The Handmaid’s Tale (S01E04) “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”

Before I had a chance to watch the episode, I heard that “The Handmaid’s Tale” will be growing a bit longer. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Lame puns are a weakness of mine.) The series has been renewed for a second season. Assuming the first season covers the book, that would mean a new and original storyline. Well, I’ve always wanted to know what happened after the book ended, so you’ll get no complaints from me.

The episode begins with Offred dangerously close to succumbing to hopelessness. We learn she has been confined to her room for 13 days, and in that time she has discovered some words carved on the closet door frame. ‘Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundurum,’ presumably carved by the previous Offred as a message to her successor.

It is Ceremony day again, so when Rita reports that Offred said she had fainted (she hadn’t, which Rita knew), she is sent to the doctor to make sure everything is in full working order. And by ‘everything’ I mean ‘reproductive system,’ which is all anyone cares about. I imagine cancer wouldn’t be a concern, as long as the cancer didn’t effect Offred’s fertility. The doctor offers to help her get pregnant. Offred passes. Ick.

However, it seems like it’s not Offred anyone should be worrying about, but the Commander. After breaking Ceremony protocol by entering the living room first, without knocking, he can’t seem to get it up. His wife offers to help, but he turns down S.J.’s offer of a b.j. Not sure why, unless sex is supposed to be purely about reproduction, in which case the Commander and Serena Joy would be forbidden from having sex, despite being married, because they weren’t able to conceive. If that’s the case, it’s really no wonder everyone is wound up like a freakin’ clock in this place.

The monotonous routine of Offed’s daily existence is interspersed with flashbacks to Moira’s and June’s plan to escape. They manage to make it to the Arlington T stop, where Moira, disguised as an Aunt, steps away to ask which train is heading for Boston, as the signs have been removed. At this point, an Eye spots June, who as a lone Handmaid, is suspicious. They arrest her, just as the train pulls in. By the smile on June’s face, even as she is taken captive, she is pleased that Moira, at least, has a chance for freedom. Offred’s punishment is to be beaten on the soles of the feet, a practice known as bastinado that was frequently used on females who might lose value in the market if their looks were damaged by visible injuries. Interesting, n’est-ce pas? (Why yes, yes I am a font of useless trivia. Why do you ask?) But all that shouldn’t apply here. Their looks are irrelevant. Why did Janine lose an eye, but not June?

But the most fascinating scene in the episode was the Scrabble game scene. Words are so important here, words spoken, words unspoken, words spelled out on a game board. We learn that the words carved in Offred’s room aren’t really Latin, just a schoolboy joke, and mean ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down.’ It seems that the first Offred couldn’t take her own advice, in the end. She hanged herself, probably from one of the gorgeous chandeliers I’d been coveting all episode. It seems the Commander has to believe that Offred’s life isn’t so bad to be able to go through with the Ceremony. Offred delicately implies that she is beginning to despair, due to her confinement. She does, after all, have a little bit of power.

June is lying on her cot while the others are at breakfast. Missing meals is part of her punishment, it seems. The other Handmaids come back and each one puts a piece of food on June’s cot, as a tribute to her courage. They are all in this together, the Handmaids, and that gives Offred the strength to pull herself together.

We see Offred outside, walking in the rain, while it is now Serena Joy who is the one trapped indoors, behind glass, looking out the window.

‘Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum, bitches,’ indeed.
Other things:
– Am I the only one who laughed when Moira called Aunt Lydia “Aunt Chlamydia?’
– When turning down Dr. Creepy’s offer, she actually thanks him. Am I right in thinking that makes it all even worse?
– In the dining room, Serena Joy gives the Commander some surprisingly shrewd advice about damage control over the Aunt’s interview with a Toronto newspaper, before he shuts her down. Was S.J. some kind of public relations whiz, once upon a time?

Choice quotes:
“There’s no such thing as a sterile man anymore. There’s only women who are fruitful and women who are barren.”

“You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. That is what I feel like. The sound of glass. I feel like the word ‘shatter.'”

“Get up. Get your crazy ass up.”