Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum“
Power is an essential theme to The Handmaid’s Tale. It may not always take center stage and it’s never flagrantly waved in our faces – never as obvious as a fashion magazine dangled above our heads. But it’s always there, just lingering around the edges like a pair of gardening shears just out of reach. In “Faithful,” power stays in the peripheries, but is used to accentuate concepts of relationships, love, lust, and rebellion. In terms of story, “Faithful” moves the plot forward just enough to satisfy. The true highlight this week, though, is a combination of acting and directing that helps elevate the complexities of what’s being explored.
A slow, almost sensual pan upward reveals Offred sitting on the floor of the Commander’s office; shoes off, showing skin, and drinking alcohol. After 34 games of Scrabble she’s learned a thing or two about what the Commander likes and she’s been cleverly playing along. She’s quick with a sly comment or flirtatious smile and, outwardly, it seems as though she’s quite comfortable. The Commander gives off this vibe, too, as he sits on the floor with her, wearing a t-shirt instead of the usual formalwear. For a brief moment this relationship seems mutually advantageous, but once the game has ended we’re quickly reminded of who truly has the advantage.
The reminder is accomplished subtly, but if you look deeply enough it’s there. It’s not just Offred’s poem reference – “You fit into me like a hook into an eye. A fishhook, an open eye.” Though that is powerful imagery. It’s the way in which the Commander hands her the magazine, while physically towering over her. It’s the way in which Joseph Fiennes walks the line between kind and controlling. His smile is gentle enough to compel the belief that perhaps he is not a willing cog in the machine. His laughter and prolonged stare contradict that, though, forcing you to question the true motives of his gesture. There’s a sick sense of satisfaction in that laugh as if he’s thinking, I’m such a good man for giving this poor girl something to read, and knowing he can take it all away from her whenever he desires. In giving Offred access to these otherwise forbidden activities, he feels emboldened to take liberties with her safety.
During the Ceremony, an act that’s meant to be clinical and detached, the Commander looks directly into Offred’s eyes and even goes so far as to touch her bare legs. In using camera angles that give us her direct perspective, the audience is forced to feel as though we are in Offred’s place. We glance upward in fear at Serena Joy and forward in confusion at the Commander. It’s claustrophobic in such an effective way, and in a show full of terrifying visuals it’s one of the most unsettling. Elisabeth Moss’ desperate yet controlled head shakes, imploring the Commander to stop, only add to the breathless atmosphere.
Luckily for Offred, Serena doesn’t see the Commander’s indulgences during the Ceremony, as she keeps her eyes averted from what’s happening below. Interestingly, she doesn’t do the same when Nick and Offred are having their own, equally warped, form of the Ceremony. Does her intruding glance come from a place of curiosity or jealousy? Or was it simply to ensure her idea was, in fact, being executed? It’s unclear, but the idea itself is what’s noteworthy. It’s what gives us a deeper insight into Serena, her level of power, and willingness to be rebellious, however calculated it might be. Instead of enticing her with drinks or magazines, Serena manipulates Offred through fear of being unable to produce a baby.
“You don’t want to be sent to the colonies, do you?”
Serena could have had this conversation nearly anywhere while her husband was at work, but she chose to bring Offred to the garden, where they both assume a similar physical position. Showing them on their knees, together in the dirt conveys a misleading sense of equality on Serena’s part. There are a ton of layers to this conversation, an echo of the scene with Offred’s doctor from episode 4; these people may be offering alternatives but the outcome is still the same: Offred is still just an incubator. And though she goes along with the idea, it’s clear from Moss’ incredible acting (deftly communicated via facial expressions) that Nick’s involvement only further complicates her feelings on the matter.
“Better never means better for everyone; it always means worse for some.”
When Offred confronts the Commander about his actions during the Ceremony, his true colors shine though – no subtlety necessary anymore. Fiennes’ demeanor isn’t that much different here than in the opening, it doesn’t need to be; it’s all about the tone of his words. In telling Offred that he finds the Ceremony so “impersonal,” or that she and the other handmaid’s have been given the chance to fulfill their “biological destiny” while being respected and protected, it’s important that he remain just as comfortable as he was in the previous scenes. It proves the false sense of security that’s been established in their relationship is just that, false. In telling Offred what happened to the first Ofglen, Fiennes adds a slight flippant layer to the Commander’s character, illustrating perfectly who he is and the great power he still holds.
