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The Handmaid's Tale - Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum - Review

         The Handmaid’s Tale “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” was written by Leila Gerstein and was directed by Mike Barker, whose other credits include Fargo, Outlander, and Broadchurch – pretty impressive stuff! Gerstein’s other credits include Hart of Dixie, Gossip Girl and Eli Stone – somewhat polar opposite to Barker, though I was a big fan of Gossip Girl. However, the episode stands up very well to the first three, continuing the beautiful cinematography and intense storytelling. The acting remains superlative. If Elisabeth Moss (Offred/June) doesn’t win every possible award, there’s something really wrong with the awards’ system!

As the episode opens, Offred is perhaps at her lowest point yet. She’s been locked in her room for 13 days – well, not locked because it’s worse that she could actually walk out if she wanted to and no lock also underscores that in addition to having no ability to choose, she also has no privacy. She draws strength from her memories – and I haven’t mentioned the musical choices yet for the series – they’re brilliant – and likely very expensive! In this case the opening scene of Offred’s memory of a night at the carnival with Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and Hannah (Jordana Blake) is set to the Monkees’ “Day Dream Believer” – how appropriate!

The episode is about June discovering that she’s stronger than she thinks – and not as alone as she thinks either. She realizes that wallowing in her memories is not helping her. In an effort to have some agency, she retreats to the closet, claiming it as her space, but finding unexpected support from the Offred who came before her. She finds Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum scratched into the door jam where no one is likely to see it. It’s a message, but also a sign of bravery and support – and leads to a flashback of Moira (Samira Wiley).

June draws most of her strength from the flashbacks of Moira – and who wouldn’t want a Moira in their lives! Wiley is also excellent. We see her scratching a note in a bathroom stall – “Aunt Lydia sux.” It may be juvenile, but she leaves it for the next woman, so that she knows she’s not alone. We learn that the punishment for writing is to have your hand cut off! It’s yet another way to take away women’s voices and means of communication. The prescribed language and sayings are another example of this.

I really like that we are also getting a clearer picture of Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Strahovski also continues to be wonderful in the role, delivering a nuanced performance that makes it impossible to completely hate Serena Joy. She comes to the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) as he’s working and tries to have some input into the current crisis – an Aunt has escaped. She is clearly intelligent and this new world requires her to be a non-actor as well. In fact, it’s possible that she’s actually more intelligent than the Commander – the fact that June trounces him at scrabble is another indication that he’s surrounded by smart women. He deflects Serena Joy’s comments and tells her they “have good men working on it.” She’s just a woman, her opinion is neither needed nor wanted. She will only have a role to fill when there is a child to be raised.

Rita (Amanda Brugel) brings Offred her breakfast and finds her on the floor in the closet. Offred lies and says she fainted. At first, Serena Joy denies that she should be allowed to go to the doctor, but on being reminded that the ceremony is that night, she relents. Offred is thrilled, thinking she will have an hour to walk there and then back again. She gets out!

However, Serena Joy has other ideas – the only agency Serena Joy has is to make Offred’s life a living Hell. To punish her and make her feel as oppressed and trapped as Serena Joy feels herself – like Offred doesn’t already have it worse? She insists that Offred be driven and then before Nick (Max Minghella) can drive off, Serena Joy leans in and seals Offred in the back – she can’t even see out the windshield.

The ceremony is very much at the center of this episode as it is at the center of all their lives. We get a further flashback to the women discovering just what the ceremony is and being trained in it. It’s utterly creepy to see Janine (Madeline Brewer) thrilled to be called a “flower” – she thinks it’s nice – as we see the horrified faces of all the other women. The implications of what Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) says are so horrific that Moira actually sticks her neck out for clarification. Moira, as a lesbian, is utterly horrified. She had more or less accepted being impregnated by “turkey baster,” but as a lesbian, having to have actual sex with a man while lying in his wife’s lap is too much for her to bear.

At the doctor’s (Kristian Bruun) office, it’s clear that the only thing that anyone cares about is the women’s pro-creative health. Without asking any questions, Offred is simply told to ‘assume the position.’ The doctor comes in and there’s a cloth at the woman’s waist so neither can see the other. He comments that fainting on ceremony days is not uncommon – gee, think the women are under a bit of stress on the days they are raped?

However, he does ask Offred if the Waterfords are treating her ok. In fact, he’s very talkative. He’s either brave or stupid or pretty secure that the people in power need all the obstetricians they have. He tells her that she can talk to him, but Offred is neither that brave nor that stupid. She says the Waterfords treat her well – and that’s it. The doctor rattles on, saying that Waterford is very likely sterile – a forbidden word! – and then he locks the door. He tells her that he can help her, finally looking around the curtain to make eye contact.

His meaning is clear – he’ll impregnate her himself – always assuming he’s fertile, of course! But maybe that’s why there are pregnant handmaids in his waiting room. In his defense, when Offred says no, he does take no for an answer – is he just not that brave? She thanks him and tells him it’s too dangerous. But she knows, as does the doctor, if she doesn’t get pregnant, she will continue to be the one they blame. It’s also important to note that if the Commander is the one who is sterile, it’s entirely possible that Serena Joy could have her own baby – with a fertile father… it’s another level to her hell too.

