June’s (Elisabeth Moss) eyes are always telling a story. Her expressive face is a wordless monologue that unspools parallel to the action of The Handmaid’s Tale. But the handmaids in Washington, D.C. have nothing in their eyes. Their gaze is listless, their heads tilted downward. If I had to venture a guess, the handmaids’ spirits were zapped once and for all the moment their mouths were clamped shut.
You heard me right: The handmaids in Washington, D.C. have metal clamps driven through their lips. In D.C., the slogan “blessed be the meek” has been ratcheted up to “blessed be the silent.” In public, the horrors that are their mouths are covered up by red cloth — it would be indecent otherwise, no? The reveal is deeply shocking for June, and for us – the viewers who, in deciding to stick with The Handmaid’s Tale, also agreed to watch increasingly gruesome things happen to women.
In these silenced women, June sees her future. Washington, D.C. is an experimenting ground for Gilead’s most extreme policies. A horizontal block has been added to the Washington Monument, so a cross looks out over the city. From this pulsing red hot spot of religious extremism, further decisions will flow that affect the rest of Gilead. This is just to say: The clamps might be coming to Cambridge.
Even Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), who was initially so happy about the “devotion” shown in D.C., is not on board with the clamps. She feels maternal toward her little handmaid clan, and especially toward June. It’s more and more obvious that Lydia is just as lonely as every other woman in this cursed society.
So, what brings June to D.C.? The fight for Baby Nichole has officially reached Extra territory. The “complete” Waterford unit – aka June, Fred (Joseph Fiennes), and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) — travels to D.C. for a “public prayer” week designed to put pressure on the Canadians to return baby Nichole.
The lens of The Handmaid’s Tale is expanding to show ever more awful sights. If it’s even fathomable, the inequality between classes is even greater in D.C.. The handmaids are voiceless human chattel. The Commanders and their elite families, living large.
The Waterfords are staying with the High Commander George Winslow (Christopher Meloni), whose bustling clan seems to be constantly auditioning for the part of Happy Family on Christmas Morning. The house is overrun with a chaotic coziness absent from every other house we’ve seen so far, toys strewn everywhere and the noise of children. In fact, their six multicultural children are so smiley and photogenic one could almost forget — almost! — that they’re stolen. Even Serena is caught off guard by such happiness, forgetting the rules of Gilead when she asks Olivia (Elizabeth Reaser), “Are they all yours?” Of course not. And also, of course.
Serena wants this domestic bliss copied and pasted into Cambridge. For Serena, this trip is not about power or diplomacy. It’s about Nichole. She’s stalwart in her nonsensical mission to save a child who is not her child. “Seeing her changed everything for me,” she tells June. June points out the obvious flaw in Serena’s selfish thinking: Serena might be changed, but Gilead isn’t. “Their” daughter deserves better.
Their building disagreement culminates in a dangerously loud show-down at the (now headless) Lincoln Memorial. June is too exasperated to play nice. While she still has it, she uses her voice to eviscerate Serena. But words aren’t enough to take Serena down.
While the women are fighting over the fate of a child, Fred is social climbing. Fred sees the crusade for Baby Nichole as a fast-track to a High Commander posting in D.C. Fred is crafting quite the masterful PR scheme. Through his “Week of Prayer” programming, Fred is projecting the “right” image of Gilead to the outside world: A land of strong family units, of peace, and of power. Behind this image of a docile kneeling handmaid and an obedient wife is a seething military might – that could, hypothetically, march into Canada and take the baby.
Already, Commander Winslow is impressed by Fred’s tactics. That move to get the Swiss act as a neutral party? Pretty rad, bro. Um, Winslow might also be...into Commander Waterford? Did you notice how long Winslow’s hand rested on Fred’s shoulder during that pool game? And as the laws of pop culture dictate, two characters playing pool together in TV or movies is almost always sexual (I don’t make the rules). I know forbidden romance is exciting, but NO ONE, and I repeat, NO ONE is allowed to write fan-fic about these two!
Clearly, Fred’s definitely not launching this mission because he feels paternal. Plus, it seems that he knows he’s not Nichole’s father. Fred deliberately has Nick (Max Minghella) stand in for him while he’s adjusting the camera for a telecast. Sneaky.
That brings us to Nick, our studly Nick. Nick, who meets June in the middle of the night for a quick makeout sesh. Nick with the soulful eyes. Nick, who was supposed to be one of the good ones.
Well, he’s not. Nick turned out to be a Bad Guy just like all the men in Gilead. Even though he’s baby Nichole’s father, the Swiss won’t consider his wishes for Nichole to stay in Canada because his past as a Gileadean War General negates anything he says now. Um, yah. He’s not just fighting in Chicago. He’s leading the troops.
For June, this is a devastating loss. For one, her deal with the Swiss to keep Nichole in Canada disintegrates. It also unmoors her emotionally. She loved Nick — enough to tell her husband, Luke, about him. What does it say about June that she loved a man who helped create this system of oppression? The lines between “good” and “evil,” and “us” and “them,” are now far more complicated. Every person who has been slotted into a role in Gilead was someone else before. The roles have changed them. During those months in the Waterford household, Nick and June forged an oasis where they weren’t defined by their roles.
That was an illusion. Now, she’s reminded of who Nick is in Gilead: Someone powerful. And who she is in Gilead: powerless, and soon to be voiceless.
The Handmaid’s Tale is drawing a serious connection between Gilead and Nazi Germany. Those flags bring to mind ubiquitous swastikas. To further the parallel, the Swiss are carrying forward appeasement. It was a bad policy then, and it’s a bad one now.