This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This review contains spoilers.
The Handmaid’s Tale Episode 4
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.” It’s an air-punch of a line, the sort of thing you might see on a t-shirt, or written in Sharpie on a school notebook, or laser-engraved on an Etsy pendant. As a slogan, it’s rebellious and cool and funny – sassy might be the word. When Offred delivers it at the end of episode four, it demonstrates likeable sass.
It’s also The Handmaid’s Tale least true-feeling moment so far. Until now, this adaptation’s portrayal of Gilead’s weighty, devastating oppression has been note-perfect. This place doesn’t just suppress freedom, it destroys it. Its rituals and punishments send people out of their minds. The Republic isn’t an overly strict parent and the Handmaids its grounded teens; it’s a system that annihilates personhood and they’re its erased victims. Against that, sass is no weapon.
The idea that it could be, that individualism and chutzpah are an adequate revolt against dehumanising systems of power, is understandably inviting. It pops up time and again—to flog hair gel (those ads when a fierce ‘do showed Communist China what for) or sell Western consumerism (the scene in Sex And The City 2 where a group of Emirati women cheekily reveal themselves to be wearing designer gear underneath their abayas just like real women!).
Somewhere out there, you just know an ad has been pitched in which a pricy wristwatch gives 1984’s Winston Smith the inner strength to resist his torturers and romantically declare that he’ll do anything to protect Julia. Obviously, The Handmaid’s Tale has done nothing so egregious, but that’s the problem with sass-as-rebellion – it neuters the threat and misses the point.
Yet, there is power in private rebellion. The Latin message Offred finds scratched into the wall of her room is an act of resistance by its previous occupant from which she draws strength. The old Offred may be dead, but she’s not gone. She lives on in what she’s given our Offred – a way out of house arrest and a guilt button to push on the Commander. That scratched message was as much succour to Offred as the scraps of food donated by her fellow inmates after her escape attempt. It meant solidarity. The same goes for Moira’s graffiti at the Red Centre. It wasn’t done for them, it was done for the next girl. That message was delivered elegantly in another captivating, unsettling episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The flashbacks to June and Moira’s escape provided tense action in episode four. Knowing June would be recaptured removed any potential hope and replaced it with dread – the key in which this whole symphony is composed. June was returned to the centre and eventually ‘posted’. Moira, with her blessing, boarded a train to Boston and headed for a safe house.
The pair’s flight showed us more of Gilead than we’ve previously seen, and taught us more about its hierarchy. We learn Aunts have power outside the Red Centres, more so than the male foot-soldiers who guard them. Disguised as one, Moira is allowed to travel alone and unquestioned.
Not all Aunts, however, are as fanatical as Lydia. As the Commander tells Serena Joy, one went over the border to Canada and gave a tell-all interview to Gilead’s political opponents. Like Offred learning that there’s such a thing as an “us” a couple of episodes ago, we now know that there’s such a thing as an escape.
That short scene between the Commander and Serena Joy also confirmed the status of Gilead’s Wives. Even privileged, wealthy women—those allowed luxuries and the small vanity of individual styles within their prescribed uniforms—aren’t allowed opinions that extend beyond the domestic. Serena Joy evidently has a brain but the Commander brushes away her attempts to discuss foreign policy and UN sanctions. Like all women who use their power to oppress other women, it hasn’t yet clicked for her that the patriarchy is her enemy too. Until it does, she’ll go on acting like the wicked witch in a fairy tale.
Through their continuing Scrabble games, the Commander encourages Offred to show off her intellect, indulging in her what he denies his wife. Perhaps that’s the attraction. Has the new system warped sexuality so totally that the latest illicit kink for men like him is seeing a woman think? Maybe peepshows in Gilead now consist of private booths in which women read ancient Greek and do long division.
I’d say not. I’d say the Commander thinks he’s a good man. It’s important to important men that they also think of themselves as good men. The Commander thinks he’s being kind to Offred. So kind, in fact, that he couldn’t even muster the enthusiasm to rape her this month.
Offred’s doctor too, no doubt also considers himself a good man. By locking the door and charitably offering to have sex with her, he must see himself as a hero – the saviour of the dispossessed. He’s no hero. He’s just doing what opportunistic men have ever done and, under the guise of being a good Samaritan, using the system to his sexual advantage. This savage show knows exactly what he is, which is why it shows him almost entirely in creepy silhouette like a monster in a horror movie.
Gilead is a horror movie. It’s full of monsters. What makes them truly in-the-pit-of-your-stomach-scary monsters, is that they really exist. Their setting may be fictional but Aunt Lydia, Serena Joy, the Commander, the Doctor… they’re all out there. Protesting abortion clinics, in exclusive members’ clubs, pretending to be America’s cosy dad in eighties sitcoms. With that horrid truth at its core, a little sass-fantasy is an easy thing to forgive this fierce, clear-eyed show.