The Power of Consent
One of the larger accomplishments in this episode was the way in which depictions of lust and romance were handled. In a show so steeped in sexual oppression, it was somewhat striking to see certain positive aspects of sex, love and pleasure, so well conveyed. Consensual sex has never been more sexy or empowering. Of course, I’m being slightly hyperbolic here because consensual sex is always sexy. We had seen that love could still exist in this bleak new world, through Emily and her Martha girlfriend’s brief but touching (and very heartbreaking) relationship. The tonal divide between “Late” and “Faithful” couldn’t be bigger, though. With Emily and her partner, we were seeing Fred’s cynical words come to life; that all love stories are eventually tragedies. June and Luke, and Offred and Nick showed us something different.
While June and Luke’s first encounter wasn’t under the best of circumstances, the chemistry between Moss and O-T Fagbenle is enough to get you on board. It’s impossible not to feel the rapid fluttering of butterflies in their stomachs during the lunch scene. It’s another instance where director Mike Barber allows us an increased level of intimacy with the characters. From so deep within their perspectives the emotions are heightened; we can feel June’s longing as she fidgets with a napkin or moves her finger closer to Luke’s hand, and his similar feelings when the breath catches in his throat. Though it seems ridiculous on the surface, it’s largely believable that Luke would be ready to leave his wife for June, because their love feels genuine.
Love had nothing to do with Nick and Offred’s interactions. Their first time having “sex” was prescribed, but the second was all about lust and power. Offred takes what little control she has and uses it to the full extent. She’s the one approaching Nick, she’s the one removing their clothing, and she’s the one on top. The nudity in this scene is absolutely purposeful and serves to strike a powerful contrast, even to the scene with June and Luke. It’s almost mind blowing that a scene in this show could be described as steamy, but there you have it.
Under His Eye
- Is this the last we’ll see of Emily/Ofsteven? On the one hand, I love her boldness. She didn’t think twice about stealing that car and it was so gratifying to see her smile after she’d been so broken down. Plus, I doubt any of us are losing sleep over the brutal way she took out one of the Eyes. On the other hand, I’m confused by her plan, or rather, her lack of one. I thought she was going to make a break for it but she just circled the parking lot as if looking for a good parking space. Her actions will definitely impact the witnessing handmaids, but who’s to say if it will empower them to rebel or cause them to be even further fearful of defiance. And because it may be the last opportunity to say so, Alexis Bledel has proven her acting talents go far beyond just keeping up with fast-paced dialogue rhythms.
- If there’s a weak link in this show, it’s Nick. He’s nice to look at, but he’s kind of boring. An attempt at nuance is being made; he definitely feels something for Offred, but he’s also just another willing player in the system. However, instead of coming off complex it feels wishy-washy, hollow. I honestly can’t tell if he is actually an Eye, which is fine, but I just wish I knew if the ambiguity was meant to be there or if it’s just a bad move on the actor’s part.
- In complete contrast, I just have to say, Moss can do so much with her face! The scene of her pleading with Nick for him to not order her around and to tell her the truth of his affiliations is one of the reasons I will watch this episode multiple times. In a span of about 30 seconds she goes through as many changes in emotions that all work perfectly.
- Ofglen 2.0’s view of this new world is both interesting and uncomfortable. Interesting because it’s the first time class has been explored amongst the handmaids themselves, and it offers us an entirely new perspective on how some of them may feel about their new lives. It also sets up an antagonistic dynamic between Ofglen and Offred that could lead to further thought-provoking moments. Uncomfortable because it sets up a generalization about lower class and marginalized groups that I’m not sure it was meant to. I feel it may be misleading to say that Gilead is a better alternative for these groups when really it’s a lateral move at best.
The Handmaid's Tale S1E5
Starring: Elizabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Samira Riley, Yvonne Stahoviski, Joseph Fiennes, Ann Dowd, O-T Fagbenle, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer