The Handmaid’s Tale season three, episode six, “Household,” is a first in more ways than one. In spite of its limited locations, the series has given viewers a range of experiences that showcased what life in Gilead is like, not only for Handmaids, but for a vast array of people. But “Household” is a different beast entirely, taking us to this world’s dark heart.
Washington D.C. has no doubt been the source of many a horror show, but it’s hit a whole new low since the new management. So low in fact, it makes the rest of Gilead look liberal. That it still contains vestiges of America is unsettling in itself, and that sense of recognition, combined with such an intense concentration of Gilead’s fear, paranoia, and obsession with control only deepens the gut-wrenching terror it inspires.
June (Elisabeth Moss) isn’t just dragged along as a part of the Waterfords’ efforts to bring Nichole back from Canada, she’s also expected to participate, and not just as a silently seething set piece like in the previous episode. No, she’s expected to lead the other Handmaids in a mass prayer to hasten the return of the daughter she risked everything to free from Gilead’s clutches.
A small glimpse of how those Handmaids are treated is enough to settle even Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). It makes sense that women’s voices would be even more feared in the center of power, and extra effort is taken to silence the Handmaids, with their D.C. uniforms including an addition that covers the lower half of their faces, in a public reassurance of their silence and powerlessness. Even nastier surprises await once June and the Waterfords arrive at their temporary residence, the sumptuous home of Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni) and his Wife Olivia (Elizabeth Reaser, using her iconic role as the Twilight matriarch Esme to chilling effect). Their Handmaid Ofgeorge (Kirrilee Berger) proves that silence begins in the home, with her mouth literally shut via a series of rings.
But even hell tends to offer a taste of heaven for some. For Serena (Yvonnie Strahovski), it’s even seductive. The Winslows are a smiling, affectionate couple and doting parents to more children than the Waterfords have seen in one house. It’s a masterful manipulation, one that offers Serena a taste of the life she’s wanted, where Fred (Joseph Fiennes) is a doting father and the cries of the less fortunate are effectively neutralized. It’s power without accountability, and June’s pleas naturally seem small to a woman who has never seemed to care much about just who her agenda would hurt, especially now that her own suffering seems like a memory. When she asks Olivia if all her children are hers, Olivia laughingly replies, “Who else’s would they be?”
Anyone with even a slight familiarity with this show would be aware that June is due for a whole new low after she seemed to be making real progress in the fight against Gilead. Still, unlike other beats The Handmaid’s Tale has struck this season, this episode is the rare one to mostly ring true. In a desperate attempt to save Nichole, June tries to persuade the recently reappeared Nick (Max Minghella) to give information about Gilead, but her efforts only lead to some very unpleasant revelations. Not only does June discover she might not know who Nick really is, but that he played a much larger role in the formation of Gilead than he’s ever let on.
The most refreshing thing about “Household” is that June, and the show itself, finally holds Serena truly accountable. Serena has been punished before, but she always seems to be somehow forgiven by both. Not this time, as June finally realizes what has been apparent to many from the start: Serena is ultimately an empty, cruel woman, and she always will be. In one of the show’s most poetic touches, they trade barbs in front of the Lincoln Memorial, then seem to finally reach a definitive parting of the ways. Then again, The Handmaid’s Tale still treated Serena sympathetically after she assisted in a very violent rape, so who knows.
At least the series seems have rediscovered that there are a few limits to how much June can openly rebel against such a brutally twisted system. As she’s brought out to survey the Waterfords’ kingdom of silenced Handmaids in the Washington Monument, she kneels to lead them in prayer for Nichole’s return, just as she is expected to. Totalitarianism isn’t just built on silence, but complicity. The more terrifying reality is how willing women like Serena are to comply.