Offred is one of the few fertile women in what was once America. As a handmaid, her only function is to bear children. Based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale has now come to our screens in the UK – Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4.
This week we’re dropped back into Offred’s flashbacks, though some are considerably fonder memories than others. Nothing more is said on Ofglen, and I wonder if we will see her again at all. But most of the focus this week was centred on Offred, and the current conflict between her and Serena Joy. And of course we finally got to round two of Scrabble.
Offred uses her memories – in this case, the memory of going to a funfair with her husband and young daughter, before America became Gilead – to escape her reality; she says as much in her narration. It makes perfect sense to me that she would escape back to what was, when there’s nothing else to do but stare at the same four walls for two weeks straight. But it also highlights how easy it could be to test someone’s resolve to the point of insanity in this world. Remember Janine?
However, we joined this section of the story today because there was something different. Today, Offred found scratchings in the wall. A Latin phrase of unknown meaning, but certainly left behind by the handmaid that came before her. “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”
Leaving us to ponder this, the episode moves on to outline some of the ways that Serena Joy can have near complete control of Offred’s life. She has the house maid, Martha, report back to her after taking Offred her food, and she separates Offred from Nick when he drives her over to the doctor, making full use of her most threatening glare. In fact, the doctor is something worth bringing up here, because what was all that about?! Using a forbidden word, eschewing the clear rule that he shouldn’t see the handmaid’s face, and then offering to help Offred out in the *ahem* pregnancy department? That all just seemed too easy, so I was glad to see Offred shakily refuse his offer. I’m so sucked into this world that even I’m suspicious of there being Eyes everywhere.
Episode 4 also gave us a deeper insight into the relationship that the Commander and Serena Joy have. They had a civilised, if distant, breakfast, where Serena Joy clearly showed both intelligence and initiative when they discussed the Commander’s work, but as she’s a woman she was waved aside without being really listened to. That stung. And even though we did come to see some level of affection between the two of them during the Ceremony, and the interruption of it, their manner still feels more businesslike than a real relationship – which raises questions of its own.
The Commander also called in that Scrabble rematch, where we were privy to some of Offred’s concerns about the handmaid who had come before her, and the Commander’s intentions. That is, once she had seen the Latin Grammar book on the bookshelf. This is where we find out that Offred 1.0 had been found in her room, hanged, because she found her life too unbearable. The pieces click into place: the Commander wants to help Offred’s life be that bit more bearable. And I could have called in the cheerleaders for Offred as she used this moment to undermine Serena Joy’s house arrest rule, and stamp out a little bit of power for herself.
This is where we circle back around to that Latin phrase, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”. The Commander tells Offred that it’s a sort of Latin joke which, loosely translated, means “Don’t let the b*****ds get you down”. And this is how we exit the episode – with Offred’s fellow handmaids-in-training saving her food during the flashback, and in the present, she leaves the grounds of the house, surrounded by other handmaids. A little battalion of red that could very definitely fight back.