Airing on Channel 4, Sunday at 9pm
Writer: Lila Gerstein
Director: Mike Barker
Essential Plots Points:
- Offred and Waterford are playing Scrabble. And drinking. We hear Offred’s narration explaining what they’ve both learned from the games.
Waterford gives Offred a present. It’s a woman’s magazine, called Beautify. She’s stunned, thinking they were all destroyed but Waterford assures here that some of the Sons of Jacob retain ‘an appreciation of the old things.’
- She senses a trap but he insists there isn’t one. She reads it and marvels at how alien the models seem now.
- In the past, Moira and June are chatting about their Tinder profiles. Moira, messing with June, picks a man out of the crowd to look at her profile.
- It’s Luke.
- It’s also a legitimate meet cute. Sweet and genuine.
- In the present, Offred is eating lunch in the kitchen. Serena Joy ‘asks’ for her help outside. They make small talk while Offred frantically speculates about if she’s about to arrested or maimed. Instead, all Serena Joy wants to know is if she’s pregnant yet.
- Suddenly, she levels with the Handmaid. It’s possible Waterford is sterile; perhaps ‘they’ could try with another man. Serena Joy reveals that while this is ‘officially’ forbidden women do it all the time.
- And then she suggests Nick. And revealss that he’s already agreed.
- With no choice, Offred ‘agrees’. It’s to happen that afternoon.
- At the supermarket, Offred sees that the woman who used to be called Ofglen is back. She’s Ofsteven now and numb with horror from what she’s been through. Offred asks her if Nick is an Eye, but Ofsteven can’t answer her. She says she’s too dangerous to be part of ‘Mayday’ now but before Offred can ask more the new Ofglen takes her away.
- Later, Ofglen warns her off Ofsteven. She reveals that her past was a horrific wave of poverty and degradation and she LIKES her new life. She tells Offred not to screw this up for her and Offred agrees.
- Later, Serena Joy brings Offred to Nick. She flashes back to a date with Luke. In the process of doing so, we discover Luke was married. The pair become aware that they’re moving into a very different space and, suddenly, they’re joking about how they would have an affair if they were having one.
- Which they aren’t.
- Offred is walked into Nick’s house and stands near his tiny, utilitarian bed. On auto pilot, she sits and gets ready.
- In the past, June and Luke get a room. The sex is consensual, enthusiastic and very funny. They’re two people who WANT one another, who revel in what they’re doing. It couldn’t be more different to the cold, emotionless degradation of Gilead.
- In the present, Nick rapes Offred while Serena Joy is present.
- At her new home, Ofsteven sits numbly in the backyard, playing with the house dog.
- The Wife attempts to do her a kindness by pretending to be sick so she can postpone the Ceremony. Ofsteven refuses it and the Wife touches her shoulder and leaves.
- That night, barely hours after Nick, Offred is raped by the Commander. For the first time, he looks at her. For the first time he moves in her like he’s enjoying it.
- Serena Joy refuses to make eye contact.
- After, Offred visits Waterford. She’s FURIOUS. He tries to brush her off and she retorts by pointing out just what Serena Joy could do to her.
- They debate whether or not love was ever real. Ofsteven comes up in conversation, and Waterford gloats about how they saved her. He makes it clear what they did and, horrified, Offred leaves, makes it to the kitchen and throws up in disgust at what she’s heard, what’s been done to her.
- Nick’s there. She asks him if he’s an Eye and when he shuts her down she begs him to not tell her what to do. He apologises for raping her. She pushes, asking again if he’s an Eye.
- He admits he is. Laughing, she goes to bed.
- In the past, June watches Luke get dressed and put his wedding ring back on. She tells him she wants him to leave his wife. He says yes.
- She’s poleaxed.
- He says he’s in love with her and they sit, for a moment, in the calm before the storm and revel in each other’s company.
- In the present, Ofglen and Ofwarren are shopping. Ofsteven is alone. Offred gets another handmaid to distract Ofglen and grabs a moment with Ofsteven. She explains Mayday is the resistance before Ofglen comes to get Offred.
- And then Ofsteven steals a car.
- As the other Handmaids watch and smile, Ofsteven drives in circles before being cornered. She and Offred share a glance, Ofsteven runs over and kills a soldier and is dragged away.
- The Handmaids are jubilant, on the verge of tears. Their enemies are MORTAL.
- At home, Serena Joy is painting. Serena Joy asks about the trouble in town and asks Offred if she’s okay. Offred, who is looked at the secateurs she’s fantasised about murdering Serena Joy with, makes the right noises and leaves. She does so without being dismissed…
- That night Offred thinks about Ofsteven. She realises that there was a part of Ofsteven the Sons of Jacob couldn’t get even after everything they took from her.
