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June goes to Washington in a horrifying Handmaid’s Tale

Are the show’s problems simply so tied to its core now that it can’t solve them?

The Handmaid’s Tale
Welcome to Gilead’s version of Washington.

Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team gather to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Emily VanDerWerff and staff writer Constance Grady discuss “Household,” the sixth episode of the third season.

Emily VanDerWerff: No matter your thoughts on the storytelling of The Handmaid’s Tale season three, the show is still capable of stunning and iconic images that stick in the memory.

“Household” is full of these, thanks to director Dearbhla Walsh, who makes her debut on the show with an episode that has figured prominently in the marketing for season three: The image of the Handmaids kneeling before a Washington Monument that has been changed into a giant cross was the big money shot in the season’s earliest promotional materials.

But even beyond that Washington Monument scene, there’s lots of visual verve to “Household.” Here, for instance, is a shot from a sequence involving Fred and Serena talking about their visit to Washington, DC, and the ongoing political turmoil they find themselves embroiled in as they attempt to get Nichole back from Canada. Walsh finds a way to film the conversation to indicate that even if Serena seems like an equal participant in the discussion, she’s really, really not — and skillfully conveys the imbalance between them without making too big a deal out of it.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Fred and Serena have a chat.

Serena might have power, but it’s all illusory: a reflection of the real power, which sits with Fred. But she’s also trapped between her growing realization that Gilead has gone far beyond her initial ideas of what it would be — mostly in horrible ways — and her desire to have Nichole back, which she really does need Gilead’s help in order to accomplish.

“Household” suggests that Serena is The Handmaid’s Tale’s true protagonist at this point. Whatever options June has to exercise her own power, they are quickly shut down. Hell, she got her child out of Gilead, only to see it cause an international incident that seems incredibly likely to end with Canada deciding one baby isn’t worth the headache and handing Nichole back to Gilead.

Serena doesn’t have much more power than June does, but she has some. She seems genuinely torn between what she wants and what she knows would be right. And because she and June are now locked in a mutually assured destruction pact, they can yell at each other (or, rather, June can yell at Serena). I wouldn’t say I’m only watching the show to see what happens when Serena finally makes a choice, but it’s a big part of why I’m engaged.

Ultimately, “Household” is a neat/horrifying bit of world-building. I generally like when The Handmaid’s Tale sends its characters to visit another corner of its world, and this episode is no exception. That said: Nick? We’re still doing that? (The many Handmaid’s Tale fans on the show’s subreddit, who love the Nick and June of it all, boo and hiss.)

Are The Handmaid’s Tale’s problems baked into its premise now?

Constance Grady: Ugh, Nick and June. What is there even to talk about there, honestly. (Actually someone once told me that she ships them because they are exactly the right height for each other, and you know what, on that level, I get it.)

You’re absolutely right, Emily, that The Handmaid’s Tale is still capable of turning out iconic images, but it feels to me like the show is increasingly incapable of earning those images by marrying them to real, lasting consequences.

For me, the central image of this episode is that red Handmaid’s gag. We see it when June and Aunt Lydia first arrive in Washington, with Aunt Lydia gazing at Handmaids wearing the gags in sort of titillated-seeming admiration and June looking horrified. We see it again when another Handmaid unbuckles her gag to reveal that below it, there are metal rings through her mouth that hold it closed.

(Honestly, I don’t buy it! Gilead wants its Handmaids to be well fed to ensure healthy pregnancies! How could a Handmaid eat with her mouth pinned shut? It would make more sense to cut out her tongue if it’s so important to silence her. Or if the show wanted the imagery of the metal on her face, there are plenty of extremely monstrous historical options that still allow their victims to eat! Consider the scold’s bridle.)

And then finally, the imagery of the gag is paid off when Aunt Lydia brings June a gag and buckles it around the lower half of her face.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Apparently you can just take it off?

It’s an incredibly evocative, horrifying sequence. You can see the gag digging into June’s flesh as Aunt Lydia pulls the straps brutally tight. Elisabeth Moss, shot in extreme close-up, is acting her face off, and you can see the light dying in her eyes. The moment is appalling and freighted with symbolic weight: We’re watching June be silenced.

