a pinky grab, and then orchestrate a midnight meeting in the gardens of Commander Winslow’s estate. It’s terribly romantic, as far as secret hookups in a theocratic military regime go. Add to that the fact that June got to chat one-on-one with the Swiss ambassadors and I truly believed things were looking up. Of course, as well-meaning as they people are, they’re politicians with their own motivations and they’re less interested in keeping one baby safe, more interested in learning anything they can about Gilead.

Why Gilead seems to be such a threat I have no clue. Is their military that threatening? It seems they’re having trouble securing their own borders at the moment so I doubt they’re worried about Gilead invading other territories? What value does Gilead bring to the table in terms of the global economy? Every grocery trip in Boston sees June picking through scraps so they can’t have a strong export business going. I wish we knew more about how the world sees Gilead, besides these quick glimpses of leaders from free countries worrying over the secrecy and possible power the regime has. 

Alyssa: The general vibe that I was getting from this episode was that the Gilead military was such a threat that the outside world wasn’t willing to get involved. I’m also interested in seeing more of the outside world and how they are handling this whole regime, but part of me understands that keeping it Gilead focused helps drive home the reality of how insulated they are. The Commanders may be peacocking white assh*les but they have effectively cut themselves off from the rest of the world in order to have their power. The Waterfords of the world have to have some sort of sway in order to keep their warped view of order. There was just too much Fred in this episode for me. Watching him scamper about with the Winslow kids was just a bridge too far for me, but apparently not for Serena. Don’t be swayed, Serena! The lion bit was not as cute as you clearly thought! We’ve got to talk about that conversation between the wives. Mrs. Winslow was such a fan of Serena’s book, which, yikes. 

Jessica: Yeah, I’m always so weirded out when these wives have alone time and still seem to prop up this regime they’re living in. Seriously, not one of these women miss wearing their own clothes or reading a steamy romance novel once and a while? Mrs. Winslow complementing Serena’s book felt ironic because women aren’t supposed to read or even have free thought in this world, and also, it felt like an excuse for Serena to revert back to her pre-Nichole thinking. She’s grabbing for any excuse to believe that getting her child back, and eventually having more like Mrs. Winslow, will fill this void inside herself. She’s been a disappointment so far, but I hope, in the end, she realizes the only thing that’s going to heal her is herself, taking control of her life, maybe not contributing to the torture and oppression of millions of people? 

Alyssa: It’s always one step forward and two steps back with Serena. Same with Nick and June’s relationship. After making that deal with the Swiss, June just has to convince Nick to play his part. Through make outs and maternal guilt, it sure seemed like she got him on board. Elisabeth Moss and Max Minghella have great chemistry, so obviously I love their scenes together, even with the general sense of unease. However, once again, June gets the rug pulled out from under her the second she might be getting ahead. SURPRISE, YOU GUYS: NICK IS GILEAD FAITHFUL. 

An Unexpected Betrayal

Jessica: Again, call us Boo Boo The Fool. I honestly believed that plea from June, reminding Nick of his fatherly responsibility to Nichole, would sway him. I know Nick has a murky past. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, to believe he realized his mistake, maybe found redemption in his love for June. Dammit, I’m everything I hate right now. Nick took our hearts, threw them on the ground, and stomped all over them while chanting “Under His Eye.” Nick can burn in hell. 

Alyssa: Was this twist earned? Maybe I was mesmerized by his pillow lips and soulful eyes and wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but Nick has expressed disgust with Gilead in the past, right? Or was he just angry on June’s behalf? I mean, he helped her when she was on the run last season, so he knows what Gilead means for these women. I’m just not sure where this betrayal is coming from. 

Jessica: But was it true sympathy for all women, or just his emotional attachment to June because of their relationship? It’s the same question I have with Serena honestly. Does she really care about the injustice being committed, or is the only bargaining chip she’s concerned with her own daughter. It’s a bigger theme: personal motivation vs. a more self-sacrificing calling. Does June care about liberating handmaids, or does she just want to save Hannah and Nichole? Does Nick really want to help take down this system he helped build or is he only horrified when bad things happen to people he knows?

I don’t doubt Nick cares for June, I just think it was easy to believe he’d help her take down this evil empire when he was trying to get her out of Gilead, and supporting her at the Waterford’s house. Maybe really, he only wanted to keep June safe, and would’ve been fine carrying on with his life in Gilead once she was gone? 

Alyssa: You’re right. That’s a good rule of thumb to remember: men who are only good to women they want to f*ck are not and will never be true allies. For me, probably the second biggest shock of the episode was Lydia and her horror at the silencing of the handmaids. When Aunt Lydia thinks you’ve gone too far… yikes. That scene when she helped June put on her muzzle broke me. The tears from both women, the horrible click of the snaps. Even when The Handmaid’s Tale feels all too miserable, there are scenes that are just so good that you can’t look away.

Jessica: The Handmaid’s Tale loves its close-ups and sometimes, they can overdo it, but that scene with Aunt Lydia was so powerful because both Moss and Ann Dowd can do so much without ever saying a word. Moments like that remind me how lucky this show is to have the talent it does. I just want to see more of Moss smirking in the face of people who have wronged her as she sets sh*t on fire instead of June teary-eyed on the steps of the capitol with a muzzle on. 

Alyssa: Agreed. That scene was a gut punch, and the following fight between June and Serena was the KO. These women have such different ideas about what’s best for Nichole and they could not be more different. I’m so glad that June finally let loose on Serena, though, because she’s right. She is empty and she will always be empty. There are only so many times that you can see handmaids prostrate on the ground with their mouths stapled shut before you’re forced to remember that you are a morally bankrupt person who is benefiting from their oppression. No amount of cuddles with babies can wipe that away.

What’s Next

Jessica: So Nick has bailed on June, Serena and Fred are still campaigning for the return of baby Nichole, and June is without too many options. Where do we go from here? I hope they pull Emily back into the fold. Maybe hearing from her in Canada, having her involved in this negotiation for Nichole, will help? She knows a bit about how Gilead operates, though decidedly less than someone like Nick.

Or, and this is the basket I’m putting my eggs in, June convinces Commander Lawrence to hand over information. He’s a higher-up who seems pretty apathetic about Gilead and his role in it. He’s there for the perks, not because he believes in the cause. Maybe, if June can exploit the fragile state of his marriage, get Mrs. Lawrence on her side, it would sway him to do the right thing? Honestly, I just hate that we’re constantly forced to hope men do the right thing on this show (and in life). It never works out for us. 

Alyssa: Yeah, I have no faith in any of the men on The Handmaid’s Tale. Honestly, I still think Serena Joy is her best bet at an ally, which is probably FOOLISH, but that was a look of horror on her face at the end if I’ve ever seen one. I think June is going to keep chipping away at that resolve until she finally cracks. Also, as much as I hate Fred, I’m curious to see what happens going forward with his partnership with Winslow. These two assh*les clearly have a boner for oppressing women, but do they also have boners for each other? That was a very lingering touch while they were playing pool, and we were definitely supposed to notice. Another facet of masculinity to deconstruct and eventually turn toxic? Classic 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.