In the past, it was easy enough to read Margaret Atwood’s novel as one of warning of, if not an unimaginable future, at least one whose danger we’d emphatically shoved, and would keep away. The Obama years were ones of hope, and however foolish some of us were to believe, we truly thought the push toward true equality could continue. Flash forward to today — well, yesterday — when a woman was convicted for laughing during Attorney General, Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing … Disorderly conduct, they said; could be a year in prison, they say. Today, House Republicans passed a healthcare bill that, with punishes people with preexisting conditions. For women, that includes pregnancy (c-sections), postpartum depression, and surviving rape; mammograms and gynecological exams might also take a hit. Suddenly, The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t feel so far off.
As Offred’s predecessor scratched into her closet wall, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” (Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down), even when you’re locked in for two weeks (13 days) by the Commander’s angry wife. Easier said than done.
Memories of a joyful time at the fair with Hannah and Luke break the monotony, but ultimately and also, crush a mother’s already broken heart. Flashing off to recollections of another sort, Offred walks us through the plan hatched in a bathroom stall, where Moira sharpened her weapon and scratched her own wall message: “Aunt Lydia Sux”, and imaginings of “old man juice in a turkey baster”. But Gilead’s plans are worse than that, and Lydia takes perverse pleasure in explaining them to the incredulous group of Handmaids-to-be. When one asks if they’re learning how to position themselves for birth, she’s informed of the horrible truth: “The two of you will become one flesh, one flower, waiting to be seeded”; poor Janine finds solace in her toddlerish psyche, but the lesson only makes Moira and Offred certain it’s time to run.
It speaks to Samira Wiley and Elisabeth Moss’ acting prowess that as they ambush and kidnap Aunt Elizabeth, bravely making their escape, our own hearts pound in hope and terror, our breath held and released along with theirs. We already know Offred’s fate, but still, alongside these sisters, we hope against hope, grimacing as the plan nearly works … smiling to Moira — Yes, get on that train — at least one of us will be free. Lying on the closet floor, Offred silently thanks the girl who came before her, for the bravery it took to write a message she doesn’t yet understand.
After Rita walks in, dropping the breakfast tray when she thinks Offred has killed herself (the natural assumption of someone who knows what the last Handmaid did), Serena Joy has Nick spirit away her fellow flower for a check-up, crushing Offred’s dream of a glorious, rainy walk. Eschewing the cheerfully chatty doctor’s offer to “help”, she finds alternate freedom in releasing her rage on the car ride back, relying on instinct and Nick’s empathetic hints that he’s trustworthy. At the Ceremony, there’s an unspoken communication between all parties; a deeply disconnected unhappiness that can’t be fixed, at least by traditional means. If there’s ever a Waterford baby, it won’t be because of deft hand movements, or a wifely blowjob. Instead, the spark of words between two people — behind an office door, spelled out with wooden tiles, or shared in forbidden books — forge something beyond the biblical. Revolution is in the thoughts; a Commander and his Handmaid set free inside four walls; it’s in the writing on one wall that spurs Offred (and remind us) to never give up. “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum … bitches.”
The look of pure joy as Offred slowly opened the door after so many days in her room, felt the rain falling on her face, spread right through my insides, too. I can’t say enough about the level of Moss’ ability to emote, to the point of contagiousness. And then, Serena closed her window, and I wanted to scream as much as Offred did.
Likewise, I could *feel* what the women in that classroom — particularly because of the looks shared between Wiley and Moss — were thinking when they looked around at how they were positioned, and Moira asked: “Are you saying that we will be having intercourse with the men between the wives’ legs?” (“This is fucked.”)
Ann Dowd is so perfectly cast here, and I don’t know what horrors she imagines in her dreams, but Lydia is consistently terrifying.
Who else cringed at the wall of the Doctor’s office, with photos of Wives with babies the Handmaids delivered? And, at the Handmaid’s called by their “owners'” names?
The Doctor’s chilling comment: “May as well have a quick look, make sure you’re in fighting shape … You’re ripe, right on schedule. Doesn’t really matter, most of these guys are sterile.”
The same goes for Offred’s assertion that “sterile” is a forbidden word, and there are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren. It’ll be Offred’s “fault” if she can’t get pregnant.
That crushing moment when Serena Joy told Offred to go back to her room, despite Offred’s apologies and begging to be let out; kudos to Yvonne Strahovski for her restrained, yet deeply affecting performance. From one scene to the next, I despise her, then feel sorry for her. “Well, who’s an early bird, today?” The look on her face — she already suspects or knows about the office meetings? It’s not going to help that Offred asked the Commander for help being let out of her room; that won’t go unnoticed.
Foreshadowing? Moira threatens Aunt Elizabeth: I cold shove this down your throat, or your cunt. Just remember I didn’t if it ever comes to that.” (Ugh.) I refuse to believe Janine that Moira is dead.
In a small diversion from the book, Offred goes with Moira, and then receives the punishment (feet beaten) book Moria suffered.
“This is what I feel like, the sound of glass. I feel like the word ‘Shatter'”
“Moira, you wouldn’t let them do this. You wouldn’t stay in this room for two weeks. You’d find some way to escape. Get up. Get your crazy ass up.”
“I suppose she found her life unbearable. And you want my life to be bearable. I would prefer it. It has been so hard, being alone in that room all the time. I know Mrs. Waterford is trying to teach me a lesson. I know she’s right, I have so many flaws. But it has been so long. I’m afraid I’ll start to give up. I certainly wouldn’t want to give up, like my friend. That would be a tragedy.”
This episode was directed by Mike Barker (Fargo, Outlander, Broadchurch); the only male director this season.