Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Handmaid’s Tale 1x04 Recap: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” (#LadiesSupportingLadies) [Contributor: Melanie]

"Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum"
Original Airdate: May 3, 2017

This episode begins with Offred remembering a night she and her husband took their daughter to a carnival. We then learn that it has been thirteen days since Offred was banished to her room, and she's beginning to go stir-crazy in her memories. While exploring her bedroom she finds something etched on the inside of the closet wall: "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum." She  wonders if the previous Offred wrote it as a message to her. So she lays in the closest and in her memories she recalls a conversation with Moira while in the bathroom where Moira carved “Aunt Lydia sucks” into the wall of the bathroom.

Serena Joy greets Fred at breakfast where he tells her an Aunt escaped from the Red Center to Canada and gave an interview to the Toronto Star, revealing the actions of the Red Center (which Fred calls “lies and hyperbole”). Rita comes to bring breakfast to Offred and panics when she sees her on the ground, believing she killed herself. Offred claims she simply passed out. Serena Joy initially does not want to make a doctor’s appointment for her but Rita reminds her they have the ceremony and she relents. Offred is excited at the prospect of going outside for the first time in two weeks, despite Serena Joy’s reluctant and cold attitude.

Offred recalls a time in the Red Center when the Handmaids-in-training learned the poses of the Ceremony. Moira asks for clarification on the point of the process and Aunt Lydia recalls the Bible verse of Rachel and Bilhah — about Jacob having children by his wife’s handmaid when she was unable to get pregnant. At the doctor’s office, Offred lays down on the examination table, a sheet separating her from the doctor from the waist up. The doctor asks her a series of questions before offering to “help” her get pregnant — reminding her that despite Waterford likely being sterile, they will consider the lack of children her fault. She declines, saying it’s too dangerous. Offred then recalls the carnival again on the ride home, in a near hallucination state.

Nick apologizes to Offred when they arrive home. She ignores him and attempts to apologize to Serena Joy, who just orders Offred back to her bedroom. Continuing to stare at the markings from the previous Offred, the current Offred wonders how the woman managed to survive Serena Joy’s cruelty. In our flashbacks to the Red Center, Moira attacks an Aunt. Moira and June force the Aunt to remove her clothes. Moira spares the Aunt as she and June escape, with Moira disguised as an Aunt leading a Handmaid out.

In the present, it is time again for the Ceremony. But Commander Waterford breaks protocol when he enters the room before his wife, alone with Offred. He asks her to a rematch of their Scrabble game. She does not respond before Serena Joy enters. However, just as the act is about to commence, the commander redresses himself and leaves the room in an agitated silence. Serena Joy follows him and offers to help with his performance issues, but he rebuffs her.

Offred recalls, again, the rest of her and Moira's escape attempt. They walked outside to see the street signs removed and all former evidence of government burned. They make it to the subway in an attempt to find a collective that can help them get across the border.  In the subway, they are separated and June tells Moira to keep going. So Moira gets on a train to Boston, leaving June behind. In the closet in the present-day, Offred tells herself Moira would not stand for being locked away for two weeks. She decides to leave her room and go see the Commander.

Offred and Waterford discuss his work while playing their game of Scrabble. When Waterford challenges a word and Offred retrieves the dictionary, she spots a book on Latin grammar. She considers asking the commander if he knows the meaning of the phrase in her room, but wonders if her predecessor was also invited to the room and somehow angered the Commander.

Meanwhile in the past, June is brought back to the Red Center and receives corporeal punishment for her attempt to flee. In present-day, Offred works up the nerve to ask the Commander the phrase and he explains that it doesn’t mean anything, but is in fact a play on words in Latin that roughly translates to, “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” She then asks about the previous Offred and Waterford informs her that she killed herself in her bedroom. He also reveals he’s asked her to play games and attempted to form a friendship with her to prevent her from killing herself as well. Offred uses this sympathy to play Waterford against his wife and get permission to leave her bedroom.

As she leaves her room for the first time in weeks, she recalls how her fellow Handmaids-in-training snuck her food and offered solidarity after her punishment for running away. In the present, she thanks the previous Offred for giving her the courage to stand up for herself, noting that the Handmaids will always protect each other.

This episode, the first one since the premier batch of three, is the first one so far to not have an overt political message woven into the plot — though any situation where women band together is inherently political at this point in our history. Instead, this week’s episode is more about the personal growth of Offred in the face of her loss of Ofglen as an ally, the cruel treatment of Serena Joy, and the continued oppression of her situation.

Throughout the novel, Offred is static in her situation. The book is more of a slice of her life. She does not overtly take a side, though she does try — however half-heartedly — to find information about the Commander and pass it along to Oflgen. She spends much of her time deploring her oppressors but not making a choice to do anything about it. The episode addresses that issue head-on with multiple memories of Moira taking and a stand and ultimately getting free of the Red Center. This is paralleled against Offred’s discovery of some words of advice etched into the closet wall by the previous Offred.

What Offred realizes in this moment is that the strength lies in the group protection of the Handmaids. Her predecessor left her advice from beyond the grave, the Handmaids from the Red Center gave her food and protection after she was punished for running, and even Ofglen tried to offer whatever help she could. Offred’s flaw is her solitary idea of survival, that she must push away others (much like she kept Ofglen at arm’s length before discovering the truth about her).

This continues to hammer home one of the big themes of the show: the power in female empowerment from other females. In a world, both fictional and real, where women are encouraged to be in constant competition, the power of bonding and mutual respect and empowerment is a crucial part of how the world is going to be changed and how every woman is going to learn to survive. Offred shows a distrust of the men in her life throughout this episode: rejecting the doctor’s offer to help her get pregnant, mocking Nick’s ignorant attempt to offer her some sympathy, and using the Commander and his own version of white guilt to get her freedom back.

Offred doesn’t exactly make any promises here or plans to do something, but she achieves the fundamental first step of understanding that she’s not alone. She truly understands who the "us" is and who the "them" is.


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