Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team will gather to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writer Constance Grady discuss the fourth episode, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.”
Maybe The Handmaid’s Tale could cool it with the triumphant music for a second
Todd VanDerWerff: If there's one thing I've heard complaints about when it comes to The Handmaid's Tale, it's that the closing pop songs are hard to take. As someone who kinda likes them in theory — I appreciate the jarring wakeup from the hypnotic world of the show — the fourth episode helped me pinpoint why they mostly don't work in practice: They're way too on the nose.
The Handmaid's Tale is evidently following the Sopranos model of having every episode end with a song that comments on the action at hand. But David Chase's genius in that earlier show was to have every song offer ironic commentary. He only went on the nose once or twice per season, and those moments are the ones that stick in the memory because they were so powerful. A show that’s not known for being emotionally direct will always make an impact when it goes straight for the jugular.
Handmaid's isn't really doing any of that, and that makes the sudden arrival of triumphant music at the end of every episode extra jarring. That was particularly true here, in "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum," where the episode ended with a bunch of Handmaids walking down the street together as if they were reenacting The Right Stuff, to the tune of Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Perpetuum Mobile” (or, as I always call it, “that song in all the commercials”). It just felt completely out of place with the rest of the episode, and I like it a little less every time I think about it.
But that's just it: It's the one jarring moment in what was otherwise a terrific episode, one that underlined the many levels of power Offred lives under and how her captor thinks of himself as a wise, nice man. It explored the different layers of manipulation between those levels of power and a bunch of other interesting stuff. So it feels wrong to boil it down to the one out-of-sync moment, but that's why they call me a critic.
What did you think, Constance? Were you as jarred by that ending moment as me? And what do you make of Joseph Fiennes’s performance on the show? I'm starting to come around on him.
Constance Grady: What's compelling to me about Offred's victory at the end of this episode is how small it is: She gets to leave the house and walk outside. That's it. It's a hard-fought victory, and she accumulates some tactical advantages in the process — she knows how to work the Commander now, and get him to intervene with Serena Joy on her behalf — but it's a very basic, tiny freedom she's won for herself.
The idea that Offred has to work so hard for such small wins is really resonant, but that final shot of the Handmaids power-walking down the street inflates the victory — which, ironically, undercuts what's most interesting about it. And in large part, that interest stems from watching Offred figure out how to manipulate Fiennes's Commander.
I've been enjoying how detached and almost bored Fiennes seems in most of his scenes. Mostly he sits around murmuring about work, like a parody of a 1950s patriarch. It's not a particularly flashy performance — certainly nothing on the writhing piles of frustrated rage lurking behind Yvonne Strahovski’s eyes in the role of Serena Joy — but it doesn't have to be. The Commander holds all the power, and he knows it. (Check out the look on Serena Joy's face when he finds her in the sitting room — her room — before he's supposed to be there. She knows it too.) And part of the privilege of power is that you don't have to emote wildly when you have it.
One of my favorite moments in this episode happens toward the beginning, when the Commander and Serena Joy are having breakfast and he mentions an international publicity scandal. Serena Joy knows just how to handle it, and you get the sense that she must have done publicity work before Gilead (in the book, she had a successful career as a televangelist).
"The important thing is not to discredit her message," she says authoritatively, "but discredit her." The Commander shuts her down. It's not her business anymore. Her job is to be a Wife now, and while he lets her run the house to keep her happy, he's the one who gets to care about media strategies and international crises. It's a small moment that speaks volumes about the state of their marriage and where the power lies.
This is the big lie the Commander tells himself
Todd: One of the things I've been wondering about is why the show so often frames the Commander onscreen so that he has very little power in the context of any given shot. Frequently, he's this tiny, insignificant speck at the bottom of the frame, as if he's been ported over from an episode of Mr. Robot. (I should mention, here, that "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” is the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale not directed by Reed Morano, though director Mike Barker acquits himself well. The episode was written by Leila Gerstein, perhaps best known for creating The CW’s Hart of Dixie, which is a very different show from this one in almost every way.)
"Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” made me realize that this is how the Commander sees himself. He believes the women in his life "run the show," because it's convenient to tell himself that. But even though Serena Joy has a lot of power compared with, say, Offred, he still holds all of the cards, as you point out. That he yields his power to the women in his life is a convenient fiction he tells himself.
As such, Offred realizing that she can use that quality of the Commander against himself is key, and it's all thanks to Previous Offred, a silent ghost haunting the house. We learn in this episode that she killed herself, but just seeing Martha's reaction of horror when she sees Offred lying on the floor in her closet hinted at her fate long before.
