I'm guessing the fourth episode of The Handmaid's Tale will go down as the slowest episode of the season. It's a lot of set-up and world-building, going further into the role that women are forced to play in this man's world. However, that's kind of a blessing. In a horrific dystopia like Gilead, sometimes you need to stop and smell the corpses.
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The latest episode, "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum", is all about the complicated relationships and power struggles in the commander's household. For most of the episode, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is punishing the not-pregnant Offred (Elisabeth Moss) by forcing her to stay in her room. This lasts for almost two weeks. Offred's door isn't locked and she knows she can leave any time. But she stays out of fear.
The reason Serena Joy is controlling Offred's actions is because, for the most part, she can't control anything else. Every scene between the commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife in this episode show that she is subordinate, and any semblance of control that she displays is something that he has deigned for her. Whether it's him refusing to take her advice about trade negotiations, insisting there are "good men on it", or not letting her go down on him when he can't get an erection. The biggest instance is when, during The Ceremony, he enters the living room before Serena Joy does, because he wants to privately proposition Offred for another game of Scrabble. As Offred points out (during her voiceover), he's supposed to wait. He's supposed to knock. But when he doesn't, there's nothing Serena Joy can do about it. It's supposed to be her space, but it's really his. Because everything else is too.
This episode gave us better insight into Serena Joy, and it's welcome character development. The show could've easily painted her as this bitchy and sanctimonious monster, but instead, we get to see the pain behind her resolve. She may not have been kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery, but she has sacrificed much of her freedom in order to serve her husband's idea of a better world. For example, in the last episode, Serena Joy was grateful and relieved to learn Offred might be pregnant. Not only because she wanted a baby, but also because she didn't want her months of watching her husband screw another woman to be in vain. That's why she punished Offred for getting her period. She knows it's been fruitless, and the screwing will keep going, but there's nothing she can do about it.
Even though Gilead is designed to control women, Offred still learns about ways to navigate around the brutal caste system. During a hospital visit, the doctor (played by Donnie from Orphan Black) offers to impregnate Offred because the commander might be sterile. This is a forbidden word in Gilead, as only women can be seen as barren (this is because there are no stories in the Bible about infertile men, only infertile women). Then, once she's tired of having been stuck in her room for two weeks, she manipulates the commander by, during a late-night game of Scrabble, hinting that she'll commit suicide if he doesn't make Serena Joy relent. She does, of course, because she has no power in their relationship. Then again, neither does Offred, even if she thinks she does.
Offred's inspiration to manipulate the commander came from her memories of Moira (Samira Wiley), who escaped the Red Center and is presumed dead. The show took a slight detour from the book and had Offred accompany Moira on her escape, which I felt was a welcome addition. It made sense that the two of them would try and get away together, and when the plan wasn't working, Offred chose to make a noble sacrifice for her friend. After running into some problems in the train station, Offred gave the OK for Moira to leave without her. It was wonderful seeing Offred's resolve in that moment, only to see it crushed when she was horrifically punished for trying to get away.
As I mentioned last week, the ceremonies of Gilead are better in theory than in practice, and here we really started to see what happens when subjective men interpret the supposedly objective rules of God. One of the most impactful scenes of the episode, and possibly the season, is the moment (shown in the image above) when the future handmaids realise they will be forced to have sex with the society's ruling men. The aunts dance around the subject, calling it a "great honour", and then they frame it in a way (by using the Bible) that paints the wife as the dominant figure. Only she isn't, it's the husband. He gets to screw another woman and suffer no consequences for it. Gilead isn't a holy land. It's a totalitarian world designed by men to benefit themselves.
- It was interesting seeing Gilead during its initial transition, while Offred and Moira were trying to get away. Street signs were being changed, presumably to turn them into Biblical references, and artwork and books were being burned. Then, of course, you had the scores of bodies... some of which were clearly tied up before being killed.
- The Scrabble scene where Offred finds out what "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum" means (don't let the bastards grind you down) was kind of a let-down. It was nonsense he'd written in a book as a child, which should make him instantly suspicious that it's something Offred would know about. I understand it happened differently in the book, but here her purposeful ignorance didn't seem convincing.
- I've seen some people (mostly men) commenting that The Ceremony is controlled by the wives, and I think this episode puts that ridiculous notion to rest. It might look that way on the surface, but that's because it's how the men designed it. They let their wives feel like they're in control. At any time, they could take that power away, and their wives know it.
- Offred's car scene was incredible. I loved seeing her get a chance to break down and scream all those F-words that are in her head. It feels like every day for her is another cycle in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, so it's good she's getting at least a little release.