On the way back in the car, Offred loses it, pounding on the glass divider. Nick just keeps driving, letting her vent. When they stop “at home,” he helps her out and tells her that he’s sorry this is happening to her.

Offred finally starts to try to help herself. She goes to Serena Joy and basically begs to be let out. Serena Joy sends her back to her room, where once again, Offred draws strength from the words in the closet, which connect her to the other Handmaids.

Offred remembers her escape attempt with Moira. They lure Aunt Elizabeth (Edie Inksetter) into the bathroom, take her clothes and identification, and tie her up – badly – in the basement. Moira does very well as an Aunt because she’s brave enough to play the part and bluff the soldiers and guards. Moira believes that if they can get to the city, they can find a safehouse and get out. However, when they get out, all the street signs are gone.

I loved them walking through the city, because it was clear to me as someone who grew up in Toronto that that was where they were filming! They use Nathan Phillips Square and Toronto City Hall as the backdrop. And then, of course, the Toronto subway. The soldiers are busy removing signs there, so Moira has to ask which train to get on.

      While she is down the platform, a soldier accosts June, and she’s not brave enough to keep up the ruse. The soldier wants to see her id and she knows that’s it for her, but she doesn’t give Moira away, and when the train arrives, she smiles and nods as Moira gets on the train – hopefully to safety (though not according to Janine – but who trusts her?). June is happy that Moira at least got away.

In the present, Offred goes down for the ceremony and is pretty freaked out when the Commander breaks protocol and comes in first to say hi because he hasn’t seen her for a while. She is too freaked out to speak to him at all. He invites her for a rematch of scrabble later that night. Serena Joy is not at all happy about the Commander being an “early bird” this time.

In the end, the Commander is not able to perform his duties. And we see more of why Serena Joy’s life is no better than Offred’s. She goes to the Commander and again offers to help. This time she is willing to go down on her knees for him – she isn’t allowed to use her mind to help him, but she’s also willing to give up her body. He won’t let her, however, rejecting her even on this level. It’s clear that while Offred gets unwanted sex, Serena Joy likely gets no sex at all.

Offred knows on the way back to her room, that she will be blamed for this, and she assumes the responsibility for it. She realizes that the Commander was trying to connect when he spoke to her – it’s what’s behind the Scrabble games, it’s what he needs. She retreats to her closet. Her memories and the inscription give her the strength to be proactive and go to play Scrabble.

She asks about his trip, and he tells her. Once again, she is cheeky with him. She asks if she should let him win again! He scoffs at her. When he challenges one of her words, he sends her to get a dictionary off the shelf, and she sees a Latin dictionary – here’s her opportunity to find out what the words mean. She wonders if the Offred before her played Scrabble too. She asks him if he knows Latin and he says he studied it for his SATs. Fiennes is very good in this episode as we finally get to see a little more of his character revealed.

As the game progress, Offred grows much bolder. This is intercut with the memories of what happened after her escape attempt – Aunt Elizabeth was allowed to beat her feet bloody – the punishment must always fit the crime. It’s a way of underscoring the danger Offred is in now, what she may be risking in pushing the Commander.

By the end of the game, the Commander realizes that she did let him win the first time, but instead of being angry at the deception or losing, he asks for a re-match the following night. Offred asks him to translate the Latin, and he wants to know where she heard it. She hedges, saying a friend – and the first Offred has become her only friend in a sense. It’s doodled in the front of his Latin grammar, so he knows from whom she “heard” it. He tells her that it’s a kind of joke, meaning, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It’s clear that if he doodled it, he felt ground down at some point – was he bullied in school? Is his helping to lead this horrible government a way for him to grind others down? To get his own back – in much the same way Serena Joy is using Offred too?

Offred is very brave when she presses him about what happened to the Offred before her. He finally admits that she committed suicide – with a bedsheet or something – he’s actually pretty vague about it. Did he not want to know? He muses that she must have found her life unbearable. He’s clearly distressed about that, and Offred follows up: “You want my life to be bearable?” He admits that he’d prefer that, and Offred tells him that it’s very hard alone in her room. She knows she has flaws that she needs to work on, but she’s starting to give up. And it works…

Offred is seen leaving the house, free after a fashion. Nick smiles at her as she passes him – an ally, perhaps. Serena Joy watches her from a window, clearly not happy at the freedom that Offred has secured for herself. Offred meets the new Ofglen, and they are joined by the other Handmaids walking to the store. She’s not alone anymore.

In the final flashback, the other Handmaids all bring June some food from their own meals as she lies in bed unable to walk because of her feet. They gather around her silently, providing support. June smiles. At least she isn’t alone and they can at least still comfort each other. She draws strength from knowing she’s not alone.

This was another fantastic episode. I love the way they are weaving the flashbacks throughout to really underscore the themes of oppression and the bravery needed to fight it. It’s not surprising that a series based on a book – and such a great novel in particular – would have such a deep foundation to draw from, but I love how complexly these characters are written and the nuanced way they are being played. Kudos again to Moss, Strahovski, Wiley and Fiennes for their performances here. And I would be remiss in not singling out Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia – she is a wonderful character that you can’t help but love to hate – the same way she clearly hates the women in her charge! What did you think of the episode? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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