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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Team on Making Washington D.C. ‘Gilead on Steroids’

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Household,” the sixth episode of the third season of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

For two and a half seasons, life in the dystopian regime of “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” Gilead appeared to be the worst possible future for a woman like June (Elisabeth Moss). But then she traveled to what was once Washington, D.C. and saw an even darker option.

In the sixth episode of the third season of the Hulu series, entitled “Household,” June accompanied the Waterfords (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski) to the nation’s former capitol as part of the political tour to bring their baby back from Canada. There, handmaids had rings surgically implanted through their upper and lower lips, preventing them from speaking, and the once-inspiring architecture of the city was altered to hold the new kind of patriarchy in its image instead. The Lincoln Memorial, for example, had been destroyed, removing the former president’s head and words of wisdom that had been carved into the wall behind him. Meanwhile, the Washington Monument was turned into a more than 500 foot tall cross.

“Being in D.C. was Gilead on steroids,” episode director Dearbhla Walsh tells Variety. “It was easy to feel the power of the people who were broken, not just physically but psychologically. It was very, very frightening. It was a very real feeling.”

Production on the D.C. scenes had to take place in only one day due to budget and time constraints on the episode, says Walsh, so “we had to make sure that when we did go, it really had an impact.” The very first scene they shot there was June arriving at the train station, specifically on the escalator, with those around her refusing to make eye contact. This set a tone for the severity of what was to come.

Once the team got outside, things heated up further, though.

For Walsh, who is Irish, the power of “the elegance, the beauty, the idealistic nature of the American dream and politics” she felt when seeing the monuments with her own eyes for the first time was “overwhelming.”

“There was such a Cathedral impact,” she says. “The elegance of the architecture, it does feel like hallowed ground to start.” Add to that the fact that the permission they had to film on such ground was very specific — “You’re only allowed three people to film on the marble; you can’t put any cameras down,” Walsh explains — and things got even more complicated.

The Lincoln Memorial is on public ground, so production could only shoot June’s emotional reaction to what has become of the city and her pivotal confrontation with Serena in four-minute chunks, to allow for the public to come in and out of the space, as well. And they technically weren’t supposed to be rolling sound.

“The idea of them raising their voices in such a place, it was both intimidating and powerful. It really colored the tone of the performance, I think, in a really effective way,” Walsh says.

But, the idea of June and Serena raising their voices was necessary because the scene was approached as a “final break-up,” reveals Walsh.

“The end of Season 2, the beginning of Season 3, was them having a connection to each other as mothers, and then the emotional story of this episode was that they would not connect with each other as women or mothers or friends after this,” she explains. “So the power of those lines, ‘You’re empty’ and ‘I should have let them put a ring in your mouth’ was the most vicious friends could be to each other.”

Walsh, Moss and Strahovski only had three takes to get this scene down, and Walsh shares that they did each take with slightly different inflections to lean into anger and sadness, but in the end, she went for the take that was most infused with the “pain of the breakup.”

As Moss puts it, after all of the strides the women made toward being allies, Serena going to the lengths she has to get the baby back from Canada “breaks June’s heart.”

“She really is so disappointed in Serena and who she becomes. She really believed in her and it just doesn’t work, and I think that’s a really important step for June to take in order for her to get where she needs to go,” Moss explains.

The day production was in D.C. was also, coincidentally, the day Donald Trump was declaring a national emergency to fund the wall on the Mexican-American border. As the actresses playing handmaids got into formation to pray in front of the steps to the memorial, many on-lookers thought it was a protest against the president’s actions.

“I was blown away by the power of the location in our story. It was incredible,” says Strahovski. “The energy of the place really bubbles as the scene plays out. It also felt incredibly strange standing there in the wife outfit with our Gilead flags everywhere. It just felt so wrong being in that space playing those characters.”

Adds Moss: “I was happy to let the scene be colored by everything. There’s nothing that adds more depth and complexity to the scene than the fact that you are actually in D.C., at the Lincoln Memorial, blocks away from the White House. You’re in the thick of it representing this future that we don’t want to have. I felt like it added incredible depth to the scene that we really embraced.”

A quintessential moment for the team was when what had become of the Washington Monument was revealed. True to the form of the show, Walsh set up the shot so that the camera was behind June first. While her head first blocked the image, the camera then shifted slightly to reveal what June saw, as well as swinging around to see her reaction.

“The political is made personal by always being with June, with her point of view. As directors we talk about those things all of the time as we work on different dramas, but here it is quite literal with her closeup, experiencing the whole thing from her point of view,” says Walsh. “It’s kind of an interesting marriage between an in-camera move and keeping it quite intimate, and then having to frame it a certain way so the visual effects have power as well.”

However, for as complicated as getting these shots proved to be due to the time constraints and green screen elements, the scene in the episode that caused the most pre-production conversation was actually the one in which June asks Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) to help her put on the face mask portion of the D.C. handmaids’ outfit.

“It was the most difficult part of the story to get to a place where we believed that that would happen. At times I thought we shouldn’t see it go on, and we should just reveal it, but [showrunner] Bruce [Miller] was very clear that because it is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ we shouldn’t cheat the audience of the experience,” Walsh admits. “I kept saying to Lizzie, ‘The June I know would never let anyone do that to her.’ It is a huge compliment to Ann Dowd and Lizzie working out getting to a place where she would put it on and we would accept it.”

In the end, though, what they settled on was to treat June and Lydia’s moment as a “mother-daughter scene” and that while this was the “lowest point in her arc,” Walsh says, June also came to an understanding that “sometimes things have to be done for bigger reasons, and that you can be beaten but not out.”

“She ends up almost realizing that’s not what the resistance is about. It doesn’t matter if she wears this thing to make other people happy in this moment,” Moss adds. “If she has to wear that thing for one day — for one event — in order to infiltrate the system from the inside, then that’s what she’s going to do.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 3 streams new episodes Wednesdays on Hulu.

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