The closing moments of “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” are supposed to feel inspiring. Offred has found her source of power within the Waterford household, using the Commander’s growing respect and interest to her advantage. It ends with her finally being allowed outside after two weeks of confinement indoors, artfully surrounded by a gaggle of other handmaids as she repeats the Latin phrase of the title, punctuated with a Jesse Pinkman-like “...bitches.”
There’s a dark humor in that moment and a bitter irony, too. This fourth installment of The Handmaid’s Tale is scattered with word of escape: the news of an Aunt running to Canada, the flashback story of Moira making off for Boston and potential freedom with Offred/June’s help. It’s a delightful carrot to dangle in front of viewers, keeping us moving forward with the show with the melody of a happy ending ringing in their hearts.
I’m not so hopeful. Not only because Offred decided to sacrifice herself for Moira’s escape and wound up getting her feet whipped bloody by the Aunts. Or that every time thus far in the series that she’s stepped out of line or attempted to assert her individuality, she’s been literally and figuratively slapped back down again. There’s little doubt that she’s going to get her shots in and find some subtle ways to game this system to her advantage. What Offred can’t do is tear down this whole totalitarian system all by herself.
Her fate is, in that way, a parallel of most slave and prison narratives that have been published and produced over the years. Every protagonist in these stories is desperately trying to keep hold of whatever sliver of their humanity they can, lest they give up entirely. If Offred finds those moments of metaphorical fresh air in the Latin inscription scratched into the wall inside her closet by the previous Offred, or in being able to play a simple game of Scrabble with the Commander, then her little hard stare and slight smirk at the end of the episode will have been worth it.
But in the case of the TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s not much good that can come of it. The Commander’s wife smells something suspicious already, after walking in on her husband consorting socially with Offred before The Ceremony. If you thought her steaming anger after learning their Handmaid wasn’t pregnant was bad, can you imagine how she’d react if she walked in on them playing Scrabble together? That would almost be worse than cheating.
While the people behind this show will likely want to leave you with that closing scene imprinted in your brain, or the sort of anti-Full Metal Jacket moment when all of Offred’s fellow Handmaids in the training center bring her small bits of food as she lays in bed healing from her punishment. The real heart of the episode, though, is the intimate scene between the Commander and his wife after he finds he cannot rise to the occasion during The Ceremony (so to speak). Yvonne Strahovski is heartbreaking as she tries to help her husband out. The focus is on her as she moves in close, trying to turn him on, and these small ripples of delight, desperation, fear and frustration quickly float over her face.
Her supposed inability to produce a child is an obvious source of friction between the couple, one of a host of issues driving a wedge between them. Credit the writers and actor for not keeping her as a one-note icy bitch. She’s just as imprisoned by this backwards system as any of the other women being forced to maintain order or produce children for the benefit of the state. For all the power they hold, they have even less to do than the kitchen workers or the in-house concubines. Those women, at least, serve a purpose. The women in the higher caste are forced to look good and stay out of the way.
Does this justify her treatment of Offred or her general bitterness toward anyone working under her watchful eye? Not in the least. What it does, though, is reassert the power dynamic at play in the world of Gilead. For all of Offred’s thrilling feelings at the end of the episode, why I’m sure she’s going to keep getting knocked down again is that everyone in this world has the upper hand. She can barely bring herself to say “No” to the doctor “kindly” offering to help get her pregnant. He could have just taken her anyway, with few repercussions. Nor could she really refuse the Commander’s offer of a Scrabble rematch. Offred may find those little footholds to help lift her up, but they’re only temporary.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.