But then we cut to June in that gag at the (ruined) Lincoln Memorial and she just kinda … pulls it down? I guess it turns out the gag is made out of a nice comfy stretchy material and you can just tuck it under your chin whenever you feel like it? So basically it’s a scarf that fits kind of tight? What the hell?

There is no real meaning to that gag because it doesn’t actually do anything. Which means that all the emotion poured into the shot of Aunt Lydia buckling the gag onto June feels cheap and unearned.

For me, this turn perfectly captures what The Handmaid’s Tale has become: a set of horrifying images with no consequences. It’s a show that wallows in imagery of trauma without wanting to do the hard work of showing how that trauma affects human beings and what it’s like to live in it.

I think that’s why we’re always complaining in these discussions that the show isn’t horrifying enough, while other critics are complaining that it’s just torture porn at this point: It’s both. The show keeps returning again and again to images of pain and degradation, without following them up with the consequences that make those images feel earned. And the combination feels gross and exploitative, like we’re just watching these atrocious images for the cheap thrill of it.

That’s without even getting into the bizarre conversation June and Aunt Lydia have before Aunt Lydia puts the gag on her, where June tearfully asks if Aunt Lydia wants them all to be silenced and Aunt Lydia tearfully says she doesn’t.

I honestly can’t make sense of what The Handmaid’s Tale wants us to think of Aunt Lydia. Sure, she’s a true believer who genuinely thinks she’s doing what’s best for her Handmaids when she punishes them, and who cares for them in her own way. I get that. But how could she possibly think that she’s not silencing her Handmaids? Why wouldn’t she think that silencing them is a good thing, that it is the place of a virtuous woman to be silent, that by silencing June, she is helping a sinful woman to find redemption?

I’m being harder on this episode than it probably deserves, because I honestly don’t think it’s any worse than the rest of the season so far. If anything, it’s a cut above episodes like “God Bless the Child.” I agree with your past comments, Emily, that leaving Boston always adds energy to the story, and Serena’s dilemma really is compelling. I also love the scene in “Household” where June bargains with the Swiss ambassadors; I think it was a smart way to put June in a position of power that makes sense within this world, and that showcases what a savvy operator she’s become while still setting her up for the shock of learning about Nick.

But watching this episode has really brought home to me that the problems that I keep hoping The Handmaid’s Tale will correct are just baked into its structure now, and that it shows no indication of ever wanting to do the work to earn the imagery it keeps relying on.

What do you think? Am I being too pessimistic here? Did the gag scene work for you?

Emily: I will admit that when Aunt Lydia buckled the gag on, I had the thought, “Uh, couldn’t she just pull it off?” So when June did, I wasn’t as affected by that moment as you. (I think the earlier scene with Ofgeorge pulling off her own gag had primed me for this — they seemed more like a symbolic piece of clothing than a functional one.)

But it’s really amusing how the gag also seems to underline The Handmaid’s Tale’s starkest problem in a single image: The consequences of Gilead now apply to everybody but June. What’s sort of amazing is that it mostly works! Moss is so good, and Yvonne Strahovski is so good, and I absolutely accept on a plot level that they’ve silently signed this pact where if one of them goes down, they both do, even though they still mostly hate each other. Like, I buy all of it!

Yet it’s also extremely unsatisfying, and I’m trying to pin down why that is. I don’t really want The Handmaid’s Tale to force June to suffer endlessly, or I would have already bailed. But it feels like the series is hesitating to let her take charge of her life in a meaningful way. She vacillates wildly between being a passenger in her own story and someone who is trying to take control of it.

I liked this episode a lot more than you, and I think I’m liking season three a lot more than you, too. (I still think “Unknown Caller” is one of the show’s best episodes, which has bought a lot of faith from me.) But the show is currently employing a “two steps forward, two steps back” strategy for June, so she’s running in place, instead of sliding backward into the pit or slowly but surely crawling her way out of it.

