The Handmaid’s Tale: 1x04 Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
This entire episode is about the power of words. Words have been taken from Handmaids, because there is a power in being able to read and write, being able to convey stories and history in that way. The idea of Gilead is – it’s hard for this generation of women, because there is a before, but for the next generation, and the one after that, it will be easier, because their cultural and social memory of a different life being possible will be entirely erased. They will lose the ability to meaningfully communicate with each other through time, the way that Moira attempts to, when she carves a defiant “Aunt Lydia Sux” into a bathroom wall, the way that the former Offred did, when she left a secret message for her successor, that means so many things at once. In the beginning of the episode, with June going insane in the little room she has been trapped in by Mrs Waterford, it’s hope. It’s a lifeline out, and it’s a riddle at the same time, because finding out the meaning behind the perhaps latin words will take work, and progress, and decisions on her part to stay alive. The door is open this entire time, and what keeps her in the room is power, alone – which is, of course, exactly what Gilead wants. The idea is to build a cage in the minds of women to make actual violence unnecessary. The entire regime works that way – not everyone needs to be a spy, because there is an implication, a belief, that everyone is. The door doesn’t need to be locked because the room is a cage either way.
Once again, there are so many layers here. While June is trapped in the open-doored room, Serena Joy is trapped outside, in a marriage that she cannot leave, in a life that has been completely transformed. The stark contrast in this episode is between her ultimately doomed attempts to make an intellectual connection with her husband, when she tries to talk politics to him, and finds him entirely closed off, incapable of appreciating her as a human being with her own mind – but a few days later, he needs to see June as a human being so desperately, he needs her consent so very much, that he fails to be able to perform the ceremony when she uses the little power she has left and denies him. Serena’s frustration is an entire future locked up in a role that she tries to perform well, but ultimately fails in, and her outlet for that frustration is injuring June. She knows that she is trapped in the charade of a marriage, and June signifies everything that has gone wrong, the lac of connection, the fact that the Commander doesn’t take her seriously, or even sees her as a person. The fact that their intimacy is utterly lost. June, on the other hand, finds an absurd kind of power when she realises that the power dynamics of the regime which determine the power dynamics of this marriage could work in her favour.
Words lead to escapes. They undermine. They open possibilities. They help pass on information, and provide the idea of a different world. There are two escapes in this episode, two moments of stepping into the light. The one in the past is Moira and June, cleverly making it out of the Red Centre. It ends very badly, when June gives herself away, and then gives Moira the permission to leave, to be free, with a small smile that means everything (their love, their friendship). Moira boards a train and disappears - the June we have met doesn’t know where she went, and only has Janine’s rumour that Moira was sent to the colonies, and has died.
This episode also very satirically contrasts the world that the idealistic aunts imagine – where Handmaids give hope to infertile marriages, will be loved for what they have – and the reality of a deeply and profoundly resentful Serena Joy, and the impossibility of balancing all these different needs and desires. There is a horrifying moment of realisation, when the vague idea that they may bear children through artificial insemination is utterly destroyed, when the Aunts teach them the ridiculous ritual that is meant to pardon rape, as it is loosely based on a bible passage.
This is the dark side of words, thousand year old words which in the minds of the architects of Gilead are turned into weapons against women.
June. June plays Scrabble, because she realises that this is her power over him. He needs to see her as a person, needs her permission for the impermissible act, needs her consent in a situation that she can never possibly consent to freely. She realises where the words came from that the woman before her gave her, that they are from one of the Commander’s books, from his childhood. That the only way she knew them was if she was in this room before, and that there must have been a connection, between being in the room, and dying. He would prefer her life to be bearable, because the worst part of Gilead is that the men in it who made all of it possible, who profit from it, who reap the rewards of women’s subjugation, need to feel like they are not monsters.
So June says, “It has been so long. I’m afraid I’m starting to give up. I certainly wouldn’t want to give up. Like my friend.” And he sets her free from the room, because there is nothing that Serena Joy can do in a world where any kind of real power has been taken away from her. June is playing the game – buying bits and pieces of her own freedom through taking the perceived freedom of Serena to treat her as she likes away – but ultimately, is that the way out?
Because in the past, the way out, the only way to survive in the Red Centre, after her feet had been whipped bloody, was the tiny sacrifices of food that the other women brought her. The only way to survive was to know that they had her back, that even in a system so absolute and terrifying as that place, these women found a way to support her.
June: There was an Offred before me. She helped me find my way out. She’s dead. She’s alive. She is me. We are Handmaids. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum bitches.
Very fine detail here that Commander Waterford argues one of June’s words is archaic – which seems so very ironic, considering what kind of regime he has helped to build.
We find out the Commander’s job is foreign relations of Gilead, and one of the public relations disaster that keeps happening to them is people escaping through the Canadian border and testifying what the conditions in Gilead are like.
Margaret Atwood clarified on twitter that the Handmaids in the books are women who have transgressed somehow, which includes being in a second marriage or having married a man who was previously married, which is why June is one.
A doctor (Donnie Hendrix, befittingly) offers to impregnate June, as most Commanders are sterile (a forbidden word in a world where only women are infertile, never men). The kind of world where this is construed as a kind act…
Same goes for Driver Nick’s kind words, which for now do absolutely nothing to help June.