By David Canfield
June 26, 2019 at 01:08 AM EDT
Sophie Giraud/Hulu
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Nick is back, Christopher Meloni has arrived, Aunt Lydia is “pumped”… let’s break down a very eventful episode of The Handmaid’s Tale in five big moments…

NEW PLACES, NEW FACES

The Handmaid’s Tale certainly makes good on the harrowing image that concluded last week’s episode — the effort of Fred and Serena to get Nichole back into Gilead has only escalated since that first PSA. They’ve even temporarily relocated to Washington, D.C., in order to continue in their mission and bring the Canadians to the table. (Our first look at this transformed place is truly dystopian, with Gilead flags hung all around and a chilly, defeatist air pervading.) Once June and her required companion, Lydia, get off the train at Union Station — the former lamenting how much better it used to be — and ride up the escalators, June is guided into an area of handmaids leaning on pillows. She’s to kneel on a pillow, with Gilead put into collective prayer for Nichole’s return; she stays this way until Fred, Serena, and Rita arrive. So the next phase is launched.

They drive to the grand home of Commander Winslow (played by Christopher Meloni) and his wife (Elizabeth Reaser), new characters who immediately loom large. Eventually they’re all greeted by the Commander, then his daughter, then… four more of his children, of various races. Finally Mrs. Winslow enters. It’s the kind of epic family gathering Serena dreams of but could never imagine — indeed, for these characters, the family is of a size they’ve never before seen in Gilead. The jovial nature of it all overwhelms Serena. June is escorted out and meets the Winslow’s handmaid, whose mouth is covered by her garment. Things are a little stricter in this part of Gilead. Or maybe a lot stricter — finally, after June tries to get her to speak, the handmaid reveals her mouth, forced shut by some horrifying contraption. A reminder that as bad as things are, they can always get worse. (Later, Lydia is forced to put the cover on June’s mouth. June asks her, “Do you want us all to be silenced?” In tears, Lydia says she does not. But she ties the mouth-cover around her head anyway.)

NICK RETURNS

Fred is directing more broadcasts to bring international attention to his Nicole effort. Lydia organizes the handmaids in the studio, lining them up while Fred serves as director. June and Serena get a moment alone where the former tries appealing to the latter’s sense. “How many more of these videos is he going to do?” June asks. “As many as it takes,” Serena responds.

Then comes the long-awaited return of Nick — now a commander. Fred is stumped by his presence; Nick says Winslow sent him over. So Fred tells him to stand in the shot before filming next to June, where the once-lovers secretly communicate with a touch and smile.

THE NEUTRAL PARTY

Fred has made progress — he reveals, back at the Winslows, that the Swiss have agreed to act as a neutral party and conduct interviews, in the effort to bring Canada to the table. This comes just after June yet again begs Serena to flip, but as Serena told her, “You have to understand that seeing [Nichole] again changed everything for me.”

The Swiss get to screening the Waterfords — and June. After speaking to Fred and Serena, the committee says they want to speak to June alone; despite the Waterfords’ objections, June ensures this happens and gets into the room with them privately. (“Don’t be stupid,” Serena warns.) The Swiss initially refer to June as Ofjoseph; she corrects them to call her by her birth name. “I am the child’s mother, and I want Nichole to stay in Canada,” she states bluntly. She then reveals Nichole’s parentage. How could the Swiss rule against all that?

Well, they need something more — Gilead is powerful, and June needs to be able to make a trade. She offers Nick as a commander who could exchange information; they’re sufficiently intrigued. They bring Nick in after June does some heavy convincing — a nighttime reunion in which they also get to kiss and catch up a tad — but the whole thing falls apart; the Swiss reveal they are recommending “discussions continue.” June is stunned. A committee member tells her they did research and learned Nick was not to be trusted. Later, June asks Serena what he did before he was a driver — especially prescient as he’s about to ship off. “He was a soldier in the Crusade,” she says with pride. “We wouldn’t be here without him.” And there, June is forced to see the father of her child with very new eyes.

LEARNING ABOUT THE WINSLOWS

We may have just scratched the surface with this family, who introduce themselves to the Waterfords in deceptive and complex ways. Eventually, the genders split off into pairs. Mrs. Winslow confides in Serena that she loved her book, even if it’s “taboo.” She adds that it saved her. Serena is flattered — if, as ever, a little conflicted about it. Commander Winslow, meanwhile, congratulates Fred on his moving the discussions around Nichole forward. Then… well, things get a little weird. Over a drink, he holds and rubs him and says, “A man of your assets could be an asset.” Okay then!

JUNE AND SERENA FACE OFF

It’s been a bad few episodes for June and Serena, but here The Handmaid’s Tale sets the stage for their ugliest interaction in the show’s history. And where better to have this conversation take place than in front of a decapitated Lincoln Memorial?

They turn utterly vicious towards one another, against this epic, haunting backdrop. A sampling of June’s comments toward Serena:

“You will never be free of me. You will never be free of me until both of my children will be safe.”

“You’re small. You’re cruel. And you’re empty. You will always be empty.”

“I should’ve let you burn when I had the chance.”

They approach each other in a collective rage before going their separate ways. Here is the clearest evidence yet that these two will never be true allies. For now, they are adversaries — and the fate of Nichole hangs in the balance.

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