'The Handmaid’s Tale' Recap: It's Not A Good Sign When Even Aunt Lydia Thinks This Has Gone Too Far...
Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale: Serena paid a visit to Canada, which didn’t quite go according to plan; June left an important message for her husband hidden in a mixtape, and now the Waterfords are going to test exactly how nice Canada is. Here’s my recap for episode 5 if you missed it!
This week: Fred Waterford, Head of Branding (Non-Burny Division), steps up his campaign to Make Nichole Gileadean Again, and takes his whole household to D.C., which is so unspeakably (geddit?) awful that it makes Boston look like the cute and cuddly provinces. When Aunt Lydia, Head of Branding (Burny Division), thinks you’ve gone too far and it’s getting a bit mean, you know it’s going to be properly bad.
This is your five second warning for spoilers! When those seconds are up, my lips will no longer be sealed. (Geddit? Also, hi, I’m Hannah, and I make bad jokes when I’m uncomfortable. Sorry about that.) Seriously, though. Spoilers are coming up any second now. Right after this dramatic reconstruction of me watching episode 6. I’ve a feeling we’re not in Boston anymore…
Dear American viewers: If Gilead’s perversion of Washington D.C. left you broken and weeping on the floor, let me send you a virtual hug and a reassuring pat on the shoulder. There, there. It’s going to be alright. Probably.
Episode 6 was a bumper edition of misery, using the new narrative freedom the show has carved out to take us on a visit to Gilead’s capital, a place where the Waterfords are small fry and where Aunt Lydia seems kind. It’s a trip for the purposes of spin, and we see Fred enjoying the opportunities it affords him. He is more motivated by the possibility of status and kudos than by a desire to see Nichole again, though all of this has the convenient added bonus of rebuilding that relationship with Serena. If June is Serena’s Good Shoulder Angel, Fred is the Other One. And as we saw at the end of episode 5, when Serena is vulnerable, the temptation to follow Fred is overwhelming.
And so, the whole household arrives in D.C., where everything is Gilead Plus Plus. In the book, the Historical Notes tell us that Gilead evolved and went through phases, that the early period gave way to even stricter practices, and that’s what we start to see here. The handmaid uniforms are already restrictive, but in D.C., they have added a covering to the lower part of the face. I’m going to call it a mask, though later, they will refer to it as a veil. Aunt Lydia’s first response is to see this as a “wonderful” sign of “devotion”, but even she is horrified when she sees what is beneath the mask: metal rings holding the mouth closed.
Later, when she visits June, she is genuinely concerned about her, and even sheds some tears. She doesn’t want handmaids to be silenced. It’s not that she wants the handmaids to be free, rather that she wants them to be willing participants in the process, which may or may not be worse. But it makes things difficult for Aunt Lydia anyway.
“When I get tired, I still try to think of all the good I can do, in God’s world. If I can help just one person, one soul, that’s enough. I think of you, dear.”
Aunt Lydia’s help might not be the sort of help anyone wants (remember how she thought FGM was a way to ‘help’ Emily stop wanting what she “can’t have”?) but it is a striking moment anyway, in an episode that blew up some old alliances and started to make some new, even more dangerous ones.
Commanders are ten-a-penny here. It’s the High Commanders that you need to worry about. And so, we meet George Winslow and his wife, played by Chris Meloni and Elizabeth Reaser. When I first saw them, I wrote the same note for both of them: VAMPIRES. And yes, that was a reference to the roles they played in True Blood and Twilight respectively, but what vampires they are here, feeding their egos like gluttons on the blood (and tears) of those they oppress, luring their prey (the Waterfords) with the promise of eternity (children, power, legacy). In episode 4, I mentioned how rare siblings were in Gilead; because handmaids are an apparently finite resource, the successful ones are shared out, and only the childless are meant to be eligible for handmaids. Huh. The Winslows never got that message. One of the privileges of their rank is the size of their family: six kids and counting. They still have a handmaid. They are hoarding babies like it’s going out of fashion. The oldest ones were clearly born pre-Gilead, which means they were stolen from ‘unworthy’ parents. The youngest ones would have been born to handmaids.
Serena: “Are they all yours?”
Mrs Winslow: “Who else’s would they be?”
The Waterfords want to bond with the Winslows, and it seems like the Winslows want to make friends too. Vampires can be alluring when it suits them. Mrs Winslow flatters Serena by talking about her (now banned) book. With the husbands, it’s a little bit weirder. Fred and George (no, I’m not going to make a Weasley joke. Oops, too late.) engage in a bit of homoerotic snooker, with George taking every opportunity he can to invade Fred’s personal space. There’s a lot of luxurious cue chalking, hitting the balls hard, rubbing his shoulder, and leaning over so far that he’s almost sitting on Fred’s lap at one point. It’s not subtle. I’m not sure how Fred feels about it, though. Is he uncomfortable? Does he hate it when he is forced to play along with unwanted romantic attention because of his status? (Because, dude, remember the Scrabble?) Is he willingly prostituting himself for power? Is he sussing out George’s weak points to use them against him later? He’s kidding himself if he thinks he’s the powerful one here. George looks at him like he’s lunch.
Meanwhile, Fred’s PR campaign has added pressure to the Canadians, and they’ve arranged for a neutral party, the Swiss, to open up negotiations. Ohh, Canada. You are on thin ice. This gives June a chance to make a deal though — the first time she’s had the opportunity to speak to a foreign delegate since season 1 when she tried to tell the Mexican ambassador, Mrs Castillo, about the way things really are in Gilead. Last week, she was rubbish at haggling, but she is tougher this time around. Which brings us to…drum roll… The return of Nearly-Pointless Nick! Hooray! Finally, he can shed his nickname (Nick Name?) and save the day! No…wait. Still Nearly-Pointless. Maybe he needs to be upgraded to Really-Pointless. Sigh.
