“The Handmaid’s Tale” S1.E4: ‘Girlpower’

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The thing about living in a society that has done an unexpected 180 on minority rights is that as a targeted minority, you have to make a choice: when do you leave? What is the tipping point that finally compels you to abandon your home? Fear of uprooting with little more than the clothes on your back, and to a lesser extent optimism, are strong deterrents to leaving, but by staying too long you could be trapped with no way out. In Nazi Germany, for example, most of the Jews who waited too long ended up dead. Every day, you must reassess your situation. Now? Tomorrow? When?

In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Offred, Moira, and Ofglen waited too long. Offred’s boiling bathwater analogy in episode three has some resonance to the current state of US society. We’re nowhere near Gilead, but what would tell us that the temperature is rising? An Executive Order like the one initially circulated in February that would have legalized discrimination against gays, or one that erases the separation of Church and political activism? A healthcare bill that makes rape a pre-existing condition but not erectile dysfunction? The firing of the nation’s highest law enforcement official conducting an investigation of the Chief Executive? “The Handmaid’s Tale” often is unsubtle in its political statements, but here the timing is apt: where is the line you draw in the sand past which you will not go? If episode three was about missing the escape window, episode four is about finding how to survive mentally in the new reality.

Episode four starts in a flashback to the past, where Offred, Luke, and Hannah are at a carnival. It’s a happy time full of positive memories, but back in the present Offred is reminding herself not to go too far back into memories like this or she’ll never come out (sane, or perhaps alive). She’s been kept in her room for thirteen days, always with the door open just as a reminder that she has no control over anything in her life. She looks haggard, with a bandage on her finger and her long hair unkempt. She sits at the window, with the light, so cinematically perfect, streaming in. Bored and depressed, she lies down in the closet and runs her hand along the doorframe. Written just above the floor on the wall is the title of the episode, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” She wonders if it was written by the previous Offred, and concludes it is, in its own way, a message for her.

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She flashes back to the Red Center, where she and Moira communicate through a hole in the bathroom, little more than two eyes staring at each other. Offred has heard they’ll be posted soon, and it’s clear that neither understands at all what that means. The word “surrogate” is thrown out, but Moira envisions a turkey baster approach (side note: to be a Handmaid, Moira must have had a child already. Maybe that will be a theme in season 2?). She’s in for a surprise. Right now, she’s writing “Aunt Lydia sucks” on the bathroom wall like a rebellious teenager. To her, it’s worth losing a hand if she’s caught, that old Biblical punishment, because it will give hope to future girls in their situation. Go, Moira, go!

Back in the present, Offred recognizes the bravery it took to carve those words into the closet and thanks the nameless woman. Downstairs in a dining room with far too busy, dark blue wallpaper, Serena Joy is trying to make conversation with the Commander. The UN has embargoed Gilead, but she thinks it will have to be lifted or else the Euro will collapse, an interesting economic situation that I’m not sure makes actual economic sense, but we’ll roll with it. The Commander is disturbed: an Aunt escaped from a Red Center.

Serena Joy responds optimistically that the Eyes will catch her, but the Commander informs her the Aunt made it into Canada and already gave an interview with the Toronto Star full of “lies, hyperbole, and everything in the worst possible light.” Slash it’s actually the truth and like any repressive totalitarian society, those in power don’t want the truth to get out. Tomato, tomahtoe. Serena Joy tries to act as the Commander’s councilor, suggesting that the Aunt be discredited without addressing her story (in the book, Serena Joy was a televangelist’s wife. Perhaps she was a corporate career woman in this version), but the Commander shuts her out coldly. Serena Joy is deflated.

Rita brings Offred breakfast but freaks out when she sees Offred’s body sticking out of the closet. When Rita goes back downstairs, Serena Joy demands what Offred “has done this time.” Rita reports Offred thinks she fainted. The Commander, not looking up from his work, repeats the word fainted as a question, and Serena Joy quips that it’s only what Offred said (implying it’s not necessarily the truth).

Rita asks if she should make an appointment with the doctor. Serena Joy says no, until Rita reminds her that the Ceremony is tonight, at which point she agrees. The Commander, who has paid no attention to the conversation, leaves, and Serena Joy is left without even a single word of endearment. Love her he does not, and she knows it.

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Upstairs, Offred is outside of herself with excitement. The doctor’s office is across town, which means she’ll have an hour to enjoy the air and the flowers and the sun as she makes the walk. But then Serena Joy, who doesn’t believe and doesn’t care if Offred is sick, arrives to tell her that the car is ready. There will be no walking. Offred opens the door to the outside and relishes the rain that is pouring down (it rains a lot in Gilead during sunny and cloudless days), but once inside Serena Joy puts up the divider between Offred and Nick. Offred is to have no mercies, and that includes conversation with another human being.

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