In what’s the most fascinating episode of The Handmaid’s Tale in a long time, as well as the most unsettling, June goes to Washington.
Christopher Meloni is finally here, and it only took six episodes! Oh, and some other things happened on The Handmaid’s Tale, too, this week. Let’s get into it, shall we?
It’s full winter in Gilead now, with Marthas praying in public for Nichole’s return, ribbons and other things hanging from trees as physical manifestations of those prayers, and June going back with the Waterfords to go on a trip to Washington, D.C. for a “week of public prayer.”
It’s surprising that it still carries the name of D.C., though, when so much else has changed. “They don’t stand for disorder, not in the capital,” Aunt Lydia says. That’s played out in men and women using separate escalators, and June goes to a spot where she’s made to kneel in the middle of the station for the Waterfords to pick her up.
The first shot we see inside High Commander George Winslow’s home is of two birds in a cage, which is not subtle at all. Meloni’s Commander is at ease, in his shirtsleeves, his posture open, and Mrs. Olivia Winslow (Elizabeth Reaser) is far less uptight as well, seemingly because the Winslows have a passel of children — six total, including a baby. Later, we see Olivia praising Serena’s book and George giving a lingering shoulder rub to Fred, both breaking those cultural norms in Gilead in the midst of the chaos.
In comparison, though, Ofgeorge, the Handmaid June’s staying with, has her mouth covered, and when she removes the covering, we — and June — realize that her mouth has been stapled shut. The coverings show up in the train station, too, but this is the first time we see what’s underneath. It’s not unlike one of the early, horrifying shots from the first season of Emily being muzzled, but taken to a whole new level.
The next day, we see Aunt Lydia inspecting one handmaid’s stapled mouth as Fred starts directing the first of the media shoots, only for Nick to arrive and get one brief moment to touch June’s hand.
Ultimately, this episode is one of the brief exchanges, moments stolen from the greater political plan that Fred has put into motion. Serena defends her, allowing Fred to do this in the Winslows’ playroom, even as June makes another plea. The Swiss arrive to mediate this Gileadean and Canadian conflict, and June gets to speak to them alone, even as Serena hisses to June, “Don’t be stupid.”
By Serena’s standards, June’s stupid by sending the Gilead representatives out before she starts talking, then promises to get Nick to talk to them in exchange for letting Nichole stay in Canada. Later, she heads out to meet him at night, her hair unbound, to try and convince him. He agrees.
We don’t see his conversation, but it doesn’t quite go the way June intended, because something’s up with Nick. One of the Swiss mediators tells June as much, and what Serena can reveal — that “we wouldn’t be here without him” — says that he did some dark things for Gilead. We don’t know what that means as an audience, but June’s reaction says it’s not good.
And now he’s going to Chicago, while Aunt Lydia gives June a silencing cowl of her own to wear. “Do you want us to be silenced?” June asks, and Lydia says … “No.” From the back, we see that the fasteners look like a straitjacket, again going for that obvious symbolism and still having an impact. Same goes with the shot of the ruined Lincoln Memorial, where June and Serena steal another moment to discuss this.
Their voices echo in the ruins as they have a conversation in which things get laid out bare. “You’re small. You’re cruel. And you’re empty,” June informs her. This seems like the final break in the Serena and June partnership, considering the sad music that comes after as June puts her wings and her cowl back on, only to walk out and see the Washington Monument turned into a cross in full view, handmaids standing before and around the reflecting pool, all for another shoot.
Waterford prays, and June stares at the cross.
This is definitely more of a worldbuilding episode, but it does also move things forward with the potential for Serena and June to be separated for good with Serena in D.C., the showing of how a High Commander lives, and more. It might honestly be the most engrossing of the season so far. Here’s hoping that we see more of this in the rest of the season.