In the last episode, Serena Joy promised Offred that things could get a lot worse for her. Those are bold words coming from a woman who routinely holds down Offred's arms as she is raped. But it turns out it's true. Everything can get far, far worse.
This episode opens in the past, where June and Luke are bringing Hannah to her very first carnival. The smile on June's face is jarring — almost as if she's breaking the rules. It's so easy to forget that people were once allowed to be happy.
But just as she gets deeper into the memory, Offred makes an effort to jolt herself back into reality. Living in the past is dangerous. Like Janine serving coffee and waffles to invisible customers, she might never get out.
It's been 13 days since Serena Joy threw her down on the floor of her attic room. She hasn't been outside, nor even really seen the sun, and it's clearly taking its mental toll.
In an effort to keep sane, Offred has been exploring her room, in all its details. In the closet, she's found an inscription, etched into the wall near the floor. It reads: "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum." Having failed the only year of Latin I took in school, I can't tell you what that means, but I'm sure we'll find out. (Or you could, you know, Google it.)
The words, probably the first she's actually read rather than spoken in a long time, give her hope: "It's a message, for me."
A flashback illustrates the significance of that message. Moira and June are in the Red Center bathroom, stealing a moment to talk. Moira, perhaps channeling Poussey from Orange Is the New Black, has fashioned a shiv from a part of the toilet, and is scratching "Aunt Lydia Sux" on the wall of the stall. Their conversation indicates that they have heard rumors of what's expected of them, but haven't quite gotten the full picture yet. When June warns Moira about the consequences of writing ("you'll lose a hand"), Moira sets her straight. "Once we get out of here there's going to be a girl who comes in here and reads it. It'll let her know she's not alone."
Downstairs, Serena Joy and Commander Waterford are having breakfast. It's wild to imagine that there are still laptops in this world, but his is very on brand — totally a PC guy.
Apparently, there's a crisis brewing. One of the aunts escaped the Red Center and made it across the border to Canada. There's a scandalous interview with her up on the Toronto Star's website. The Handmaid's Tale excels at making us squirm with cognitive dissonance, and this is no exception — even in this psycho dystopia, people are still living their ordinary lives. There are still online scandals. Somewhere, people are still normal.
(We also learn that the United Nations has issued an embargo on the Republic of Gilead, and that the E.U. seems to be puttering along — they still use the Euro.)
In Margaret Atwood's book, Serena Joy was a conservative activist in her own right. We see a glimpse of that here, as she tries to counsel her husband as an equal partner. ("The important thing is not to discredit what she says, but we need to discredit her.") But unfortunately for her, she now reaps the consequences of the world she helped create, and that means she no longer has a voice. "You don't need to worry about this," he says. In other words, we got this babe — go play with your flowers.
Meanwhile, Rita nearly has a heart attack when she brings Offred her breakfast and finds her lying on the floor, which, given the later realization that the previous handmaid died by suicide, is understandable. Offred tells Rita that she must have passed out. This means a visit to the doctor.
Serena Joy isn't going to let Offred win, though. As the handmaid contemplates the joy of being outside for a FULL HOUR of fresh air, her mistress packs her off into the backseat of a car. And no talking with Thirst Trap Nick, either. (Honestly, the camera work in this show is incredible. I felt like I hadn't been outside for weeks as Offred stepped out into the pouring rain, and I hate rain. )
When I watched the ceremony in the series premiere, I was struck by how everyone seemed to know what to do. In this episode, we find out why. A flashback to the Red Center shows that the handmaids went through actual training, taking turns holding each others wrists. It's devastating to see the the realization of what they're expected to do dawn on their faces.
"Are you saying that we will be having intercourse with the men, between the wives' legs?" Moira, voice of reason, asks. The answer is yes. And yes, it's as bad as it sounds.
The new-world doctor's office is eerie in its simplicity. The waiting room looks pretty much like your average waiting room (no magazines, of course), but instead of a nurse, armed guards escort you to your exam room. A gauzy curtain separates the doctor from the patient's face, so that he is literally just staring at a nameless vagina.
Ironically, this doctor really reminds me of that gynecologist in Mad Men who tells Peggy that Joan is "a lot of fun" before prescribing birth control pills, warning he will "take her off this medicine if you abuse it." He is simultaneously trying to be helpful, and coming off as a huge creep. In this universe though, what is needed isn't a contraceptive, but an actual baby. Offred refuses his offer to impregnate her, all while realizing that her fate is probably sealed. If the Commander is in fact sterile, she's doomed. They won't blame him. They'll blame her. ("There's no such thing as a sterile man anymore. There's only women who are fruitful, and women who are barren.")
In the car, she loses it. Thirst Trap Nick lets her take out her aggression against the back of his seat, looking broody. Back at the house, he tries to make amends: "I'm sorry this is happening to you. I wish..."
She immediately calls him out: "You wish what? What do you wish?" Platitudes won't save you here, buddy.
After pleading with Serena Joy to let her out, Offred finds herself back on the closet floor, lost in the depth of her loneliness. We learn she once tried to escape the Red Center with Moira. They lured an aunt into the basement and tied her up. Moira stole her clothes, but let her live.
Ceremony night does not go well. The Commander, craving contact, tries to engage Offred. Will she come play Scrabble again tonight? But Offred is in no mood, and lets the invitation hang. (Another striking example of cognitive dissonance here, as Offred, kneeling on her red cushion, replies to his very generic "I haven't seen you in a while" with "Hi," much as you would answer the guy trying to hit you up on Tinder after a failed date. It just goes to show that no matter what the situation, behaviors remain.)
The Commander can't get it up.
Somehow this is kind of worse to watch than the actual ceremony. Offred has to sit there, legs spread, as some schmuck tries to tease his lazy dick into cooperating. Eventually, he gives up and leaves the room, and Serena Joy follows him, which gives us our first glimpse into her relationship with her husband. "Let me help you," she pleads.
So far, it's been pretty murky whether wives can continue to have sex with their husbands other than for purposes of procreation. This scene suggests not — she kneels to give him a blowjob. He turns her down.
Back in her room again, Offred is unraveling. She heads back into the closet, and we get to witness what happened when she and Moira tried to escape.
Outside the Red Center at last, the two are shocked by this new world. There are no street signs, so they don't know where they are. Books and paintings are being burned in large pits; bodies are being carted away, publicly, with no shame or attempt to conceal the toll of this regime. In the subway, the signs are being chiseled off, so that no one accidentally reads them. Moira — still in her Aunt disguise — goes to ask for directions to Boston, leaving June alone on the platform. A guard accosts her. Suspicious, he asks her where her buddy is. She's done.
And then the train comes. Moira looks at June, who nods at her and smiles. Go. Run. With one last glance, Moira boards the train, and June is escorted back to her prison.
The price for escape is rough — June gets her feet sliced to bits with a steel branch, as Aunt Lydia screeches at her about redemption. "You were an adulterer," she cries. "A worthless slut!" (Book readers will know what this refers to, but I won't spoil it here.)
Speaking of prisons, Offred is tired of hers. Moira wouldn't stand for this shit, she thinks. She knows the way out — it's been staring her in the face all along. When she knocks on the Commander's door, he's surprised, but pleased.
She kicks his ass at Scrabble. When he challenges a word, she gets a Dictionary, and spots his Latin one. Of course he studied Latin. "My parents thought it would help me with the SATs." (Her word was correct, by the way. Suck it, Commander!)
He wants a rematch — because of course — after their second attempt at the ceremony the next day. She accepts, but asks a favor in return. "Anything, within reason of course," he replies. How magnanimous.
Offred uses this opportunity to ask him about the inscription. The look on his face tells me that he knows exactly what she's referring to, and her weak excuse doesn't do much to stave off his suspicion. In any case, it doesn't matter: Turns out, it's not a rallying cry. It's a joke. The words translate roughly as: "Don't let the bastards grind you down."
"It's probably only funny if you're a 12-year-old boy studying Latin." (Could the Commander have written the words long ago? After all, this could have been his childhood home. Or, has he had this same conversation with another handmaid — the woman Offred has had to replace?)
Here, we find out that the previous handmaid hung herself from the ceiling. That's why the Commander is so keen on these little trysts. He doesn't want that to happen again. Once more, I repeat: How magnanimous.
Offred is released from solitary the next day. If I were her, I'd watch my back. Serena Joy scares me.
But still, the episode ends on a hopeful note. Back in the flashback, June lies in pain, her feet bandaged after her botched escape, as the handmaids drop her pieces of food, one by one.
It doesn't matter who wrote the words. They still ring true. As Offred puts it, "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches."