This review contains spoilers.
“Everybody breaks, everybody” said Nick a couple of weeks ago. For most of episode five, which saw the return of the handmaid formerly known as Ofglen, that seemed to be true. In a sterile supermarket against a backdrop of jaunty muzak, Ofsteven as she’s now known (new posting, new name) appeared to be broken.
By the end of Faithful however, Ofsteven showed that despite all Gilead had taken from her—wife, child, job, identity, freedom, clitoris—they didn’t get everything. She had enough fight left in her for a final rebellion, one for which she’d almost certainly be killed. She chose to pay the cost and buy her escape in a murderous act of martyrdom. This year of all years, I didn’t expect to cheer on a (fictional) terrorist using a car as a deadly weapon in a marketplace, but that’s this show for you. It takes you to the strangest places.
Emily’s act of rebellion was unlike that of the previous Offred. It wasn’t scratched in private and hidden behind a door, but done in public in full view of Handmaids, Aunts, Wives and Eyes. Her story would be told and would inspire other rebellious acts. It inspired one by the current Offred.
Offred is steadily gaining territory in the Waterford house. Just last episode she was confined to her bedroom, but now has unprecedented access. She storms into the Commander’s office and upbraids him almost without fear of punishment. She goes, escorted, into Nick’s apartment to break one of Gilead’s many rules. And finally, after months of being used as a mammalian specimen cup, she visits Nick alone at night to reclaim and reassert her desire. It’s dangerous—especially in the knowledge that he is an Eye—but the cost of regaining her selfhood is worth the price. Inspired by Emily’s revolt, Offred ends the episode on top, literally.
Elisabeth Moss continues to excel in this story. There’s such suppleness in her performance that her pre-and post-Gilead selves can seem like distant relatives and one and the same. This week’s episode showcased her range by splicing together Offred’s relationships with three men, one she loves, one she lusts after, and one she’s afraid of – Luke, Nick and the Commander. Three men, three flirtations and three sexual encounters to compare and contrast. It could almost be a feature from one of those contraband glossy magazines she’s gifted by the Commander.
Not gifted, I should say. The Commander only allows her to read them in the confines of his office. As banned items they’re too dangerous to allow out, but it isn’t only that. He doesn’t offer the magazines up for her enjoyment, but for his own. If it weren’t, he might offer her—a former publishing assistant—access to the rows of leather-bound books on his shelves instead of Beautify magazine. As one of the architects of Gilead, the Commander gets an illicit thrill from breaking its rules, and enjoys feeling like an indulgent and generous master. (“That look on your face is thanks enough.”)
It was fascinating to hear the Commander’s justification for the new society he and his friends have created. The audience having been thrown straight into its fully functioning dystopia, we hadn’t yet heard the sales pitch, and here it is: Gilead was intended to make the world better. Its women would no longer face the unhappy pressures of being rich, thin, young and publicly objectified. They would be freed of any commitments but to fulfil their reproductive destiny, and unburdened of choices.
For a small number of people, it seems to be working out. Straight, wealthy, conscienceless men for one, are having a whale of a time, but then again, they always do. For the new Ofglen, who, pre-Gilead, was a homeless addict and prostitute in her pre-Gilead life, it’s also been a step up. Offred better check her privilege, she’s warned, not everybody had it so good back in the old days.
Sympathies, etc., but that’s a mean little argument for new Ofglen to make while bodies swing silently in the streets behind her and people are routinely blinded, whipped and electrocuted for the smallest infringements. Personal comfort built on that kind of inhumanity? The definition of a pyrrhic victory.
Mayday, we learned this week, is the resistance movement fighting back against the new republic. Offred fought back by having sex on nobody’s command but her own, but that won’t bring down the walls of Gilead. Atop Nick, she may have looked invincible, but nobody is, especially here. Will she too steal a car? Stick a pair of secateurs in her mistress’ neck?
Because everybody rebels in Gilead. The Commander with his intimate Scrabble games, Serena Joy by mating her Handmaid and driver like pedigree dogs, even Ofsteven’s new mistress with her sympathetic shoulder-squeeze and offer to postpone that night’s scheduled rape. Everybody breaks, said Nick, and he was half right. Everybody breaks the rules. It’s just the consequences that differ.