Synopsis of 1×08: The Commander surprises Offred with a secret adventure in Gilead. Nick’s troubled past leads to his recruitment by the Sons of Jacob.
There’s something really satisfying about finding out about somebody’s backstory, especially in a fictional story. It offers a look into their past that the protagonist often never sees, but it confirms truths, exposes lies, and reveals the core of a character that is almost cathartic. Like Serena’s episode, “Jezebels” looks into Nick’s enigmatic past and shows us not only what kind of person he used to be but also what kind of person he is now.
Before Gilead, we learn that Nick Blaine from Michigan used to be both aggressive and really bad at keeping his job — the two are initially assumed to be related. But, while we know Nick now works for the Waterfords as a chauffeur/manservant, he originally worked as a steelworker, however he ended up having to take care of his deadbeat brother and the reason why he can’t keep a job is because he has to take time off to take care of his brother. Nick, as a product of his circumstance, then ends up being recruited for the Sons of Jacob.
While Nick is definitely not anywhere near as bad as the commanders, he does represent a certain brand of evil as we learn his story. He met the commanders through his temp agency, driving cars for the commanders while they planned the revolution and rounding up the fertile women and impregnating them by “worthy” men, but somehow by the beginning of Offred’s stay with the Waterfords, he has risen above them. As an eye, he is spying on the commanders. We see flashbacks of him turning in commanders to a higher order, and we learn that he is placed with the Waterfords to investigate Fred.
“Jezebels” circles around Nick’s story, but the meat of the episode focuses on an illicit brothel in Gilead that is only open to men and foreigners. While Serena is out of town, Fred sneaks Offred out of the house for a night out. He shaves her legs, gives her make up, and shows her a new outfit. It’s seamless, the efficiency at which Fred works, and it’s clear to Offred that this is something he’s done before. We know from Nick’s flashbacks that he was there when the last handmaid hung herself in her room and Serena coldly warned Fred about his infidelity, saying, “What did you think would happen?”
In the car, Fred dresses Offred like a wife and sneaks her past checkpoints and into the brothel. In the brothel, women who wouldn’t assimilate are given a choice to either be a sex worker or go to the colonies to die a slow, painful death. It’s a veritable den of sin, but somehow much less shocking and jarring to see. Nothing is veiled in religious rites or pretentious overtones. It’s not paradise, obviously. The women are still prisoners and treated like objects, but there’s no heavy-handed metaphors to deal with.
While at the bar, Offred sees a familiar face. Moira. After having sex with Fred, Offred sneaks out of their room down to where the women are, and she is reunited with Moira. We learn that Moira did manage to escape on the train to a safe house, and while she was at that safe house, they planned to smuggle her out of the country via an underground called ‘FemaleRoad’. The brothel seems to have dealt a serious blow to Moira’s confidence. She seems to have given up hope, and tells Offred, “We only work nights, I mean it’s not so bad.” They get all the drugs and booze they want, but it’s of little comfort. Moira has given up all hope of escape and seems resolved to her position until she dies.
Meanwhile, downstairs, we see Nick smugglling stuff into the brothel and conversing with a Martha. She’s young and flirts with Nick, the two seem to have a good and familiar relationship, and she seems to be aware of his position with the Eyes, but Nick is too distracted by the thought of Offred with Fred. He watches them go upstairs and given what happened to the last handmaid and the fact that he had to cut her down, his concern is not exactly unfounded. Fred’s fears of having a target on his back is not exactly unfounded. Not only is Nick there to spy on him and tell on him, but the world is revolting.
When they come home, Fred greets Serena like nothing ever happened. He should know his wife won’t be fooled for long. And although Offred repeatedly reminds Nick that she had no choice but to go with Fred to the Jezebels, Nick is ready to end their relationship. Offred, who admits that she is weak for wanting to return back to Nick, has formed an attachment with him. It’s compelling to see her struggle with her faith and the fact that Luke is alive, while she also develops feelings for Nick as time goes on with the Waterfords. For her, Nick sees a side of her, a true side of her, that nobody else has seen. Despite the threat of ending up on the wall, she would rather end up there and have someone care that she’s gone than feel nothing.
The final scene of the episode, while it does pair my two favorite characters together again in a scene, feels a little disjointed from the story. Serena comes home and gives Offred a gift. Serena has her faults, no one is denying that, but in this scene she genuinely feels like she thought this would be a good gift, and Offred views it as another representation of her imprisonment. For me, this scene was hard to swallow. I found it hard to relate to Offred, simply because she can be so cold sometimes. In Offred’s jaded mind, the ballerina in a music box is her, but am I the only one who feels like this reference is a bit of a stretch? Maybe it’s because of the way that Yvonne Strahovski played Serena in this scene, but it felt off. Sure, the analogy works perfectly, but the intent is missing.
Other than this final scene, this episode worked perfectly. It brought in a new factor with Nick’s potential realized, it brought back a favorite in Moira — though according to the novel, this might be the last time we see her, and it introduced many new aspects of the world and plot that we haven’t seen before. It did it’s job and did so very stylishly.