For all of its lush, beautiful dialogue, The Handmaid’s Tale is a show that deals in silence. If you listen closely enough, you can almost hear all of the words that aren’t being spoken, but carefully transmitted through a look, a gesture, or even a careful inversion of language. Because we know, halfway through season one, that words are dangerous.
We have seen the early hints of this through Offred and the Commander’s clandestine Scrabble games (a phrase you don’t get to construct that often…); this week it is driven even closer to home when he gives her a nonsense, shitty beauty magazine, and it is treated like a banned book (I will come back to this; I have a TON to say about it, but let’s get through the plot summary first, shall we?). The Commander is willing to break some rules where our girl is concerned. Serena Joy, recognizing that her husband may in fact be sterile, “suggests” that Offred utilize the services of Eyebrows (Nick! I mean Nick!) to try and get pregnant – the Commander would be none the wiser. Continuing the time honored tradition of truly awkward sex scenes, Offred, accompanied by Serena, goes to Nick’s place (littered with relics) and lets him attempt to inseminate her. A quick sidebar here, if you’ll allow it, and you are kind so I’m certain you will, it is perhaps fitting that I spent a ludicrous amount of time struggling with that phrasing, given the premium that The Handmaid’s Tale puts on language. I chose “inseminate” because it is cold and clinical, and despite the obvious attraction between Nick and Offred, under Serena’s eye, it is difficult to call what they engage in “sex.” He could be a syringe full of sperm, for all the actual, true intimacy of the act.
Later, Offred, Serena and the Commander perform the ritual, with some very pregnant eye contact, and lack thereof. He is actively present for it, attentive, which is not acceptable, and Offred picks up on it. She confronts him later in his office, and the Commander delivers a super-villain monologue that pretty effectively snuffs any affection or sympathy we may have been feeling for him. The Handmaid’s Tale is a show about telling women’s stories, but this episode teases out more about the men in the universe, and credit to Joseph Fiennes, Max Minghella, and O-T Fagbenle (Luke, who we’ll get to later); they bring life and gravity to their roles beautifully. Demoralized by the Commander, Offred reclaims her power; she goes to Nick and they have actual, intimate (and frankly, just between you and me, pretty hot) sex. We also see, this week, the return of Ofglen, now Ofsteve. She is visibly changed, more aloof and distant. But she has a moment of victory – of freedom – in an outdoor market, where she steals a car and hauls ass, for just a few, blissful feet. Our flashbacks this week show Offred, back when she was still June, meeting her future husband Luke while he was still married to another woman. We watch them talk around an affair until they are in one, and Luke agrees to leave his wife.
Alright, plot dump out of the way, let’s dive in:
Return to Traditional Values: I have suggested previously that much of our parsing of this phrase should be dedicated to determining whose and which values. The Commander’s carelessness and imperious tone strongly suggests that if he is not the precise architect of those values, he shares them, and we have a bit more of a face to our pain. Additionally, the beauty magazine as contraband suggests not only that women shouldn’t read (recall that we were not always considered worth educating; in fact, we fought long and hard for that right), but also, we can safely assume, given the plain faces and shapeless dresses, that beauty/vanity is considered frivolous – perhaps even sinful. It is puritanical.
Code Speak: This can of worms. The entirety of June (how we shall refer to flashback Offred) and Luke’s courtship is code speak, so much so that I won’t transcribe it. It is a lot of saying “we won’t…but if we did…jk jk jk…but if we did…”. They are fooling no one, except themselves when they say they aren’t starting an affair. June tells Luke during their first sexual encounter that she likes to be on top; and when Offred finally has satisfying sex with Nick, she is on top. Given her reduced role in society, there is incredible significance to her taking the dominant position in sex. It is part of her power, a small part that she can reclaim and own. And then there is the conversation with the Commander. Oy. Perhaps the most telling piece of double speak in it is Offred referencing earlier times, saying “We had choices then,” to which he responds “Now you have respect.” The suggestion being that the two things are not compatible; a woman cannot have both choices and respect, a statement which tacitly states that men should constantly be making our choices for us. Because, to get Biblical here, women made the choices that led to sin and downfall. Because our bodies are not our own. Is it angry in here, or is that just me? It is also stated that handmaids who cannot bear children are sent to the colonies, for hard labor. It is difficult not to hear the echo of the plight of slaves brought to this country in that exact statement. Being punished for no crime, but having their bodies, their names, their agency taken away.
They’re Good at Making us Distrust Each Other: There is so much paranoia going around this week. Offred asks Nick, point blank, if he is an Eye and he says he is – but is he? If he is, why is she still there instead of arrested? Nick knew about her connection to the handmaid formerly known as Ofglen. The new Ofglen tries to keep Offred away from Ofsteve, because for Ofglen, this life is an upgrade from her old one. It is consistent, and she came from a dehumanized place. But Ofsteve tells Offred about a resistance – Mayday – that breeds a new paranoia, while giving hope.
Keep your head down. All this crazy shit is going to end: This week belongs to Ofglen. Her crazy shit isn’t the crazy shit we’ve come to expect; to her, the crazy shit is Ofsteve stealing a car and killing a soldier. And Ofglen very much wants Offred to keep her head down, so they can both return to what has now become de rigueur for them.
No Femininity equals Fertility this week, because obviously, but I would like to have a quick installment of What’s in a Name?, because the nomenclature in this show is very clearly loaded. The household domestics are Marthas and June’s husband is Luke. In the Gospel of Luke in the Bible, there is a story of a Martha who is barren. Our heroine is named June, and the uprising is May Day. And finally, the one wife in the show we have seen display true kindness to a handmaid – Ofsteve’s mistress, let’s call her, who fakes being ill so that Ofsteve doesn’t have to endure the ritual – is named Grace. And what then do we make of Serene Joy? A name, I think, we must assume is ironic.
And at long last, a successful What did Jim think of it? Here’s the answer to that timeless question:
Tonight we had a busy episode that clearly should have been titled “Women on top.” The previous episode left us with a limp and frustrated Commander that was unable to perform his monthly ritual duties. They don’t seem to have any Viagra in the future but after a quick 34 rounds of scrabble and shameless flirting, the Commander was able to rise to the occasion and make things happen. Mrs. Commander realized that the boss is probably sterile anyway so she convinces Nick the driver/ Eye/ possible double agent to step up and help out with the baby making. Former Mrs. Ofglen returned and manages to steal a car for a quick joyride and some sweet revenge on a random soldier.
Halfway through the first season, and every episode has felt like a gut punch. For the ambitious eyes out there, here are my notes:
And as always, don’t let the bastards grind you down.