'The Handmaid's Tale', Episode 4: Don't Let The Bastards - Or The Bitches - Grind You Down
After the horrifying ending to episode three, I imagine many of us were dreading the follow up. But episode four was perhaps a little bit of respite. There were tensions aplenty, but they were simmering rather than boiling over. And there were even a few brief moments that lightened the mood…
Spoilers will follow! And here’s a supplementary warning for outbursts of rage. I do apologise for that.
The famous mock-Latin quotation gave this episode its name and its theme. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. And we have a few bastards to choose from.
Nick’s potential bastard status is as yet unclear. He seems sympathetic — and he apologises for “what is happening” to Offred. He witnesses her rage-fit in the car and from what we can tell, he keeps it to himself. Is he bastard-adjacent? Or is he the episode’s token non-bastard? If they go the route of the book, this ambiguity will play out later. For now, he’s on the bastard watch-list.
Clearing displaying his bastard credentials, is Proper Bastard Number One, the doctor. I’ve always hated this scene in the books, because let’s face it, we’re meant to, and the episode encouraged us to hate him even more. Since when is a pelvic examination necessary when someone has fainted? In the book, she was there for a general check up of her fertility and sexual health, so it made sense. But here? I was already livid, and that was before he propositioned her in the name of helping. Never in the history of sex has “it will only take a few minutes” worked as a proposition, by the way. And calling her “honey”? I may have yelled ‘PATRONISING GIT’ at the screen there. Sorry. It is such a terrible abuse of power. What can she say? If she offends him, he could say she is infertile and declare her an Unwoman. If he is a spy and it’s a test, she will be punished. In the end, she does the only thing she can - something women have to do in real life horribly often - turn him down as nicely as possible, while dreading the consequences. He’s another guy trying to exploit the Nice Guy narrative for sex. I’m on your side; you can talk to me; I get it.
Onto Proper Bastard Number Two, the Commander; the “divine emperor” of the house. He has a little problem in the Ceremony this week, and it’s so awkward. Was her mask-like face putting him off? Didn’t she offer him enough of a connection? She knows she will be blamed, and poor ickle Freddykins won’t be. What infuriated me the most with Fred was this exchange, about the suicide of the previous Offred:
“I suppose she found her life unbearable.”
“You want my life to be bearable?”
“I would prefer it.”
If you want her life to be bearable, maybe don’t enslave her? I like Joseph Fiennes, and he is doing a great job of portraying the Commander as a sanctimonious prick — which is arguably the worst kind of villain, probably because it’s the least fictional type of villain. Real villains don’t think they are villainous. And Fred thinks he is doing the right thing, which somehow makes him more horrifying than a villain who knows he is horrible and delights in that. He only wants Offred to have a bearable life to make his own existence easier, to soothe his conscience and reassure him that his beloved Gilead is working.
But hey, he’s nicer to her than he is to his wife. And as a result, Offred can use him to break free of her confinement in the house, using a simpering tone and some careful phrasing. Does he know what she’s doing? Or has she managed to manipulate him without him realising it? Either way, it works.
The bastards don’t win, then. That’s something. But in Gilead, it’s not just the bastards you have to watch out for; it’s the bitches who will really hurt you. Perhaps there should be another mock-Latin joke on the other side of the closet: Nolite te senatrices carborundorum. Serena and the Aunts are the really scary ones here.
Everything about Serena is cold and hard, from her heels clip-clopping on the hardwood floors, to the clicking of her knitting needles. She isn’t fooled by Offred for a second. She is dangerous because she has been so utterly side-lined by her husband. She is politically savvy in a ruthless and terrible way when she speaks of discrediting the rebellious Aunt, but she is ignored. Serena’s also rejected sexually, which doesn’t bode well. That frustration has to be taken out on someone. Note that when Offred is lying in the closet, half broken and despairing, she asks her predecessor, ‘How did you survive her?” It’s Serena she worries about, not Fred.
But the real bitches of the episode are the Aunts. Aunt Lydia (or Aunt Chlamydia, according to Moira) is on fine Trunchbull form, as she revels in explaining how the Ceremony will work. In the book, Offred makes it clear that she chose this path (because the alternative was death), and I always wondered how much they knew what they were signing up for. There’s a difference between bearing children as a surrogate (via a “turkey baster full of old man jizz” - thanks for that, Moira), and being expected to have sex with random men. The dawning look of horror was really well done. And it was the final straw for Moira.
They changed a lot with the escape. Putting June at the forefront of everything seems to be the norm for the show, and it’s changing the development of her character. It’s not like we never see outside of her point of view, so it’s not a necessity of the storytelling. With everything centring on Moss’s portrayal of June, it’s squeezing out some of the space for the other characters, and if I’m going to quibble about the adaptation, that would be my only gripe. With the escape though, it helped to solidify that bond between June and Moira. One way or another, Moira was going to leave her behind. In the book, her escape is revealed in pieces, and embellished by gossip. As a result, Moira becomes a kind of mythic heroine whose star grows with each whispered exchange. She becomes a legendary figure. But she has also abandoned June, and it’s tricky to reconcile those two facets of her character. In the show, June gave Moira permission to leave her behind, with a smile. She sacrifices herself to protect Moira. It’s a nicer way of looking at it. It also meant that June faced a punishment that Moira got in the book - having her feet whipped with wires. Moira hoped Aunt Elizabeth would remember her mercy, but no such luck. Elizabeth had shown her snivelling, cowardly side, and it made her vulnerable. Like Serena, she is at her most dangerous when feeling weakened. So she whips June’s feet with gusto to restore her sense of dominance.
But who are we more angry with? The one dishing out the physical punishment, or the one saying this: “You were an adulterer, a worthless slut. But God found a way to make you useful. So where’s the gratitude?” It is one thing to enslave a group; it is quite another to expect them to thank you for it. Moira summed this up succinctly: “Aunt Lydia Sux.”
After all that, a little bit of sisterhood was needed. And we saw that with the food that the handmaids-in-training brought to June as she recovered from her punishment. We also saw it with the cheesy ‘We are handmaids’ formation walk at the end. But we have been through a lot together already, so I will forgive them a bit of cheese. We needed some cheese.
June has not gone crazy; she has not given up; she has not disappeared into Offred. She lives to fight another day. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.
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