I hope we all appreciated the vacation from the Waterfords last week, because we’re back in Gilead-central, and once again, I had a lot of feelings.
When the show first aired, social media responses tended to fall into a few categories. The first was, ‘THIS IS HAPPENING OMG’; the second was ‘It’s not happening here, don’t over-react; it’s happening in Saudi Arabia’; the third was ‘It’s an interesting idea but it probably won’t happen’; and the fourth was ‘Don’t be ridiculous, that’ll never happen.’ I saw one response in the fourth category that basically stated that Gilead would never happen because men would never agree to give up sex. (It won’t shock you that this was from a guy.) I’ll admit, I had to take a deep breath at that point. Was that the ONLY thing that this particular chap thought was wrong with Gilead? Gee, thanks. Good to know you haven’t got a problem with oppression and slavery. At least your desire to get laid prevents you from enslaving half the population.
I bring this story up now because I suspect that that guy hadn’t read the book, specifically the section on Jezebels. If he had, maybe he would have realised how little comfort his ‘never gonna happen’ attitude provided. Because there is a loophole when it comes to the male libido. Beneath the holier-than-thou surface of Gilead, there is an admission that male sexual desire must have an outlet. There is provision for this. And if that’s someone’s only objection to the regime, well, maybe he would be in favour of it after all. Depressed yet?
Knowing what was coming, I’d braced myself for this episode. But I was also excited. Time for some Moira! I’d been waiting for weeks for Moira to get her shining moment. I’d been wary about how the show had dealt with Moira up to this point, concerned about how they’d given a lot of her plot and lines to other characters. But I trusted them. The book was in safe hands, right? And we’d had POV episodes for Luke and Serena, so this had to be Moira’s time.
BUT NO! What we got instead was Nick’s story. Nick’s story? Who gives a FLYING MONKEY’S BUMHOLE about Nick’s story? And we get about 5 minutes with Moira. DAMN IT, HULU! I’m normally pretty angry whilst watching this show, but I’m usually mad with the show rather than at the show. COME ON! Her story is RIGHT THERE in the book. I mean, I get it, we have some more world building, plus the reveal of Moira can be a lovely surprise for viewers who haven’t read the book. But come on: whose arc would you rather focus on? The heart-breaking destruction of the heroic character that Atwood compared to “an elevator with open sides” — or the guy who Offred’s bonking for the simple reason that she doesn’t want to be alone? I’m sure Max Minghella is nice and will forgive me for being mean because I’m very disappointed, but who do we want to see more of: the brilliant Samira Wiley, or a chap who looks like a Photoshop composite of all the Jonas Brothers?
Sigh. OK, now that’s thoroughly vented, let’s get into what the episode actually was, rather than what it could have been.
What did we get from Not-Moira’s backstory? When the economy’s bad, white working class men can be arseholes. Impressionable but vulnerable young men can be groomed by religious nutters to join terrorist organisations. Decisions about women and reproduction are made by groups of men with a conservative agenda, who talk patronisingly about their wives.
We see the early ‘drafts’ of the handmaid programme, and I guess it could have been worse. One of those ideas sounded like factory farming. Waterford’s in charge of branding. Of course he is. He’s a dick.
Following Nick’s POV provides a couple of interesting things. (I’ll admit that, but I’m still not happy about it.) The first is the black market trade between Nick and the Martha working at Jezebels. (Did anyone else wince at what the ketamine was for?) The second is how precarious the Commander’s position is. Nick could destroy him quite easily if he chose to. (DO IT, DO IT!) The third was the death of the previous Offred, and Serena’s chilling line: “What did you think was going to happen?”
The fourth? How he feels about his relationship with June/Offred. He hates it when she sleeps with the Commander too. (BOO HOO! ALL HE HAS TO DO IS DRIVE!) At the beginning, she says that sleeping with Nick isn’t rebellion; she just doesn’t want to be alone. But that is a form of rebellion. It’s a quieter and less obvious rebellion; more of a subversion really. It’s a refusal to behave the way that she should. It doesn’t have to be awful for it to count as rebellion; you can enjoy yourself and rebel at the same time. It’s not open defiance, which is pragmatic, as that’s a quick way to get killed. They sort of break up, but she doesn’t take that without a fight.