What’s fascinating is that season three’s first three episodes suggested strongly that it would be a “crawling out of the pit” season, shaking up the usual dynamics of The Handmaid’s Tale. But instead, the show keeps coming up with ways to have June in the same space as the Waterfords, even though she’s no longer assigned to them (and she’s called “Ofjoseph” often enough to remind us). The first three episodes of the season promised revolution or at least evolution; episodes four, five, and six have suggested it will take more to escape the clutches of the Waterford house than merely burning it down.

And on the level of, like, psychological realism, I appreciate that. I commend the show’s willingness to throw itself headlong against the darkest parts of our political reality. But the dichotomy between its thematic bullheadedness and the ways season three has turned much plottier have created a kind of “neither/nor” scenario where the show is still doing really interesting things but is also kind of trapped inside a tabletop role-playing game version of itself where June is assembling a party of Handmaids and Marthas to tear down society over the course of a 13-session campaign.

The more I think about it, the more I think the solution to The Handmaid’s Tale’s problems is to send June to Chicago to fight alongside the resistance. It would be wildly improbable, but at least she’d be doing something other than being a tourist when it comes to the ways she could be suffering even more.

We should talk about Christopher Meloni, though, because he’s yet another actor who’s elevating some material on this show that I might otherwise be more unsure about. We’re supposed to be reading him as gay, right?

One way this episode turns the season’s storytelling on its ear — it puts Fred in a position where he has less power for once

The Handmaid’s Tale
We all saw how having wings turned out for Daenerys Targaryen, tho!

Constance: Oh, 100 percent. I actually think the way Meloni’s character’s gayness is signposted is kind of elegant. First we get this weird moment where George kind of crowds into Fred’s personal space while playing pool, and it’s ambiguous enough that it almost feels like a power play, like George is showing Fred that even though he’s throwing Fred the bone of a compliment, George is still the one in charge. But then a few beats later, we see George getting a little handsy and rubbing Fred’s shoulder while Fred looks uncomfortable.

This plot line is potentially interesting because it allows us to delve into the power dynamics between Commanders, which are relatively underexplored. George is clearly high up in the food chain of Commanders, with the status symbol of an absurd number of children plus a Handmaid. He certainly has more power than Fred. And he’s dangling a promotion in Fred’s face. Does that mean he can get away with potentially harassing Fred?

In theory, Fred could report George to someone higher up for being a “gender traitor” — but would making that move be effective in Gilead? Or would Gilead turn out to be like our world, where in theory if your boss harasses you, you can report it to HR, but in practice there are enormous structural barriers that prevent a lot of people from doing so? That’s potentially a thematically rich dilemma.

The other thing I like about this plot line is that it develops an idea that’s introduced in Margaret Atwood’s source novel but isn’t hugely explored, which is that while sex that’s not for reproduction is theoretically outlawed in Gilead, in practice, it’s only really outlawed for those who aren’t at the top of the pyramid. In the book, the Commanders have developed an elaborate black market system of brothels that they keep for themselves, and when Offred asks her Commander about them, he just says, “You can’t cheat Nature.”

Powerful straight men in Atwood’s world find a way to have recreational, albeit not really consensual, sex. On the TV show — which brought us along to the brothel back in season one — can powerful gay men find a way to do the same?

Emily: It’s kind of compelling to see Fred in a situation where he’s the powerless one who could speak out about something where he’s more or less in the right. (I say “more or less” because while nobody should be harassed, how much do you want to bet what will really bug Fred is the nature of who’s harassing him and how, rather than the simple fact of being harassed?)

This is why I have at least some degree of faith in The Handmaid’s Tale still. Season three has tossed a ton of interesting ideas into the air, and if it can catch most of them on the way down, the results will be worth some of the missteps to my mind. But the season has also made crystal clear that the show needs an exit strategy, and soon.

I don’t care if it chooses dystopia or revolution. I don’t care if its plot lines trend realistic or escapist. It just needs to move in a direction. Any one will do.