The Handmaid's Tale: Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum

"Just look meek."

After the unrelieved horror of "Late," I thought this episode featured the tiniest bit of hope, along with the possibility of sisterhood.

June has committed the ultimate sin: her period was a few days late. As punishment, her tiny world narrows even further than before. No shopping. No walks along the river past the hanged bodies of the executed. Desperate for anything to stimulate her mind, June explores every inch of her room and discovers a bit of graffiti in the closet near the floor: "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum."

When Rita discovers June flat on the floor in the closet and thinks she is sick, there is just a moment when June is thrilled at the prospect of a long walk to the doctor's office in the rain. But no, she cannot even have that; Nick must drive her there. Serena Joy even raises the partition in the car between June and Nick so that they cannot so much as exchange platitudes about the weather.

I thought the extremely white doctor's office with the veils was a creepfest deluxe: all of the discomfort and unpleasantness of a gynecological exam with the extra added bonus that the doctor offers to have sex with June to increase her chances of pregnancy. At least he takes no for an answer. (Note that June's expression as she is being examined is exactly like it is during the Ceremony that night.) On the ride back to her prison, June loses it and starts beating her fists against the partition. When Nick lets her out of the car, he says, "I'm sorry this is happening to you." Hey, a bit of sympathy. Better than nothing, I suppose.

Eager to see June again, Fred arrives at the Ceremony too early, but then he cannot perform during the actual event. It's almost impossible for me to have anything resembling sympathy for Fred, but his failure during the Ceremony and discomfort with Serena Joy's attempts to "help" him made me wonder if Fred is trapped in this situation, too. Maybe he has no desire to rape a stranger every month. Can Fred say no? Does he have a choice?


In a flashback parallel to the Latin graffiti in June's closet, Moira carves "Aunt Lydia sux" into the wall of the Red Center toilet. When June tells Moira that she could lose a hand if she gets caught, Moira says it would be worth it because another woman would see it and know that she isn't alone. Gold acting stars for Samira Wiley, who plaintively expresses the outrage the handmaids are feeling at the Ceremony rehearsal when they discover what they will soon be forced to do. Hey, a turkey baster is bad enough.

The truth about their upcoming assignment pushes Moira and June into making an escape attempt, and actually, they nearly pull it off. Their walk through the city has the flavor of runaway slaves, or possibly Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, accompanied by book burning, dead bodies, and way too many soldiers. There are no street signs, since the previous world is being systematically erased. Clearly, they should have stolen a second set of Aunt clothes, because when Moira leaves June alone for a moment to inquire about the train (no signs, remember? it works), a soldier notices an unaccompanied Handmaid, and that is all she wrote. I loved that little moment when the train arrived, Moira looked back at June, and they communicated without a word. June smiled just a little, and nodded just a little, and Moira reluctantly left June behind to a punishment even worse than two weeks in her room. June is strapped down and the soles of her feet beaten by Aunt Elizabeth, while Aunt Lydia gloats. (God, she's revolting. What an incredible performance by Ann Dowd.)

With that Turkish prison lesson still in her head, present day June lets Fred win their Scrabble game again, and smiles. She asks him about the Latin graffiti in her room, and he says it's a joke of his own: "Don't let the bastards grind you down." When she learns that the previous Offred, who killed herself, had a similar Scrabble-related relationship with Fred, June deliberately lets him think that she might also kill herself if she isn't freed from her imprisonment. And it works. Maybe she's making an enemy of Serena Joy, but hey – Fred is the emperor of their little house, isn't he? At least June can go outside again, and feel the sun on her face. When you're a prisoner with no rights, everything is relative.

I particularly liked that this final moment of faux freedom was accompanied by the flashback to June in her bed at the Red Center, recovering from her beating, as the Handmaids all brought her bits of food and surrounded her in a show of support. So much of this series has been about Gilead turning these horribly oppressed women against each other. Not this time. Like I said in my opener, a glimmer of hope. Given the opportunity, the moment, these women are sisters.

Bits:

— I've only just noticed how oddly situated June's room is. It's at the top of the stairs, but then down a hallway and three steps down. The room that Serena Joy was prematurely making into a nursery was three steps up. It's interesting, that those rooms are wrong, like they're hanging off the rest of the house.

— Fred and Serena Joy discussed the UN embargo against Gilead, shades of North Korea and Iran, and the news that an Aunt escaped to Canada and gave an interview about conditions in Gilead to a Canadian newspaper. I wonder why this series keeps reminding me of the current administration?

— In the flashback to the family outing at an amusement park, June wore a green scarf. Guess she was a Wife back then. Why did Aunt Lydia call June an adulterer? Did June cheat on Luke?

— The sign being chiseled off at the train station said "Arlington." Virginia?

— In the doctor's office, all of the photographs on the wall were of mothers and babies, but the mothers were all wearing green; they were the Wives. So the handmaids aren't even acknowledged as patients.

— The doctor told June that most of "those guys" are sterile. Except, June says to herself, in Gilead, men cannot be called sterile. It's only women who can be barren.

— Fred challenged June in Scrabble on the word 'sylph,' meaning 'a thin and graceful girl.'

— Why did June have a bandage on her finger? Did I miss it?

Quotes, all June's:

"There are things in this room to discover. I am like an explorer, a traveler to undiscovered countries. That's better than a lunatic, lost in her memories."

"You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like, this sound of glass. I feel like the word 'shatter'."
Lots of broken glass in this series, especially in the previous episode.

"There was an Offred before me. She helped me find my way out. She's dead. She's alive. She is me. We are handmaids. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches."


Even though this episode wasn't as stunning as the previous one, I think it deserves four out of four sylphs,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

3 comments:

lisa menaster said...

Wasn't Luke married when he first hooked up with June? If so, she wasn't an adulterer, but she helped Luke commit adultery.

Shari Houtman said...

You're right this episode felt like a reprieve after Late.

Arlington Station is a stop on the Green Line Subway in Boston. All the references they've made have been so far have been to places in and around Boston. I have no idea where they filmed the show because none of it looks like Boston but it's supposed to be.

Billie Doux said...

That makes sense, Shari. I'm sure you're right. June also said she was from Brookline.