Nick shows up for the photo shoot, much to Fred’s annoyance, makes an awkward joke to June (relatable), visits June in the middle of the night for a sneaky snog and then flinches at June’s deal with the Swiss. His excuse is that he doesn’t like politicians, but in reality, Nick’s been too much of a bad boy in the past for them to go anywhere near him. It is a bit strange they don’t figure that out until they see him face to face, as they knew his name and rank already, but hey. Turns out, you don’t become an Eye and then get promoted to Commander by Being Nice. We last saw some of Nick’s background in season 1 where he was one of those disillusioned white guys who thought the world owed him a favour, and he was groomed by one of the founders of Gilead. When June finally thinks to ask for some info on him, Serena reveals he “was a soldier in the crusade. We wouldn’t be here without him.” The Swiss lady euphemistically described Nick as someone “not to be trusted” and “not to be dealt with”. Nick’s ambiguity is something Atwood played around with in the book as well, but the show usually tries to frame him as someone caught up in something terrible. Someone with redeeming qualities. As we see Nick joining his troops, there is more of a sinister look about him. The implications are terrorism and war crimes, right? The Swiss are desperate for intel, and for them to reject Nick as a source must be because the damage it could do if it leaked far outweighs the benefits. Damn you, Actively-Terrible Nick. You had one chance…
That’s one ally gone, then, and with the big confrontation scene towards the end, it’s fair to say another bridge is well and truly burned too. No more Team Jurena. Their argument was vicious, and it has been brewing for a while. June spent much of the episode desperately trying to persuade Serena to let Nichole go, but her words fell on deaf ears. By the time they faced off in the Lincoln Memorial, it was time to let the pretence drop. She started the episode quietly praying that Serena and Fred got “hit by a fucking truck,” and by the end? Not so quiet after all.
Serena: “I should have put a ring in your mouth the day we met.”
June: “I should have let you burn when I had the chance.”
Live and learn, eh June? And so, she covers her mouth and heads out to the final bit of PR: praying in front of legions of handmaids, who are lining the Reflecting Pool. She misses her cue at first, overwhelmed and broken by what she has seen. The crossed Washington Monument burns its image on her retina. But there was another lingering shot seconds earlier: Lincoln’s clenched fist. She faces a terrifying foe, but there is strength and determination there too. If June had an Arthur moment, this was it.
Callbacks and references
Much has changed in Washington D.C. The train station designed by a “heretic” and destroyed by Gilead was Daniel Burnham’s Union Station, right? That’s not all they did, though. June’s first glimpse of the city was the Washington Monument, turned into a giant cross. And only the lower half of Lincoln’s statue remains. It’s not the first time D.C. landmarks have been, uh, damaged by an enemy force (on behalf of Great Britain, sorry about that), nor was it the first representation of that on film, but this felt brutal. Seeing slaves lined up in front of a memorial to the guy who issued the Emancipation Proclamation was hard.
Like Season 3 Episode 1 (‘Night’), this episode was named after a section of the novel. The Household section is the part that explains the Ceremony for the first time — where everything becomes brutally, horrifically clear.
“Would you mind standing in for me?” Ooh, Fred’s getting sassy…
Fred’s pre-Gilead job was market research, according to the Historical Notes. He then became Gilead’s go-to branding and symbolism guy. His PR skills seem to be working, sadly. Don’t do it, Canada!
We still don’t know for sure how Luke got the mixtape, but it’s a safe bet that Serena gave it to the American agent to give to Luke, at which point he made a copy and shared the intel with allies before eventually passing the original on to Luke. That seems much more likely than Luke volunteering the tape after seeing the first press conference, because that would have put June and Nick in danger, and Luke’s a Good Guy.
The rings through the mouth have traumatised me, but also left me with a lot of questions. Do all the handmaids have them? Are they standard issue in the capital, or are they a punishment for rule-breaking? Are they ‘just’ removable piercings? If not, how do handmaids eat and drink? Is Gilead using lots of straws? What about the turtles? How do handmaids convey basic health needs? They can’t write anything down… Is it like communicating with Lassie? Or Lavinia? Is there handmaid sign language? Do they have to give birth without opening their mouths to scream? What if they get a cold? Are the rings fully circular or kind of C shaped? Because if they are circular, what about their teeth? Did they take the teeth out first to make room for the rings? NO, DON’T ANSWER THAT, I DON’T WANT TO KNOW.
The link the show wants to make, which I don’t want to make, but I can’t NOT make.
Is the handmaid mask just a reference to the niqab? I don’t want it to be. That’s why I’ve called it a mask, not a veil — because it makes me very uncomfortable. But is that discomfort sort of the point? And if so, why? Is it uncomfortable because it makes us confront how we process the visual of a white woman covering her face? Or is it uncomfortable because it is just a clumsy analogy? For the record, I don’t believe that anyone should be forced to cover OR uncover their face to fit someone else’s ideas or beliefs. Muslim women may choose to wear the niqab; handmaids don’t get a choice. Perhaps it’s not just a conflation of the two, and it’s that dystopian tradition of taking something familiar to brutal extremes to create a world that seems plausible and not too far away… What do you think?
A joke just for Pajibans: How are your lions, Fred?
Of all the toys he could be playing with… Anyway, nothing vaguely entertaining about Fred making his lion roar in an attempt to impress his wife. Nope. Nada. But hey, Fred? Did it work? Did she come and play with you, or did George come to the rescue instead?
Until next time, then, I’m off for a completely innocent and platonic game of snooker. It will be the straightest thing you’ve ever seen since that time Maverick and Goose played volleyball in Top Gun.
Header Image Source: Hulu