“The Handmaid’s Tale” S1.E5: ‘Woman on Top’

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In episode five of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” we start with Offred playing Scrabble with the Commander. They’ve obviously become much more comfortable with each other: her boots are off and she’s sipping some amber liquor while the Commander lounges in a black polo shirt. She’s beaten him handily, and he suggests she’s found his weaknesses.

Offred flirts with him coquettishly. In the voiceover narration, we see that far from being smitten with the Commander, Offred is actually being strategic: in the 34 games of Scrabble they’ve now played together, she’s learned that he likes when she flirts. She likes when he lets her win, but she adds that they fit into each other like “a hook into an eye.” A fish hook into an open eye, that is. So much for a budding romance.

The Commander has a present for her. It’s a “Beautify” magazine, possibly the suckiest, most tone deaf present anyone could give a sex slave. Are any Handmaids sitting around thinking how if they had one wish, that’s what they’d use it on? Some may be, but not Offred, who would have rathered a flame thrower to torch this new world order. Offred says she thought that all magazines like that had been destroyed, but the Commander intimates that those with “an appreciation for the old things” keep things like that. Weird pervert.

Offred reminds him that it’s not allowed, but he says it is with him, so she begins thumbing through it, remembering how she used to buy them in airports to read when getting her hair colored. Now looking at the women, they’re like zoo animals about to go extinct. She starts to ironically read through “10 Ways to Tell How He Feels About You” and apply them to the Commander (Tip #1: He brings you small gifts). The Commander wants her to be pleased by this present, so Offred plays along. “That look on your face is thanks enough,” he replies, cementing his total creepy and patronizing status. As Offred “reads,” she has to keep reminding herself to look up and smile, but we see it’s both calculating and forced.

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In a flashback, Offred and Moira are standing outside a food truck looking at Offred’s Tinder account. Moira is panning a guy in a fedora, and grabs Luke (oooh, their first meeting) to get his opinion on what about Offred’s profile keeps drawing what Moira calls “chumps.” Luke, who is in a beanie and looks hipster, thinks Offred’s profile looks “nice,” which to Moira is bad news. Nice is a boring adjective. Luke takes Offred’s phone to find pictures of her that she can add to her profile, smiling as he looks through them. In the one he likes, he says she she looks “invincible.” (Remember that word for later.)

Back in the present, Offred is slowly eating cereal in the kitchen. Nick comes in and makes uncomfortable eye contact, which brings an almost smile to Offred’s lips. Rita asks if he has somewhere to be and he says no. Tip #2: He keeps finding ways to accidentally run into you. Tip #3:…Offred can’t remember what number three is.

Serena Joy calls her outside to help with gardening. Offred is afraid that Serena Joy has found out about her time with the Commander. Or the writing in the closet. Or the magazine. “Either way, I lose a hand,” she thinks. She thinks the black van is coming to get her, so she starts considering what it would be like to murder Serena Joy with her gardening shears.

Serena Joy asks if Offred has experienced any symptoms of pregnancy, and when the answer is no, comments that it’s bad luck. Offred’s time with the Waterfords is running out, and then she’ll be sent to the Colonies (remember, where you die because toxic waste makes your skin slough off?). Then Serena Joy says something unexpected: maybe the Commander is sterile. They could try with another man. Offred notes this is forbidden, but Serena Joy knows it happens all the time. Offred admits she’s heard “about doctors,” but Serena Joy wants it to be with someone they trust: Nick. What’s more, he’s already agreed. Plot twist!

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When Offred asks about the Commander, Serena Joy snaps, “Forget about the Commander.” She’s clearly not happy with him right now, and she has more pressing concerns. She wants that baby at all costs. Offred agrees, but her face says that it’s just another form of rape to her. Whether it’s Nick or the Commander, her consent is never really freely given. She’s still a sexual slave. Nick, who she for reasons unknown seems to consider decent, should have asked her consent before agreeing to this, making it a particularly painful betrayal. Serena Joy, gladdened by Offred’s consent, says they’ll do it this afternoon after the shopping. Strike while the iron is hot, she says, like it’s totally not just another rape.

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