The Handmaid’s Tale recap: 'Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum'
'You had to be brave to do this.'
Serena Joy wasn’t kidding around with that “things can get much worse for you” threat. It’s now been 13 whole days since Offred has been allowed to leave her room — the door is unlocked, but that just further proves who’s really in control here.
Instead of falling back into her old memories, like a sweet one of her and Luke taking Hannah to a carnival, she forces herself to stay present and occupies her mind by exploring all the nooks and crannies of her room. Inside the closet, there are red dresses and functional boots galore (maybe the one perk of this dystopian horror show is not having to pick out what you want to wear every day), and lying on the floor, she sees words carved into the wood, somewhere no one else would ever see them: Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum. Who could it be from? Her first (and ultimately correct) thought is it’s the previous Offred, but regardless of the messenger, it’s as a message for her.
That message captivates her so profoundly that when Rita walks in to bring food and finds Offred lying on the floor in her closet, she freaks and drops the tray, thinking she’s opted for one of those “escapes” she mentioned in the premiere. Having to explain why she was on the floor without mentioning covert messages, she lies and says she felt lightheaded and fainted — which leads Rita to tell the Commander and an unsympathetic Serena Joy, who reluctantly agrees to let her see a doctor ahead of that night’s Ceremony.
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The prospect of a doctor’s appointment has Offred excited – it’s the little things, really, when you’ve been cooped up inside for two weeks. But that bit of pleasure is foiled when Serena Joy insists that Nick drive her instead of allowing her to walk. (Side note: Are those red curtains always covering the windows in the backseat? Or is that a handmaid-only travel mandate?)
One more note from that breakfast table scene — it gives a small glimpse into how Gilead is faring within the rest of the world. The Commander tells Serena Joy that an Aunt escaped the Red Center, snuck across the border, and has already given an interview to Canadian media. His assessment of her story? “Lies, hyperbole, everything in the worst possible light.” It’s Fake News, Gilead edition. Serena Joy suggests a strategy to combat that media coverage — to discredit the Aunt, not the things she’s said — and he essentially tells her not to worry her pretty little lady head about it. Serena Joy also mentions a U.N. embargo, which means the rest of the world might not be too keen on this new world order.
The doctor’s office is white and sterile – and, just as described in the book, a floor-to-ceiling curtain blocks the handmaid from the torso up. The doctor (Kristian Bruun, a.k.a. Donnie from Orphan Black!) comes in, and because she didn’t really faint, he can’t find anything wrong with her — and as long as she’s there and it’s a Ceremony night, he gives her a pelvic exam for good measure, and everything seems fine. Not that it really matters, he says, because Waterford is probably sterile: “Most of those guys are.” Perhaps not surprisingly, this is not an acceptable theory here in Gilead. (“That’s a forbidden word,” Offred tells us in voice-over. “There’s no such thing as a sterile man anymore. There’s only women who are fruitful and women who are barren.”) He locks the door and offers to “help” her — no one will wonder how she gets pregnant so long as she does, he offers, and this could be her only chance. She declines, but the car ride home is an anguished one, Offred screaming and cursing and banging on the partition that separates her and Nick. When they get home, he says he’s sorry this is happening to her, getting out an “I wish…” before trailing off, with nothing to offer. “You wish what, Nick? What do you wish?” Any well-intentioned thing he could say here is meaningless.
Inside, Offred offers Serena Joy an apology for failing her and begs to be let out of her room, but Serena Joy just goes about her knitting and sends her back upstairs. There, Offred curls up in the closet and finds solace in the carvings. “How did you survive her?” she asks aloud of her mysterious predecessor.
