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The Handmaid’s Tale S01 Ep04 Deep Breakdown: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”

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I’d fault the red wine and get away with it, too – it has no way of defending itself, and certainly owes me that much after years of inspiring poor decision making – but for the sake of the honesty that exists between us, you and I, it was the show that made me cry. I lasted four episodes before The Handmaid’s Tale broke me.

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Offred has been grounded. She’s kept in her room, and though the door is unlocked and even ajar, it is understood that she is not to leave. Eventually, Serena Joy – the Commander’s wife, and ice queen extraordinaire – concedes to Offred seeing a doctor to make sure her lady bits are in working order for the ceremonious fucking that is to ensue. Diagnosis, Offred is a grade A babymaker, housing a fine-ass uterus. Perhaps all this time it has not been the handmaids who failed to get pregnant – it has been the Commander who failed to make them pregnant. The doctor offers his own sperm to Offred, which she fortunately refuses, sparing me the difficult parsing of consent in such a situation. The ceremony, however, is cut short when the Commander is unable to achieve an erection. In a display of tenderness both rare and a little haunting, Serena Joy offers to fellate the Commander, to prepare him for the ceremony, but he pushes her away. Later, Offred visits him in his study for another clandestine game of Scrabble. Very mild flirtation ensues, as well as the revelation that the previous Offred is dead. Our flashbacks this week show Offred and Moira (still just a total boss) trying to escape the country. They reach the train station, but only Moira makes it onto the train, while Offred distracts the authorities.

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Basic framework established, let’s get into it. Call ‘em back!

Return to Traditional Values: Let’s get the gross, dystopian one out of the way first. In the past tense, when Moira and Offred are at the Red Center (basically a training ground for handmaids to learn to be good, good girls), they are taught the basic act of subjugation. How to be quiet and seeded like a field for harvest. Recall that the notion of marital rape is relatively new. For a long time, it was simply accepted that a woman’s purpose was to submit to the whims of the man in her life. The entire purpose of the Red Center is to reinforce that idea. However, there is, perhaps for the first time in this show and this feature, a sweet spot in a return to traditional values. In our current timeline, the Commander is shirking the standards of his contemporaries, and instead of just boning Offred, he is courting her – because innocent though it may be, it is impossible to deny it is anything other than a courtship. And though it is sad and horrifying to consider the notion that viewing your human Baby Bjorn as an actual person is a return to traditional values – it undeniably is.

Code Speak: As always, this section could be an entire thesis paper in and of itself. The phrase “wake her up” has been used repeatedly in the show, yes, in the literal “That woman is asleep, wake her up” sense, but also, clearly, in a way that means “become woke.” Offred is essentially sleep-walking through this existence, because it is a way to stay alive. But we know we must be reaching a tipping point. Offred frequently says “you know” to Rita, the house’s Martha. She uses it as a place holder, like “um” or “like,” but delivers it with significant glances. It can sound like fumbling for words, but it is a message. “You know. We know.” The doctor tells Offred that there is “no such thing as a sterile man,” with a requisite sense of irony. While I have focused largely on the demeaning of women and how this society views us, this particular phrase urges us to consider the fragility of the male ego. That the male population will not consider the possibility of a failure to impregnate, and instead exclusively put the blame on wombs that fail speaks volumes. But the doctor himself is just a huge, writhing mess of double speak and gross, covered loosely in nice-guy skin. He offers to try and impregnate Offred as a favor to her; as if he is being selfless, kind, and not taking advantage of her diminished status and her desperation. He is every “nice guy” who believes that putting in time as a friend to a woman entitles him to her love and to her sex.

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They’re Good at Making Us Distrust Each Other: This week, we get a welcome inversion of this. In the past tense timeline, after Offred is returned to the Red Center, she is punished by a pretty stomach-churning caning to the soles of her feet. As she recovers, the other handmaids bring her little presents – the bits and scraps of the nothing they have, they offer to her as comfort and as a display of unity. Instead of ripping us apart, this time they accidentally brought us together.

 

Keep Your Head Down. All This Crazy Shit is Going to End: Offred stays in an unlocked room. She makes no effort to leave. She knows her punishment is finite and has learned that raging against the system leads to pain. She is playing the long game, and keeping within the rules. We are starting to see subtle suggestions of manipulation, however. She understands that she has an affect on the Commander, and she is beginning to use it to her advantage, in little ways, like getting him to translate the Latin phrase inscribed in her closet – nolite te bastardes carborundorum. It is a small victory. But it is also progress.

This week we get to see that perhaps part of the reason Femininity equals Fertility is so important to this society is because potency equals virility. The essence of manhood is directly bound to their ability to impregnate, and as masculinity cannot be impugned here, the emphasis – and the shame – must be put on women and their ability to procreate, so much so that we bind their essence to it.

Lamentably, Jim is a total bum and didn’t even watch this episode, so in lieu of What did Jim Think?, I’m pinch hitting with What’s With the Color Red?, mostly because I’ve been wanting to address this particular facet for a minute now. I’m leaning into 2 theories as to why red is the color of handmaids. One, is that red is a warning color, a danger color. The second, is that red is the color of blood, and it is impossible to consider fertility without considering menstruation. I am wildly open to differing interpretations, so hop into the comments with your thoughts!

My notes, if you can decipher them, have a ton of cut-for-time material.

See you next week, guys. And as always, don’t let the bastards grind you down.

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Kelly Mintzer hates dolls but loves movies about evil ventriloquist dummies. She is working her way through the “Sandman” series slowly but surely, and has been compared more than once to that iteration of Death. Holding down South Philly with a creative writing degree and the full series of “Hannibal”, she hasn’t seen her natural hair color in years.

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