'Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.'
What a week it’s been — since we last touched in with this terrifying vision of the not-so-distant future, we’ve learned The Handmaid’s Tale has been renewed for a second season. Are you excited by the prospect of more Gilead? I’m waiting to see where this first installment leaves off before I decide. We’ve already seen the show expand the world of Margaret Atwood’s novel well, but it hasn’t gone beyond that framework yet.
With that aside out of the way, let’s get into this season’s fifth hour, which starts off with a much cozier looking game of Scrabble. Offred’s shoes are off, she’s sitting on the floor with a drink, and the Commander is wearing a T-shirt instead of his spiffy suit. By her count, they’ve played 34 games by this point, and she’s picked up more and more about him over the course of them: including that he likes it when she flirts with him, and she likes when he lets her win. A match made in heaven. This time, though, he also has something else for her — a fashion magazine, all of which were supposed to be destroyed for the many reasons that now make them illegal (women aren’t supposed to read, and those articles are bound to be about sex and career advice and choosing clothes for yourself that aren’t mandated by a rigid caste system!). “Some of us have an appreciation for the old things,” he tells her, smiling, as he hands it over and says that while they’re most definitely not allowed, she can look through it while with him. She flips through the pages, remembering how she’d read magazines like these at the airport, when she got her hair highlighted. “Now the models all look insane, like zoo animals unaware they’re about to go extinct,” she thinks to herself. There’s a quiz in there: 10 ways to tell how he feels about you. One example? He brings you small gifts. Check!
Another way to tell if he’s into you: if the guy just casually hangs around places you’re sitting with no real reason to be there. Yep, we see you Nick, loitering in the kitchen. That’s interrupted by Serena Joy, who wants to have a private conversation with Offred outside (while gardening — which was a passion of Book Version Serena Joy’s, too). It’s not that she’s found out about Scrabble or the magazine, or is keeping her busy until a van of Eyes come to take her away. She just has a request. A proposal, of sorts. Offred still isn’t pregnant, and just like the doctor suggested last week, maybe the Commander just isn’t able to make it happen. So, Serena Joy whispers, maybe there’s another way — another man who can offer up his “services.” And she’s got just the guy: Nick, who has apparently already agreed. Offred agrees — but really, does she have much of a choice here?
RELATED: Margaret Atwood and Elisabeth Moss Discuss The Handmaid’s Tale
They decide to set it up for that same afternoon because why waste time, but beforehand, Offred has the day’s shopping to do — and it’s at the market that she sees Ofglen again (scratch that, the woman formerly known as Rory Gilmore Emily is actually Ofsteven now) wearing her handmaid robes and checking out produce like it’s business as usual. In hushed tones, they catch up quickly — she’s fine but can’t tell her anything about Nick because now she’s too dangerous to be part of the resistance, which we learn is called Mayday.
Before she can ask more questions, the new Ofglen interrupts, and they can’t speak any further. On the walk home, that woman warns Offred not to mess this up for her. “This isn’t messed up?” Offred wonders, and the new Ofglen gives Offred a lesson in perspective — where June had a nice apartment and a penchant for Anthropologie in her old life, this Ofglen had a drug addiction, which she prostituted herself to support. Here, though, she’s clean, she has a safe place to sleep, and people are nice to her, so it’s not the same level of hell for her that it is for others, and she doesn’t want what happened to Ofsteven to happen to her.
Back at the house, Serena Joy collects Offred from her room, and they head across the yard towards Nick’s apartment above the garage. Offred tells herself to calm down. “Barring the possibility of violent arrest, it’s nothing I haven’t done before,” she muses. “So how come this time it feels like I’m cheating on Luke?”
Ah, Luke. This week’s flashback gives us a meet-cute straight out of The New York Times vows section, when Moira walks up to him waiting in line at a food truck and asks him to critique June’s Tinder profile. He and June start meeting for coffee and lunch, and even though Luke is married, there are obvious sparks. (Side note: Did you notice the little girls playing outside? Their coats were handmaid red, and it gave me the creeps.) June and Luke joke about getting a room somewhere, but then it goes from jokey to less jokey, and then later on they actually do get a room, a “just once” thing that we all know is never just once. And sure enough, when she asks him to leave his wife, he agrees to.
Compare that happy, passionate, consensual sex with what happens in Nick’s apartment — it’s not the Ceremony, but it’s still joyless, awkward, and happens with Serena Joy watching from the sidelines, asking immediately after if she feels pregnant, and praying over her belly. And after this illicit encounter, Waterford also changes up the state-sanctioned rules around Offred and her body — he touches her thigh during the next Ceremony (is this all the same day?) in full view of Serena Joy, and he looks at her much differently than he ever did before.
When she goes to his office to admonish him over it, noting Serena Joy could have her sent to the colonies or worse, he replies that he finds that whole Ceremony thing so impersonal. “You think?!” she fires back. He invites her to stay for a drink and dangles a magazine in front of her, asking if she misses the lists of made-up problems that filled their pages: Women were never rich enough, pretty enough, good enough. “We had choices then,” she says.
“Now you have respect, you have protection, you can fulfill your biological destinies in peace,” he replies. “Children — what else is there to live for?” When Offred says love, he smiles indulgently and brings up the former Ofglen from next door, and how they “saved” her from the “urges” that made her do “unnatural things” in the name of love. “Every love story is a tragedy if you wait long enough,” he says. Offred, breathless and perhaps now just fully understanding what happened to her friend, gets up to go, and the Commander offers this rationalization for the things that have happened:
“We only wanted to make the world a better place,” he tells Offred.
“Better?” she asks back.
Well, not quite. “Better never means better for everyone,” he admits. “It always means worse for some.”
Another day at an outdoor market, Offred finds a moment to quietly meet with the new Ofsteven and apologizes for what the government has done to her. Ofsteven replies that Mayday can’t use her anymore, but Offred could help — they’re fighting back against the government in Gilead. Offred keeps calling her Ofglen, even though that’s not her name anymore and never was hers to begin with. “My name is Emily,” she says, reclaiming that essential part of herself, then asking Offred a simple yet very pointed question: “Who are you?” Before Offred can answer, her partner pulls her away. Despondent, Emily steals a car (driving, we can only imagine, isn’t something women get to do anymore, making this extra illegal), backing over an Eye and then, seeing no way out of the corner she’s in, speeds forward and runs over the man, killing him. The Eyes then drag her out from broken windows and take her away.
What’s going to happen to her now? It definitely can’t be good. But Offred sees it as a sign that her friend wasn’t broken despite what she’s been through. “They didn’t get everything. There was something inside her they couldn’t take away,” she thinks to herself. “She looked invincible.” She also thinks about the name of the resistance group, Mayday, and how Luke once told her where it came from: the French phrase m’aidez. Help me.
And then she takes another little bit of herself back — she leaves the house alone, goes over to Nick’s, takes off that stupid white bonnet, and literally lets her hair down before she undresses him and then herself, and they have actual, non-awkward, passionate sex. It’s not quite running off in a car, but it seems like a step toward her own declaration of independence.