“Is this enough for you, this bullshit life? Is this what you want?”
“It’s too dangerous.”
“No it isn’t.”
“Could end up on the wall.”
“At least someone will remember me. At least someone will care when I’m gone. That’s something.”
He finally tells her his full name and where he is from, but that’s not enough. There’s more on this to come, I suspect.
“I will not be that girl in the box.”
Serena’s gift of a music box shows how trapped Offred is, and how she is infantilised by Serena. Is it a reminder of her purpose? Or a threat? (Cross me, and end up in a wooden box?) But it’s the Commander who treats her like a doll, and he doesn’t want to share his toys. “How’s my fair little one this evening? Up for some excitement?”
He shaves her legs. “Doesn’t that feel nice?” He gives her makeup, and watches her put it on. He gives her an outfit. He sniffs her hair. Disguised in Serena’s blue cloak, they head off. “Tonight, you aren’t you,” he tells her. Later, she is objectified further: “You’re contraband.”
He tries to seem progressive and liberal. Look, no more tenement buildings! Look, we’ve put in a pretty park instead! Look, we’re using solar power! Look, we’re not complete monsters — we let men have sex! “Everyone’s human, after all.” Except his definition of ‘people’ means men. She has to gently correct him; when she asked who all these people were, she meant the women.
“We’ve got quite a collection,” he replies. Yes, these are his playthings, his sex dolls, his toys. They are all “women who couldn’t assimilate. Some were working girls before.” The rest are CEOs, professors, lawyers, journalists… Women who could not be cowed, perhaps? More likely, women that the regime wanted to punish for being smart and powerful. Now they can be rented and taught a lesson by those angry, white working class men who felt so cut off and emasculated that they let Gilead happen. Tell me again that’s it’s ridiculous to be frightened by this show.
The Commander might say that they prefer it here, but we’ve seen how Fred puts a spin on the grotesque. We’ve seen Offred defend her ‘choice’ to become a handmaid. There is no honesty there. I mean, given the chance between working at Jezebels and being a handmaid, I may well choose Jezebels. But Moira’s choice was this or the Colonies. That’s not a choice. They might prefer it to working in a radioactive wasteland until their skin falls off, but I’d prefer most things to that.
Offred’s horror and fascination as she walked through the brothel was brilliantly done, and her reunion with Moira provided so much joy and relief. But it was short-lived. As her escape from the Red Centre included June, there wasn’t so much for Moira to tell her about. But we could have had what happened next. Instead, we just got broken Moira. “No-one gets out. Forget about escaping.”
We’ve seen a lot of horrible rape scenes with Offred and the Commander, but this one was by far the worst. As he pawed at her, she cried, silently. She asks, “Why did you bring me here?” He replies, “Thought you’d enjoy it.” If that’s true, then you are idiot, Fred. It’s surely a lie; it was never about her. It was about him showing off. It was about his desire to possess and control. It was about wanting to take his doll out of the box and play with her, without having to share her with his wife. It’s so bad in the book that Offred wishes Serena was there with them. This was less pathetic than the book, but more sinister.
The sounds from the other hotel rooms as she crept past were the stuff of nightmares. And the guy in the lift, licking the stump of a woman’s arm? This is a society where cruelty has become a fetish.
When Offred carves ‘you are not alone’ in the closet, adding her own message to the mock-Latin, it’s telling that she puts it in English. She had to get the Latin phrase translated by the Commander; no such mediator is required for this message. Is it a message for herself, like an affirmation or a prayer? Is it a message for the next Offred? Or is it an attempt to leave proof of her existence in a world that has tried to eliminate her identity? If so, it’s a way to ensure that “at least someone will remember” her. And “That’s something.”
Now, if the show could only do that for Moira, I would feel a bit better.