Warning: contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale season 5 episode 5 ‘Fairytale’.
Serena Waterford didn’t want a Handmaid. A younger woman in your home for your husband to impregnate – what wife would? In Season 5 episode ‘Fairytale’, The Handmaid’s Tale flashed back to the early days of Gilead, when the Commanders’ Wives were still apprehensive about the Handmaid system.
We saw Naomi Putnam and Serena walk the glass-lined corridors of a prison for Gilead’s kidnapped children and wrinkle their noses at what was on display. Like prospective pet owners, they didn’t want to adopt a scruffy rescue – who could say where it’s been or what genetic time bombs are hidden in there waiting to go off? They wanted a pure pedigree new-born to mold from day one.
When nature wouldn’t provide one, the Handmaid system became a reluctant necessity, and so it was off to Aunt Lydia to shop for the perfect womb. As Serena perused the folders of available enslaved women, Lydia offered her own insights like a maître d’ commenting on a gourmet menu. This one would make a particularly fine choice, madam, that one is of the finest quality, this one is organic, local and hand-reared. You simply couldn’t choose better.
Serena made her choice, and it’s testament to the supremacy of Elisabeth Moss in this show’s titular role that for a second, it was easy to mistake that choice for June Osborne. Not so. Before June, the Waterfords had another Handmaid, the first “Offred”, a character who proves much more important to this story than her screentime suggests.
Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum
In Season 1, Episode 4 ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’, June discovered that Latin phrase scratched into the wood panelling of her bedroom closet at the Waterford house. Even without understanding its meaning, she recognised the phrase as a message of support and thanked its anonymous writer for her bravery, as the written word is one of many things forbidden to women in Gilead.
Forbidden in public, that should say. Privately, Fred Waterford was partial to illicit games of Scrabble with the women he and his wife held hostage and raped. During one such game in Season 1, June asked Fred to translate the Latin phrase she’d read. He explained that it’s a schoolboy joke meaning something like “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” and asked where she’d heard it. “From a friend,” said June. Fred then asked if June knew “her”, meaning the first Offred, to whom he’d presumably taught the words from his Latin schoolbook during a clandestine meeting just like this one.
“What happened to her?” June asked the Commander. “She killed herself,” said Fred. “Hung herself from the ceiling, I don’t know. I suppose she found her life… unbearable.” “And you want my life to be bearable?” June asked, to which Fred answered “I would prefer it.”
At this point in the story, June has has been locked in her bedroom for two weeks as a punishment from Serena for failing to get pregnant. The first Offred’s suicide has just given June a key. She suggests to Fred that further imprisonment might cause her to give up just like her predecessor, and coyly threatens him with the possibility of taking her own life. Fearing another scandal if he were to lose a second precious Handmaid to the same fate, Fred gets the message and June is allowed out of her room.
What Did Fred Think Would Happen?
That’s twice June’s predecessor has extended an arm of sorority from beyond the grave, once by inspiring June’s sense of rebellion (she later scratches the words “You are not alone” into the closet wall, “for the next girl”) and once by giving her a bargaining chip to leverage against Fred. Because the first Offred’s suicide was injurious to Commander Waterford – not necessarily personally (Margaret Atwood’s narrator in The Handmaid’s Tale novel wryly sums up his feelings: “If your dog dies, get another”) but politically. The first Offred’s suicide was a scandal and the reason it happened was an open secret.
In Season 1 episode 8 ‘Jezebels’, Nick remembers his spymaster Commander Pryce commenting, “A sad business, the loss on your household, the Handmaid. I only hope Commander Waterford has better sense when the new one arrives.” Later that episode, Nick remembers the household standing vigil while Offred’s body is loaded into the back of a van. As the corpse of the Waterfords’ first Handmaid is driven away, Serena admonishes Fred with the bitter words “What did you think was going to happen?”
So everybody knew. The Commanders knew, Serena knew, even Nick knew that right from the off, Fred was abusing the Handmaid system he’d helped to design and market. Instead of performing one ritual rape a month as Gilead’s laws decreed, he was getting his rocks off by forcing his Handmaid to be his live-in mistress. And he was far from alone (just see Commander Putnam’s treatment of Janine that same season), they were pretty much all at it. Even from Gilead’s earliest days, its Commanders were hypocrites and liars not interested in living in purity under His eye, but in the perks, power and pussy they could grab under cover of piety.
The first Offred is so key to this story not just because of what she gave June, but because her act of desperate rebellion exposed Gilead for what it really is.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 streams on Wednesdays on Hulu in the US. It’s expected to air on Channel 4 in the UK at a later tbc date.