- Offred goes to Nick. She takes her headdress off, takes her hair down and takes Nick. For the first time in the series to date she’s sexually assertive, choosing a partner who she wants, when she wants them. And now, she wants him.
Everything works here bar one element, which we discuss in some detail below. The cognitive dissonance of one of the only black women on the show being a Gilead supporter is massive and damages the episode at least as much as it helps it. Like we say below, we know this is going somewhere but until it gets there, it’s a terrible look for Oflgen 2 to be one of the very few supports Gilead has among the Handmaids.
Elsewhere the episode works far better. Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy in particular is becoming this chilling, clenched presence. She’s terrified, disgusted, enraged and guilt-ridden all at once and Strahovski shows us every one of those emotions. The scene with Nick, where Offred is effectively strong-armed into being raped a second time that DAY is a masterpiece of silent acting.
Elsewhere, Alexis Bledel impresses once again as Ofsteven. The numbness and horror of her previous appearance is replaced by a slowly seething rage here and her final scenes are great and complex. Her joyous, brutal car ride is something Attwood herself has talked about as a marker for future Handmaids ( in her show notes. Whether we see Ofsteven again is unclear. What’s certain is she, and Alexis Bledel, have left their unforgettable mark on the show.
But where the episode really flies is in the exploration of Offred’s past and June’s future. June’s relationship with Luke is sweet, funny and electric precisely because it’s two consenting adults deciding to be together. It’s everything that her forced intercourses in the future aren’t. Barker’s direction uses the sex scenes, and the ways they differ, as grammar to set the mood and show the emotional state of the characters. Waterford playing power games with his wife using Offred’s body as the board. Nick, ashamed and angry and still doing it as Serena Joy stares into the distance. Luke and June desperate to be together and, at the end of the episode, Offred taking control by taking Nick. Sex is language as well as power in Gilead and it’s a language Offred is learning to speak. Along with her connections to the Handmaids and that single word, Mayday, she’s starting to gather the tools she needs. The only question now is what will she do with them? And with Nick?
This is a strong episode, but still a definite step down from the first four. It makes brave, mostly very successful choices but not quite everything lands. The parts which do though are as powerful as ever.
- June having an old model iphone in the past is a brilliant, subtle piece of worldbuilding.
- Offred’s offhanded referencing of the suggested rape last week is chilling.
- The ‘we’re not flirting scene’ is complicated and funny and HOT.
- Likewise the flashback sex scene.
- The sound design this week is great and deeply disturbing. The clink of Nick’s belt as he moves over Offred, the creak of the mattress springs. It denies us distance, demands we watch. Even as we see that Serena Joy can’t bring herself to.
- June likes being on top during sex. Offred is never given the option until, when she and Nick make love, she moves herself there. The show is full of grace notes like this.
- The polite conspiracy among the Handmaids is lovely. Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum, b–ches.
- ‘A fish hook. An open eye.’-A mission statement, right there.
- ‘It’s not allowed.’
‘It is with me.’-The hypocrisy of Gilead in two lines.
- ‘I just find the whole thing…so impersonal.’
‘YOU THINK?!’-It’s fascinating how comfortable Offred is getting. She gets right in Waterford’s face here.
- ‘We had choices then.’
‘Now, you have RESPECT.’-Joseph Fiennes has been a background element of the show so far but he’s chilling here. Plausible, chatty, relaxed and broken.
- ‘It’s such a…small problem. Truth be told.’-And evil. That’s the most important part.
- ‘Better never means better for everyone.’-Gilead in one line.
We need to talk about Ofglen 2. Played by Tattiawna Jones, she’s the first Handmaid who is also a woman of colour we’ve met in the series. The idea of some Handmaids buying into Stockholm Syndrome so much that they actually prefer Gilead is a disquieting and plausible one with massive narrative force to it.
To have that expressed by one of the few women of colour on the show, whose life was a parade of degradation and horror prior to the rise of Gilead, is a very, very sour note.
We know this is a set up for something that’s coming further down the line and that’s fine. But it’s also the first time the show has gone for such a trope-laden character choice this fast and it hurts both the episode and the season.
And The Random:
- Director Mike Barker also directed ‘Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum’ this season. He’s also directed two episodes of Fargo this year and has previously worked on Outlander, The Tunnel and Broadchurch.
- Writer Dorothy Fortenberry is co-producer of The Handmaid’s Tale and worked previously on The 100 as stroy editor, as well as writing three episodes of that show.
Review by Alasdair Stuart