Offred also thinks back to her time at the Red Center, when she and Moira would sneak away to the bathroom for secret conversations, talking through a hole between two of the stalls. Moira uses a sharpened tool she found to carve “Aunt Lydia sux” into the wall. “If they catch you writing you will lose a hand,” June warns, telling her it’s not worth it. But Moira disagrees — they might be “posted” soon, but there will be a girl who comes next who comes in there and sees it. “It’ll let her know she’s not alone,” she says. (In the present, Offred links this moment to the note she found in the closet: “You had to be brave to do this”)
The handmaid trainees are also practicing how to perform the “Ceremony,” and Aunt Lydia keeps the spin train going strong: They’re going to new homes, where they won’t be judged for their appearances or their clothes or how clever they are, like women were in the old world. When they explain the actual mechanics of the Ceremony, the Aunts call it a monthly “sacred ritual,” once a month where they and their Commander’s wife become one entity, “waiting to be seeded.” Moira isn’t into the Now & Then explanation of how biology works and presses the Aunts for a more realistic (and less rosy) explanation: This means they’ll be having intercourse with the commanders, between the wives’ legs? Aunt Lydia’s response is just to recite the story of Rachel and Bilhah, the biblical tale they’ve co-opted to justify this process. “That is His word dear, and we shall abide.”
And so they plan an escape: They kidnap an Aunt, steal her uniform and her cattle prod, and restrain her in the center’s basement before walking out with Moira in the brown uniform and June as a handmaid she’s escorting. There are supposedly safe houses in nearby Boston, but all the street signs have been removed, making navigating (and any escape) difficult. This is the first they’ve seen of the outside world in who knows how long, and it’s not good: Books and artwork are being burned, bodies hang along a wall, and handmaids and Marthas walk by in groups as if nothing is amiss. They go into a subway station, where the name is being chiseled out of the tile and Eyes stand all around. Moira goes to ask for directions, and June, standing alone, is approached by a guard who begins questioning why she’s outside without a partner and asking for her ID card. The train pulls in, and they both see that Moira has an opportunity to get on, while there’s no way June will make it. The friends make eye contact. June nods and smiles. It’s okay, she seems to be saying. The train doors close with Moira inside, and June is escorted out of the station by the two Eyes. Back at the Red Center, the soles of her feet are whipped as punishment. Ouch.
Back in the present, the Commander breaks protocol and is alone with Offred before Serena Joy and the household staff assemble for the Ceremony, because he wants to ask her for a Scrabble rematch later that night. Before she can respond, the others file in, including Serena Joy, who commented in the first episode on his perpetual tardiness, so you know this punctuality is something she’s noticed. This time around, it seems the Commander has a, well, hard time showing up for the Ceremony, and after a few attempts he pulls up his suspenders and walks away. Serena Joy follows him into the other room and offers to help. This is the most intimate we’ve ever seen them, and now I’m wondering — what’s sex like in Gilead for the Commanders and their wives? If it’s just supposed to be for reproductive purposes, are non-handmaid relations allowed? In any event, the Commander eventually rebuffs his wife’s advances, and then she sends Offred back to her room. So no Ceremonying for anyone tonight.
When they do Scrabble it up later that night, Offred notices a Latin guidebook on the Commander’s bookshelf. Did he ever study Latin, she asks? Yes, as part of SAT prep. Offred wonders if her predecessor — the Latin knower, the word-scratcher — was here before her. Is she not the first to be invited into this room? Did the last Offred displease him, and what price did she pay for it?
She wins the game this time, and they agree to play again the following night. Before they part ways, though, she asks for a favor: if he’d be able to translate a certain Latin phrase. “Does it mean something?” she asks eagerly. “Not really,” he replies. It’s a joke — one probably only funny if you’re a kid studying Latin. Still, he tells her what it means: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” He wants to know where she heard it, and she says it was from a friend. The Commander pauses, then asks, “Did you know her somehow?” Offred asks what happened to her, and he says that she died by suicide. “I suppose she found her life unbearable,” he says. And now he wants her life to be more bearable? “I’d prefer it,” he responds.
She sees an opening and goes for it, making a point to say how hard it’s been being shut up in her room for so long. And it works. Offred walks out the Waterfords’ front door, getting to inhale fresh air and relish this small victory. Armed with that phrase and the knowledge of her predecessor, she seems to have a renewed sense of purpose. “’Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,’ bitches,” she tells us. You said it, sister.
The Handmaid's Tale