“The Handmaid’s Tale” 1.6: Oranges Are the Only Fruit

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We begin this episode still in the throes of passion. Literally. Interspersed with the continuing scene from last week of Offred and Nick making love is Offred standing on a bridge watching ice flow past in the river (quintessentially Massachusetts), thinking about how many times each of them got off that night while also declaring it can never happen again.

The Handmaids are cleaning the hanging wall, which, Janine comments happily, her face smeared with blood, is “like painting.” A few screws are still loose with her. Aunt Lydia tells them a diplomatic delegation is coming, and like some totalitarian regimes around the world, Gilead needs to put a nice face on its repression. Offred learns that the delegation will, in fact, be visiting her very home that evening, a piece of gossip passed on to her by another Handmaid who learned it from her Commander. Janine notes the wall looks weird without the usual bodies hanging from it. “I guess you get used to things being one way,” she remarks casually. Like being a sex slave in a Christian theocracy or saying weird things like “Blessed be the fruit”?

The scene, by the way, is beautifully shot. Bloody water runs off the stairs and the Handmaids, dressed in red and white, file off past the wall dyed red and white. Each episode seems to happen a month apart, because episode five appeared to be late fall, while we’re clearly now in winter.

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Back home, Rita tells Offred that Serena Joy wants to see her in her room, and implies she’s rooting for Offred. Offred goes to the bedroom, where she stares at the empty bed that is her torture while she waits for Serena Joy. Serena Joy tells her that a Mexican delegation will be coming and they need to make a good impression. Offred jokes, “Red’s my color,” and Serena Joy almost cracks a small smile. They are two women trapped in the same system, but rather than working together, Serena Joy has chosen instead to wield her power against Offred like a truncheon when she feels threatened or powerless. Serena Joy reminds Offred to “speak wisely” if asked about her life.

Only, she can’t fully control what Offred may say in front of outsiders. She can imply retribution for anything said out of line, but in the end she can only hope that Offred finds the threat sufficient incentive to remain pliable, and Serena Joy knows that. As does Offred. Later, Serena Joy comes upon the Commander and has a flashback of her own, to when she was a career woman awaiting a conference call and they are sneaking off for a quickie during the day.

The future Commander complains he’s not her “boytoy” and asks her to write a poem as they breathe heavily into each other. Then they begin reciting Scripture to each other. The Commander puts his hand on her stomach, asking God to bless their union and make it fruitful. It was a happier time for Serena Joy, and clearly she views her barrenness as the root of their current alienation. In the present, since the Commander is nervous about the Mexican delegation, she tries to boost his ego by telling him that it is the delegation that should be nervous about meeting him, a powerful Commander, but he doesn’t answer. His indifference to her is another blow to Serena Joy’s heart.

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Offred encounters Nick providing security/supervising downstairs. He asks how she is and tells her she looks pretty. Awww, it’s like they’re dating. She jokes that she wore her outfit, the same one all Handmaids wear all the time, just for him. They allow their hands to touch, an almost obscenely intimate move in such a public setting, and one that would get them killed if they were caught.

The Commander then appears to bring Offred to meet the delegation. Offred makes the mistake of assuming the man in the room is the delegation head, and is flustered to find that it’s actually a woman. Woah, so not Gilead. Mrs. Castillo is curious about Handmaids. The delegation wants to know her name “from before.” Offred explains she doesn’t use it anymore, and the Commander jumps in to explain that she uses a patronymic: a name derived from the head of the household to symbolize her sacred status. She is Offred, because he is Fred. Of course, in reality the fancy Latin name is just another way to whitewash the truth: she is chattel whose name actually denotes possession: she is Fred’s possession.

Mrs. Castillo asks if Offred chose to be a Handmaid. Offred lies and says yes. As she is leaving, Mrs. Castillo asks one final question: “Are you happy?” The world goes into slow motion as Offred weighs her answer. Finally, she answers carefully that she has found happiness. It’s a truth—she has found some shred of happiness with Nick—but only a partial truth masking a greater lie. It satisfies Mrs. Castillo, however, and the Commander and Nick breathe a sigh of relief.

As the delegation relaxes in the living room, they discuss agriculture. Gilead has returned to organic methods and is doing well agriculturally now while Mexico is still struggling as a result of climate change. The men want to talk trade, but Mrs. Castillo is more interested in learning more about the opinions of the women present. After all, four wives sit silently on the other side of the room; what do they think of Gilead? It’s wonderful. They’re blessed. “Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness,” Mrs. Castillo recites, her eyes meeting Serena Joy’s. It makes the Commander uncomfortable, because it turns out that it’s from a book Serena Joy herself wrote pre-Gilead called “A Woman’s Place.” Mrs. Castillo re-read it on the plane, she says.

She notes that Serena Joy was arrested for inciting rioting. Serena Joy claims she had a temper, dismissing her past, but also defends the idea that women needed to go back to more domestic roles. Mrs. Castillo presses further, asking her if she could have imagined this future. Serena Joy deflects, citing a 78% decrease in carbon emissions in three years. Mrs. Castillo finishes by asking if Serena Joy could have imagined a society in which women can no longer read her book…or anything else. Mrs. Castillo is perceptive. She hasn’t missed the social cues in the room, the marginalization of women, and their nervous discomfort. Serena Joy admits she could not, but tries to salvage the situation by talking about how God rewards the righteous and those who sacrifice with blessings, an attitude the men of Gilead in the room cheer.

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After the delegation is seen off, a frustrated Commander complains they shouldn’t have invited the Wives. Serena Joy counters that the optics of not having them there, at a home, would have been worse. The Commander growls that their currency will collapse in six months without that trade agreement, and preemptively blames the tangent about Serena Joy’s past for possibly derailing talks. Serena Joy tries to talk about the upcoming meetings and ways to make up for it, but the Commander calls it a waste of time. Serena Joy asks whether he’ll go over the details with her, but he has no interest in spending any time with her. Serena Joy, alone, is once again cast to the side like an unwanted rag doll.

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