As ultimately powerless as Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss) is within the world of Gilead, it would seem that everyone within the Waterford household is going out of their way to try and please her. Nick (Max Minghella) wants to keep her in his bed and to keep her satisfied. The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) wants much the same, but also to make her feel less cloistered and kept. And Mrs. Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), it seems, wants to make Offred feel like a part of the household, or like the daughter she could never have, through a small token gift.
The reality is that, for all the religious underpinnings of this new society, Gilead hasn’t moved beyond what one character this week called a “society that only cares about profit and pleasure.” The unspoken word in that sentence is “power.” Everyone in the Waterford household is using Offred for his or her own ends.
For as much as Nick may have strong feelings for her, he is no better than the Commander, getting off as much as his boss on being able to get her into his bed, knowing that she can’t really say no. And the Commander enjoys his power trip, in this episode, of enticing Offred with a new dress and makeup and a night on the town, also fresh in the understanding that, just as in the monthly Ceremony, she can’t say no to his sexual advances. Mrs. Waterford is doing what she can to get what she wants out of the Handmaid: a baby.
Offred may live in a home with a room and a mind of her own, but she’s just as much of a commodity as the Jezebels that we’re introduced to in this episode. Moira (Samira Wiley) may have chosen to become an escort and, in doing so, getting all the booze, drugs and good food she can handle at this high-end brothel. She also knew, though, that it was her last gasp at some sort of pleasure before her inevitable exile to The Colonies or death.
Like all the women who work alongside her, Moira is using the one bit of agency she still has left under this repressive regime: her sexuality. All the other courtesans in this den of ill repute are, according to Commander Waterford, CEOs, journalists and lawyers, among other things. With their livelihoods and rights stripped from them, they had to resort to joining the world’s oldest profession. The indignities they have to put themselves through night after night must feel minor compared to the alternatives.
That’s really what makes the small niceties that the Waterfords mete out to Offred feel almost indecent. It would almost be better to keep smacking her down and forcing her to endure the monthly ritual rather than giving her some small measure of hope through a bit of booze and a women’s magazine or the music box that Mrs. Waterford hands her at the end of the hour. It’s those little gestures intended to make her work just a little bit harder or to make her a little more subservient. “Oh, they can’t be all that bad if they did this for me, right?”
Of the episodes so far, this is the one that feels the most hopeless, the most bleak. Offred may be scratching rebellious notes inside her closet or insisting that she’s not going to be stuck inside a box like the ballerina spinning inside the music box, but the entire episode is more in line with Moira’s resigned commentary that there is no way out for either of them. Luke may have gotten into Canada, but they are stuck too deep in this system to find a way out now. Watching Offred’s determined face before the hour faded to black was as heartbreaking as the single tear that ran down her cheek as she gave into the Commander’s drunken attentions.
What that leaves me with is a worry about what the next two episodes, and the next season, are going to look like. Are we going to be treated like Offred, given these little glimmers of humanity that will quickly get dashed by the oppression of the world that Margaret Atwood and the series’ creators have dreamed up? How much longer can we keep getting our hopes lifted up and slapped back down again before we give up on the show entirely? No number of cute music cues or moments of titillation feel like enough right now to put this burden on our already weary minds week after week. Great as The Handmaid’s Tale is, if things don’t start improving in the world at large, viewers are surely going to move on to more escapist fare for the sake of their own sanity.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.