Synopsis of 1×04: Ceremony night has come around again; Offred remembers her escape attempt with Moira.
It’s notable that while the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale had a strong rhythm to them and pacing, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” didn’t hit on quite as many notes as the previous episodes did.
Trapped in her room after revealing she wasn’t actually pregnant, Offred finds a carving at the bottom of the wall of her bedroom closet that reads “nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” Depressed and defeated by her confinement in the bedroom, when one of the servants come in and find her laying on the ground, she lies and tells them that she fainted.
Begrudgingly, Serena Joy tells her to go to the doctor’s office since tonight is ceremony night and they’ve got some babies to make. Happy to just get out and get some fresh air and walk for an hour to the doctor’s office, Offred’s bubble is quickly burst when Serena sends a car for her and Nick ends up driving her to the office.
We are also brought back to the Rachel and Leah Center where we see the handmaid’s first train for the ceremony and their duties. It’s a harrowing look at what we can easily define as institutionalized rape. The women lie on their backs in between the wives, and the wives hold the handmaid’s hands back. I’m pretty sure that’s not how Jacob and Bilah did it, but if that’s how your lack-of-reading-comprehension mind interpreted it then fine. I’m sure if someone had just taught the literary devices of allegory and metaphor to these people things could have turned out differently.
In Gilead, there is no such thing as a sterile man anymore. Women are either barren or not. Despite that, Offred is met with a harsh reality with her doctor. He easily comments that Fred is most likely sterile — “most of them are” — and then offers to have sex with her in order to guarantee she gets pregnant. Of course, there’s a boatload of issues that come with this scene.
First of all, Offred’s position on the examination table distinctly separates her from her doctor and therefore her own sexual health. His business is her womb, and the separation is physically obvious. He’s not there for her, but for the men in the society who want to use these women as wombs with legs. Even his offer of “help”, is another display of the overwhelming power of men over women in this society. It’s her fault if she doesn’t get pregnant, and what is a handmaid to do?
He gets to have his way with her, without any guarantee that he’s not also shooting blanks, and she gets what? To be raped by yet another man in this society? To be humiliated once again? To be taken advantage of and discarded when it suits them?
On the car ride back, Offred breaks down into tears and screams. We see more flashbacks, in which we see Moira and June plan an escape from the center. They take one of the aunts and tie her up in the basement of the center and steal her clothes before leaving. They get as far as the metro station before they arouse suspicion. While Moira is able to get on the train to Boston, June is separated from her. Taken back to the center, the bottom of her feet are whipped brutally and it is presumably the last time she sees Moira.
Fred is back home tonight, but he isn’t just here for the ceremony, but also for Scrabble night! Their ceremony night goes disastrously. He can’t perform and when Serena comes in to try and help him along, he turns her away.
One of Fred’s more interesting scenes so far has been in this episode. While Strahovski and Moss bring their 100% every episode, and it certainly shows, Fiennes has been a little withdrawn. It might be because I always feel like he looks parched for water, but this episode we not only got to see a little more of Fiennes but also a bit of dimension to Fred. While it’s impossible to actually sympathize with him, as a man who is at the top of a society that weighs painfully in his favor, we do understand him a little more as a person.
His personality and attitude with Serena is distinctly different than his relationship with Offred. When they play Scrabble there is a defined power dynamic in the room. While Offred let him with previously, she’s a bit more cavalier this time. She not only tells him that she let him win, but she also asks him about the latin phrase that was carved into her closet. He reveals to her that it’s a joke that he came up with, showing his own book in his library with the phrase mirrored on the page, telling her it means “don’t let the bastards grind you down”.
(A quick Google search will tell you this is basically a Google translated phrase direct from english and has no actual grammatical accuracy.)
He then reveals that the previous Offred killed herself in the house and that he would not want that to happen again. Knowing that he has something tangible at stake, Offred cleverly understands this and uses it to her benefit in order finally be freed from her room.
It’s an interesting episode. While the phrase of “don’t let the bastards grind you down” definitely has a revolutionary sentiment, the idea that it comes from Fred takes away much of the power of the phrase for me. It’s not a defiant phrase uttered by rebels, it’s a poorly translated one written by a petulant, spoiled school boy who would one day grow up to be a sterile leader of a totalitarian, fundamentalist society and institutionalize rape and segregation.
The same way that phrase feels hollow to me, so too does the unity of the handmaid’s at the end of the episode. What did they really achieve? Offred is freed from her room, but assumedly that would have happened eventually. When has any act of rebellion been met with success in this story? Emily, Moira, and even Janine, were all violently punished and put down. The women hardly stick together, not even the handmaid’s. The few rare moments between the women barely last. While there’s a few glimmers of hope, this episode had me more anxious than hopeful.