June (Elisabeth Moss) betrays a smile when she witnesses children dashing into the arms of a doting Commander. But her elation evaporates. Children in a low-birth rate era are sacred to Gilead, and even to Handmaids enslaved by Gilead, but June can also imagine the untold circumstances that brought the children into the arms of an official, one of the many rapists who runs the theocratic Gilead. “Household” offers the first glimpse of a blended Gilead household, with adopted children (stolen from parents deemed sinners) and a birth child (born from the Handmaid the Commander raped).
With a pleasing guest appearance by Christopher Meloni, the high-ranking Commander Winslow seems like a swell father and husband with a fruitful family life revered by Gileadians. Even for a second, the Handmaid June was fooled into believing in this loving familial image. Wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is relishing the sight of this familial stability. June comprehends the dystopia, but for Serena Joy, Gilead is looking more utopian than before. “Have you seen their Handmaid?” June tells Serena, referring to the Winslow’s Handmaid with her mouth sewed shut.
Since the Waterfords’ first broadcast has spurred a public momentum of mass prayers for the return of June’s baby Nichole from Canada, the Waterfords drag June for publicity purposes to Washington D.C. where June beholds desecrated American imagery. As religion-fueled anti-abortion policies – where rapists have more child custody rights than their victims in Alabama – threaten the bodily and medical autonomy of women across America, “Household” yields hard-to-stomach imagery for the fictionalized America that Gilead has perverted. Through June’s eyes, the audience is forced to stare at the Washington Monument restructured into a cross in front of the decapitated Lincoln Memorial.
Throughout season three, characters surrounding June’s world have progressed in their stations. Despite being demoted after baby Nichole’s “kidnapping,” the Waterfords’ showmanship over the lost baby has made Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) stand out. The more he campaigns for the baby’s return with vague military threats and cordial recordings, the more he could be due for a promotion. As her husband rises in his station, Serena Joy smells an opportunity for a domestic upgrade, pining for the baby she called Nichole and perhaps more children. As opposed to June’s optimism that Serena Joy could use her powers for good, Serena Joy’s return to power simply pushed her into moral regression. Now Nick (Max Minghella) has also now ascended to the role of Commander. His surprise appearance at DC, position, and spy work could be key to June bartering with the Swiss politicians for baby Holly’s safety in Canada. However, a belated revelation spoils these chances: Nick, before his driving days, was a crusader for Gilead and couldn’t be trusted by the politicians. Even if the Nick she knows is far from the Gilead radical he was in the past, his part in Gilead’s design is still an unbearable truth.
Throughout her survival, June sought aid from oppressors depending on conditions. She clings to the good in people, overplaying the soft spots in a shaky and callous ally like Commander Lawrence or indulging sympathy for Serena Joy and sometimes Commander Waterford. But this season hammers the hard way that the benevolence of oppressors is surface-level. As June is learning, oppressors can’t be your saviors and their allyship, though temporary useful, can result in hollowness. When June allows herself melancholy solitary with Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), who admits she doesn’t want her Handmaids silenced –or silenced that way – June’s momentary kinship with her is out of desperation.
Now June is done entertaining sympathy for Serena Joy. Beneath the decapitated Abraham Lincoln Memorial, June flings a cathartic call-out to Serena’s maternal obsession with forcing a child back into the oppressive spaces of Gilead. “That’s not love.” It’s one of the most biting and satisfying invectives against Serena Joy and counterpoints June’s spur-of-the-moment decision to honor Serena Joy by requesting the baby to be called Nichole instead of June’s selected name Holly.
With mourning violin strings evoking sorrowful reverence for a bygone era, “Household” can make the viewer feel for an era that wasn’t as dreary. Yet, it also forces the viewer to confront the evils had already been seeded in the Before time, evils seeded by women like Serena Joy who threw other women under the bus to serve her “utopia,” evils seeded by ordinary men like Nick who reaped the privilege of pushing the extremisms, evils seeded by amiable powerful couples like the Winslows who are so convinced of their own national benevolence that they have no qualms about stolen children and violated parental bonds.
It is natural to pine for browbeaten beings like June and other Handmaids to rebel, but life in dystopia can break down a person so much that there’s nothing but silent screams instead of revolutionary fire. As Commander Waterford conducts himself like a televangelist preaching to a militant formation of muffled Handmaids below the desecrated Lincoln Memorial, June stares at an atmosphere grayed with ambivalence and resignation. The ritual is so drenched in bleakness it’s hard to consider any hopeful visuals save for June disobeying the implied look-down order by gazing up. It’s easy to miss in the quick cut but the lip-sealed handmaid also looks up while the rest look down.
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