Friday, May 5, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, Season One, Episode Four: Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum

After watching what happened to Offglen, Nolite To Bastardes Carborundorum is almost a relief.  The pain however is still unrelenting and it's still incredibly painful to watch.  Having long been a fan of Atwood and The Handmaid's Tale, I went into this knowing that it would be painful to watch; however, I absolutely underestimated the degree to which it would affect me. 

In this week's episode, Offred has been banished to her room for failing to get pregnant and in the process disappointing Serena Joy.  The one thing the Gilead knows is how how to oppress and in the process make people miserable. In the season opener, Offred told us that the only escape is death and for some, after having their identity stolen and subjected to ritualised rape, suicide seems a seductive option. 

Locking Offred in her room is torture because humans are naturally social beings. Offred isn't even given time off to go outside and have a bit of fresh air. Offred spends her time thinking about the life that she had before and the time that she spent in the center before being assigned to the commander and Serena Joy.

In the center, Moira makes a bold move and carves into the wall, "Aunt Lydia suxs".  Personally, I could agree more with this sentiment. This is an important thing for Moira to do because she feels that it will give the next group of women in the center some hope because they will know that they are not alone in their feelings. Offred warns Moira to be careful because writing could cost Moira her arm.  

At the center, the handmaidens are introduced to the ceremony.  Of course, Aunt Lydia uses the bible to justify what the state is forcing the women to go through. It just goes to show you that the bible can be twisted to justify just about everything. Moira is suitably horrified by this.

Determined not to be ritualistically raped, Moira and Offred come up with a plan. They manage to trap an Aunt and force her to strip off her clothing.  Moira dresses up as an Aunt and the two of them leave the center together.  Once outside, Moira and Offred see just how much the world has changed.  Bodies have been publicly hung, everywhere they look there are armed soldiers.  The streets signs have all been removed, making it difficult for Offred and Moira to even know where they are. They make their way to a subway station but without signs, they have no idea how to get to Boston.  Moira moves off to speak to a few soldiers for directions, leaving Offred alone.  Unfortunately, a handmaiden standing by herself draws attention and Offred is quickly approached by a soldier. Without papers to identify her or explain her presence in the station, Offred quickly finds herself surrounded.  Offred and Moira make eye contact as Moira tries to decide whether to rush to her friend's side, or hop on the train and make her own bid for freedom. When Offred smiles, Moira takes this as her cue to leave and makes her escape. Once back at the center, Offred's feet are beaten bloody as punishment for trying to escape. 

Offred knows all to well that staying lost in her thoughts is not at all healthy. She crawls into the closet and sees that the Offred before her carved, Nolite To Bastardes Carborundorum into the walls.  Offred may not know what it means but she understands that it's another woman reaching out and offering hope that she's not alone.  This is the moment that Rita decides to deliver food to Offred and when Rita sees Offred on the ground, Rita assumes that Offred's dead.  It's a reasonable assumption given how long Offred has been in solitary confinement and her treatment as a handmaiden. A shocked Rita drops the platter on the ground, getting Offred's attention.  Offred for a moment is at a loss to explain why she is lying on the ground in her closet but manages to stammer out that she felt light headed and fainted.

The Commander and Serena are having a meal with they learn that an Aunt managed to cross the border and escape into Canada. The Toronto Star has published an account of her life in Gilead.  Serena attempts to council the commander, suggesting that they need to discredit the Aunt quickly but she is shutdown and told that there are plenty of good men working on the problem. It's proof that relative to Offred, Serena has power and privilege; however, by virtue of her gender, she's still inferior to a man and certainly not allowed to concern herself with the affairs of state.  Serena Joy lives in her own prison it just happens to have nicer furnishing than Offred's.  

Rita, enters the room and tells Serena about Offred fainting and this earns Offred a trip to the doctor to ensure that she's okay because the ceremony is supposed to be that night. Offred is excited at first, thinking that she will walk slowly and stretch the trip out, only to be disappointed by Serena, who orders Nick to drive Offred to and from the doctor's office.  During the examination, the doctor checks to ensure that Offred is indeed ovulating and offers to have sex with her. The doctor explains that the commander is more than likely infertile and that Offred's best chance of getting pregnant is by allowing him to impregnate her. The Doctor explains that no matter what happens, the commander will not be blamed because only women are deemed infertile. Offred thinks about it for awhile but turns him down claiming that it would be to dangerous. 

When Offred returns, she's still very much out of sort and lost in a haze of pain and remembrance.  Offred enters the office in preparation for the ceremony, only to be surprised when the commander enters right after. He's breaking protocol being there but Offred is not with it enough to play the game.  The commander asks her to join him after the ceremony for scrabble but she's pretty much unresponsive.  Nick and Rita enter next and are swiftly followed by Serena, who's not pleased by the break in protocol.  Later that night, Offred lies on her back between Serena's legs in preparation for her monthly ritualistic rape but this time, the commander cannot get an erection.  In frustration, he leaves the room and continues to try to achieve an erection. The commander is joined by Serena, who attempts to help him become aroused but it's for nought. The commander walks out, leaving Serena to order Offred out of the room. Offred realises that the reason the commander couldn't get an erection is because he needs a connection and she blocked that when she shut him down.

That night, Offred goes to the office to play scrabble with the commander and the banter begins again between the two of them. Offred cannot help but wonder what happened to the handmaiden before her and what the message in her closet means.  When Offred spies a Latin book on the shelf, she gains the courage to ask what "Nolite To Bastardes Carborundorum" means.  It turns out that the phrase is actually written inside the Commander's text and is something Offred would only have known if she knew the previous Offred. This stuns the commander and he explains that the latin phrase means, don't let the bastards get you down. Offred pushes to find out what happened to her predecessor and after asking several times, the commander reveals that the previous Offred killed herself. It seems that these scrabble games the commander plays with Offred are about finding ways to make her life bearable, so that she won't feel the need to kill herself like the previous Offred did. Offred realises that this is her chance to be free of her room and suggests that she knows that she was wrong and that Serena was right to punish her but that her life would be far more bearable if she were able to leave her room. 

The next morning, things are back on track for Offred and she's dressed and ready to head to the market with the new Offglen. Serena looks out the window and she and Offred make eye contact. It's clear that there's no love between these women.  Offred walks with a smile on her face, clearly relishing this small victory.

I really see this episode as a way to soften the commander. He may not want Offred to die but that doesn't stop his participation in the monthly rape. For whatever empathy he may have for Offred, he clearly believes that women are secondary to men based in the way that he shut down Serena.  He didn't even bother to patronize Serena and simply made it clear that this kind of concern is for men only.

In the very first episode, Offred promised that she would find a way to survive. It's clear that she's seen some very difficult things since the rise of the Gilead and still yet she persists.  Offred continues to show an extreme sense of will.  I really liked that this episode somewhat focused on Offred's mental health.  It's impossible for the horrible things she's seen not to have affected her.  The entire female population has to be suffering through some form of depression, anxiety and PTSD.  It is however a problem that it took isolation for that to happen.

I understand why it is that Offred hates Serena.  My problem with the rising tension between Offred and Serena is that it's the women battling it out when the cause of the problem is patriarchy.  The real enemy in this situation is men and their minor power struggle isn't going to buy any sort of real freedom for either of them. On one hand, The Handmaid's Tale really succeeds in its suggestion that in part oppression exists because of collaboration from people like Serena Joy but at times it often forgets to focus on who the real oppressor is.