Offred’s new realization contrasts nicely with this episode's dueling flashbacks — to Offred in her life as June, hanging out at a winter carnival with her husband and daughter, then of June and Moira attempting to escape the Handmaid training facility, with only the latter making it out.
Before the rise of Gilead, June didn't have to train herself to find the weak points in a setup, to be ready to exploit them in need of escape. But as soon as she has to, she's able. The catch is that in a world where men like the Commander hold all the power, any escape will, ultimately, be temporary.
Constance: This episode also shows us that Offred has had to figure out what risks are acceptable to her. As June, she wasn't much a fan of any risk, but she also didn't have a concrete idea of what the consequences might be: She scolds Moira for taking the risk of writing graffiti in the Red Center — an offense for which the punishment would mean losing a hand — but she goes along with the escape attempt anyway.
As Offred, she's experienced Gileadean discipline — that shot of her bloody, flayed feet is truly gruesome — and she's decided what lines she's willing to cross. Playing a transgressive game of Scrabble is an acceptable risk for her, because it gives her power she can exploit elsewhere. But having sex with a doctor so she can get pregnant isn't. "It's too dangerous," she says.
And speaking of framing, that scene between Offred and the doctor features some killer camerawork.
The bulk of the scene is shot entirely from Offred's point of view, with the doctor a vague silhouette behind a white curtain, unseen and thus powerfully mysterious. But once he propositions her, he pokes his head around the curtain and becomes a regular middle-aged guy; all of the menace his silhouette had assumed drains away.
That's when the camera cuts to a side view, and we see Offred in profile, draped in her red gown and bisected neatly by that white curtain, like a slab of meat on a counter. The doctor might be just a regular guy, but he's still in complete control of the situation.
How the TV show is making the world of Gilead feel more fleshed out
Todd: I loved that shot of Elisabeth Moss from overhead, which only served to highlight the extreme blue of her eyes against the white hospital background. It was some gorgeous stuff. But I also liked how the scene highlighted that in the world of this show — and, honestly, in our world — even the guys who purport to be on the side of women are ultimately a menace. On some level, the doctor really thinks he's being a good guy by offering to help her in her “situation.” (After all, if she gets pregnant, she buys herself more survival time.) Yet he's anything but.
This storyline also touches on a fascinating element from the source material: The cause of the drop in pregnancy and birth rates is probably linked to an outbreak of male sterility, and not solely a function of women's infertility. But because it's harder to see male sterility — as opposed to how a woman changes very visibly if she gets pregnant — the people behind Gilead use the crisis to strip women of their rights.
There's something about seeing this concept illustrated onscreen that makes it click for me in a way the book didn't quite. (There, I just went along with it as endemic to the book's premise.) The brief glimpse Moira and June get of Gilead's rule, presumably for the first time, is absolutely terrifying, especially that sequence in the subway station, with the sound of hammering adding an unnerving score to June's aborted escape attempt.
But that also leads into the sequences in the Commander's home, where June realizes that her only path to survival is to keep the Commander happy with her for as long as possible. And since he's having trouble mustering an erection without having some sort of connection to her, she has to, in some ways, befriend him. It's a dark, fascinating power dynamic, one I'm excited to see play out in the weeks to come.
I really do like the little trickles of world building we get in this episode — like the Aunt who escaped to Canada and gave an interview to a Toronto newspaper. It's not overwhelming, while still providing just enough information to make Gilead make sense. Are any elements of the world and setting tripping you up at this point?
Constance: The Handmaid’s Tale does a really beautiful job of portraying how bits of information trickle out to the rest of the world, and the show’s approach to this slow spread of details is unsettlingly reminiscent of the recent stories of Chechen concentration camps that have been slowly making their way to the US.
It's also, I think, slightly more believable than the world presented in the book, in which Gilead has within five years become the travel destination of choice for poverty tourists, who gawk at the veiled women the way Americans gawk in the Middle East. Not that that wouldn't happen — but it feels right that it takes a little longer than five years to get there.
What I'm finding fascinating is how jarring it feels every time we see modern technology in Gilead, like the Commander's laptop: The overall aesthetic so effectively mimics a nightmare version of the 1950s that most of the show feels displaced from time, and it's not until you see a computer or a phone that you remember, Oh, right, this is the future.
And every reminder adds to the oppressive sense of claustrophobia that this show evokes so well. It's the future, not the past, and it's a lot more plausible than we might like.
You can watch The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu.