Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale
Hope is not necessarily the first word or feeling that springs to mind when thinking of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s probably not even the second or third. Particularly after viewing the first three episodes, which rapidly tore the world as June knew it to shreds and left a horrifying dystopia in its place. It’s a world where the idea of getting to walk outside, even if it’s raining, is the most exciting thing in Offred’s day. A world where there’s no need to lock a handmaid’s door to keep her confined; she’s well aware who holds the power. It’s a world where simply writing is an act of bravery for any woman. And yet, by the end of this episode there’s a smile on Offred’s face, and with it a small, but renewed, sense of optimism. Despite the ugliness around her, she’s found something to beautiful to cling to. She’s found a rallying cry.
Having been banished to her room as punishment for not being pregnant, Offred has spent 13 days in her small quarters with nothing but a small ray of sunshine peeking through her now shuttered windows. She recalls better times with Luke and Hannah, but not wishing to trap herself in those memories, she forces herself to stay in the present. Offred explores her room and finds a note scratched into the wall: nolite te bastardes carborundorum. She may not know what it means, but two things are clear: the Offred who came before her wrote this and did so knowing it could put her in (even more) danger. Current Offred is grateful the woman took the risk. It may be nothing more than scratchings on a wall, but it’s Offred’s one connection to something other than the four walls of her bedroom – something else to consume her mind other than the now grief-filled memories of her past.
The words remind Offred of Moira and the risks they took while still at the Red Center. In similar fashion to old Offred, Moira inscribes “Aunt Lydia Sux” on a bathroom stall with a makeshift weapon she’d sharpened. It doesn’t have quite the same ring as nolite, but Moira’s intention is that it will have the same impact: the women who find it will know they’re not alone. It’s a quiet solidarity, but solidarity nonetheless.
It’s this sustained spirit despite their situation that drives Moira and June to attempt escape. The scenes of them luring an Aunt into the basement and stealing her clothes, and then navigating their way out of the Center were pulse pounding. When they made it outside and into city, the horror of what their new world looks like reflected in their faces was chilling. As it became clear that Moira was going to make it onto the train and June would be left behind, stopped by armed men, it was gut wrenching. June was happy for Moira to have made it, but when she’s taken back to the Center for punishment it’s clear the rebel inside her had faded.
“Ingratitude” is what Aunt Lydia says hurts her the most about June’s actions; she and the other women have been given an opportunity they should be grateful for. Excuse me while I vomit ALL the vomit. It’s this kind of language and torturous treatment (June’s feet are whipped) that can eventually, and understandably, beat someone into submission. You start seeing risks in an entirely different light – what’s truly worth it when your very survival is at stake? This is a question Offred, and all of the unwilling handmaids, must contend with on a daily basis. Was it better for Offred to lie about why she was in the closet? Was it wise for her to beg Serena Joy to be let out of her room? Every move she makes has to be carefully calculated, pros and cons weighed. It’s like walking on eggshells 24/7, only far, far worse. And when Offred is forced to navigate these situations with people like her doctor and the Commander, it’s even worse because of the sheer amount of power they hold over her.
When Offred’s doctor “graciously” offers to impregnate her, just in case Fred is sterile, it immediately feels dubious. On the one hand, he’s treating Offred with just enough humanity to make her feel as though he can be trusted. He knows that she’ll be blamed for the lack of reproduction and his offer of sex could help her. Of course, he doesn’t care enough about her humanity to actually do anything truly helpful about her situation – she’s still just a baby incubator, mere property after all. And even if Offred went along with it, who’s to say he’s not an Eye or that he would use his power to harm her in other ways? Even in turning down his offer she took a chance; he could be angry with her for denying him and tell whatever lies he wanted to anyone who would listen. Offred could have been damned if she did and damned if she didn’t, but she got lucky (for lack of a better word) this time.
Things continued to follow in Offred’s favor during the final scenes of the episode, too. Powered by the memory of Moira’s determinedness, Offred obliges the Commander in his proposal for a Scrabble rematch. Her visits with him may be the necessary risk to finding some form of freedom. She plays her part with him masterfully, first embodying the borderline flirtatious and intelligent woman who will let Fred win, if he wants. Then, when she discovers how the previous Offred came to learn about the “nolite” phrase, and how both that and her death (a suicide) affects the Commander, she shifts effortlessly into fragility. There’s a certain strength hiding behind it, though. She capitalizes on what he’s feeling and there’s an unmistakable power reversal, even if it’s only fleeting. Just like the doctor, the Commander only cares so much about Offred’s humanity, but in this case it’s enough.
Though Offred has regained a small bit of freedom, not a damn thing has changed about the outside world. Her small victory in gaining permission to go outside is really just a return to what’s now considered a normal life for her. And absolutely nothing about her life should be considered normal. This is why nolite is so important; it’s intangible, unable to be stripped away. In an existence where you have nothing, simple phrases like that one or “Aunt Lydia Sux,” may be the only tether you have to feeling a sense of unity, even if that ultimately seems hopeless.
Under His Eye
- The UN has an official embargo against Gilead. I love that the show is giving us hints to the outside world and I hope it continues.
- An Aunt has escaped across the Canadian border and told her story to the Toronto Star. Even this is a ray of hope – even if it’s as small as the ray coming through Offred’s window.
- Kristian Bruun, who played Offred’s doctor, is also Donnie on Orphan Black. I never thought I’d be able to see him as anything other than Alison’s goofy husband, but in his brief and mostly hidden appearance, he perfectly conveyed a very intimidating presence.
- Watching the women learn about The Ceremony was disturbing. I wonder if Ann Dowd gives herself nightmares because I’m certainly afraid of her in this role.
- I’m never surprised by the lack of solidarity between women in this show, but it still hurts to watch, mostly because it’s so damn real.
The Handmaid's Tale S1E4
"Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum"
Starring: Elizabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Samira Riley, Yvonne Stahoviski, Joseph Fiennes, Ann Dowd, O-T Fagbenle, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer