10 Ways to Tell How He Feels About You: The Men of Gilead

You fit into me / Like a hook into an eye. Offred recalls a love poem (by Margaret Atwood!) while sharing a drink and another Scrabble game with the Commander. They have both relaxed around one another, approaching if not intellectual equals then at least candid confidantes. He offers her small, forbidden treats, like a back issue of Beautify with a helpful how-to for the pre-Gilead woman: “10 Ways to Tell How He Feels About You.” Offred could almost be one of those lovelorn ladies, engaged in three relationships that could be romances if you consider the Commander’s presents, her meet-cute with Luke, the awkward work-acquaintance attraction she and Nick share.

A fish hook / An open eye. But Offred is not the heroine of a romantic comedy. Her survival in the Commander’s office hinges on an article—that is, playing to her oppressor’s self-congratulatory pleasure in allowing her to read—but this is not How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. There’s a huge difference between letting someone win at Scrabble and actually respecting her; sex never happens the way you imagine; and even love comes with complications that will ripple out into a totalitarian regime. Like Offred, we learn the most from a little magazine-inspired thought experiment.

 

10 Ways to Tell How He Feels About You: The Commander

  1. He puts his head on his hand and watches you adoringly, paternally, erotically, while you play Scrabble and read Beautify.
  2. He lets you win at Scrabble.
  3. Last month, he couldn’t perform during the Ceremony because feelings.
  4. This month, he looks directly at you while raping you.
  5. He touches your thigh because (sensitive sigh) he just finds the whole thing so impersonal.
  6. He laughs at your fury and terror when you yell at him about what if his Wife saw.
  7. He made the world better for you. (Well, “better” is relative.)
  8. But he wants to make these nights bearable, hence the forbidden fruit.
  9. He tells you what his people did to your friend, unflinchingly—”it’s such a small problem, truth be told”—cruelly.
  10. He believes that he knows better than you do what your biological destiny is.

The Handmaid's Tale 1x05 "Faithful" television review

Watching Offred flirt with the Commander is akin to watching a horror movie, where you’re yelling at the protagonist to just get out of there, girl! She’s so good that I was briefly convinced she meant it, that she was not only taking enjoyment out of their late-night dates, but that they engendered a real sympathy in her. After all, he does present himself as similarly constrained as she is, though in wholly different ways. Their rapport by this episode was difficult to watch, until you realized that they were both faking it.

For all that the Commander puts his head on his hands to watch her as if he’s just filled with admiration, it’s empty. Or rather, it just reflects back on himself and how generous he is to offer up something so small (to him) as a magazine. Last week, he sought a connection that Offred refused, and that put him in a vulnerable position during the Ceremony. This week, he freely gives the magazine but expects that this shared moment means he can touch her during the Ceremony, that he can make clear his attachment to her.

I’m relieved that the Commander shows his cards so easily, and all at once, when Offred confronts him afterward. It’s as if, once he gets started on the magazine, he can’t stop; ideology is pouring from his lips as he mocks the readers of this magazine for buying into the idea that they were never rich/pretty/successful/good enough, as he mansplains why children are the only thing to live for, as he reveals his own emotional stuntedness in dismissing love as nothing more than a chemical reaction brought on by lust. It’s wholly sad to watch, a man who doesn’t realize that Madonna/whore is a complex, so in love with his own ideas that he deflects any dissenting opinion by belittling it. It’s sad, but it’s not sympathetic.

I was worried that the series would make him more of a relatable figure, especially with casting a younger (and very attractive) actor. But this was his big speech, and he blew it—”better doesn’t always mean better for everyone” is chilling and callous. (Never mind that, though he doesn’t know it, at least one Handmaid is grateful to be clean and have a roof over her head.) It’s fascinating to watch Offred first flirt with him—to such an extent that it made my stomach twist—and then hit the point where she had to drop the pretenses and engage him with straight talk.

 

10 Ways to Tell How He Feels About You: Luke

  1. He gamely helps you fine-tune your Tinder profile.
  2. He picks out the photo of you that makes you look “invincible.”
  3. He meets you for pleasant lunches…
  4. …that he doesn’t tell his wife about.
  5. He’s curious about your bond with Moira, so he puts his foot in his mouth trying to figure you two out.
  6. He joins in your teasing about the movie versions of yourselves, about which hotel you would go to.
  7. Even after you drop it, he suggests the Hyatt.
  8. He makes it real.
  9. When you ask him to leave his wife, he immediately agrees.
  10. When you’re shocked, he says, “I’m in love with you. What else am I gonna do?”

The Handmaid's Tale 1x05 "Faithful" television review

I kept forgetting, in Luke and June’s first meeting at the food truck, and their subsequent lunches, that he is married. Their chemistry is so easy, the attraction so clear, that anyone else outside of the two of them seems like an obstacle. This is one of the best depictions of an affair I’ve ever seen.

It’s fascinating how they use pop culture tropes to map out a hypothetical extramarital affair: What do they do in the movies? Where would we go? What would we do? I wonder if it were a nod by the writers to June’s dalliance with Nick, from the book: She retells it three times, one of which involves them falling back on cheesy chatter from porn or cliché romantic dramas to hide their nervousness. For June and Luke, it’s a defense mechanism—a thought experiment, nothing more, it’s not like they’d actually do anything. The layer of detachment is thin at best, and begins to dissolve as they add more and more details. Because suddenly, they’ve mapped out an entire romance in their heads, they’ve all but gone through with it.

When recalling their affair in the book, June lingers less on the ethics of the situation than on the memory of a hotel room, a decadent luxury of the past. She neither apologizes to Moira, despite the other’s comments about June trespassing on another woman’s turf, nor to Luke’s wife. In June’s mind, it’s rational: They fell in love, but he was inconveniently married to someone else, so they did away with that inconvenience and got married and had a daughter. The TV series romanticizes it a tad more, by spending so much time at their supposedly innocent lunch that, of course, turns out to be so loaded with emotional land mines that there is no doubt that either of them is getting out unscathed.

Not that she knows it at the time, but this is what seals June’s fate as a Handmaid. Had Luke not been married before they met, they might have found a place within Gilead’s social structure as man and wife. Instead, their “sin” of adultery condemns her to be forcibly ripped away from her family, while her continued fecundity “saves” her from a worse fate by making her a vessel for other, childless families.

 

10 Ways to Tell How He Feels About You: Nick

  1. He flirted with you even before Serena Joy told him what was required of him.
  2. He knew, but didn’t give you any hint.
  3. He doesn’t look at you during, or pretend like this is anything but another, less ritualized, rape.
  4. He doesn’t kiss you during.
  5. He doesn’t demean you further by bringing it up after.
  6. He doesn’t tell you what to do.
  7. He tells you the truth about being an Eye.
  8. Then uses it (“now go to bed before I report you”) to maybe, sort-of flirt with you again.
  9. He’s glad you came of your own accord.
  10. He lets you be on top.

The Handmaid's Tale 1x05 "Faithful" television review

Can we talk about Serena Joy presiding over the second rape of Offred? In both the book and the series, the Handmaid doesn’t have any say in the matter—she knows that she must do this, to ensure her survival—but in the text she at least gets to approach Nick on her own. They are able to navigate this awkward mix of attraction and obligation without an audience, so long as the desired outcome is achieved. Adding Serena Joy to the mix leaches any potential warmth or humanity out of this. The Commander wants to complain about the Ceremony being impersonal? This is just a means to an end.

Book Nick is pretty inscrutable, something that carries over to the film adaptation with Aidan Quinn mostly just turning his electric-blue gaze on Offred instead of actually saying anything. But just as the TV series aged down the Commander and Serena Joy, so too does Nick seem to be a lot younger. Despite Max Minghella being only three years younger than Elisabeth Moss, something about his portrayal of Nick makes the chauffeur seem greener, more guileless… which contrasts with the disturbing reveal that he’s an Eye, but it also makes him multifaceted. I won’t go so far as to say that he’s the Jim to Offred’s Pam, but of everyone in the household, he seems the most sympathetic to her plight. He seems like he could take her side.

After all, he welcomes her in when she comes to see him in the middle of the night. And here is where the changes to the Nick/Offred interactions work: In contrast to her being marched over by Serena Joy earlier, now she fully makes the choice for herself. What’s more, she removes every layer of her Handmaid persona. He is the first man in Gilead to see her completely naked. She’s not Offred when they have sex, she’s June.

Natalie Zutter will never look at magazine quizzes the same way again. Find her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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