There’s a moment in the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”—one of many excellent moments not from the book—in which Offred breaks down. Driving back from the doctor’s office, she screams and cries and slams her hands against the walls of her temporary prison, the car, and the larger system that has stripped her of any freedom or agency. When they return to the Commander’s house, Nick stares at her with his own secondhand anguish.
“I wish—” he starts in a futile attempt to comfort her, but either he cuts himself off or she does: “What? What do you wish?” And he has no answer, because how can he even pretend to understand how she has been stripped of personhood? He, who has a steady job and the Commander’s trust, with the potential to someday acquire a Wife and maybe even a Handmaid of his very own. When Gilead was created, he came out on top as one of the lucky ones.
Serena Joy is also lucky, for being married to a high-ranking Commander; that ring and his influence made her a Wife. Yet she has as much reason to complain as a Handmaid, albeit in a very different context—except that society won’t let her even open her mouth to do so. And so it goes down the chain of command, where even the Handmaids should be grateful for how lucky they are.
(Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale,”Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”)
What makes a woman lucky in Gilead? Being a Wife.
Within the narrative of the show, Offred and the Commander are alone together before we witness a truly private moment between the Commander and his Wife. Serena Joy doesn’t know it yet, but she’s locked into something of a perverse love triangle—unintentionally competing with the woman who has become a mistress of sorts, as her husband would rather play Scrabble with the Handmaid than talk politics with her. She finds him in the morning reading an exclusive on the Toronto Sun’s website, a tell-all from an escaped Aunt. While the Commander tosses out these scraps of information and then refuses to follow up, Serena Joy longs for conversation that’s not about whether or not they’re expecting a baby. Yvonne Strahovski’s facial expressions are so wonderfully subtle as she tries different tacks to prolong the conversation.
“I would expect more from an Aunt.” When he doesn’t show any sign of acknowledgment, she undercuts herself, just to provoke a reaction: “Just me being naïve, I guess.” He’s not biting. The men of Gilead know that their Wives have been through enough without them piling on. Finally, she drops the useless platitudes and engages him as an equal: “Have Fortenberry send in a written response. The important thing is not to discredit what she said, but we need to discredit her.”
And that’s where he cuts her off: “You don’t need to worry about this. I promise. We’ve got good men working on this.” Which means, The men are taking care of it. It’s not women’s work.
“Praise be,” she responds, but it’s really fuck you, it’s sarcastic and self-loathing.
It’s not just that Fred won’t acknowledge her intelligence. By all accounts, he doesn’t seem to consider her a sexual creature anymore. During the Ceremony, he has difficulty maintaining an erection, which would be embarrassing enough if there weren’t a Handmaid lying between them waiting to be inseminated. Serena follows him to the bathroom and tries to bring back the intimacy that the Ceremony virtually erases, sinks to her knees to help prepare him for his duty, but he shoves her off. It’s unclear if having his Wife be sexual blurs the lines too much, or if the visual of her on her knees is too warped because that’s the Handmaids’ customary pose. Regardless, he rejects her in favor of no sex at all, in favor of another late-night Scrabble rematch.
What makes a woman lucky? Receiving great honor and responsibility to the future of Gilead.
Handmaids don’t have to worry about looking pretty and put-together like the Wives. They needn’t burden themselves with running a household and maintaining a good reputation among their peers. They must simply worry about fitting in to their new homes, Aunt Lydia explains near the end of June and Moira’s time at the Red Center.
“And they won’t judge you for your looks or your clothes or your ability to sound clever,” Aunt Lydia says, like this is a relief, a privilege. “They will love you for the blessing only you can provide.”
The flashbacks to the Red Center have already hammered home Aunt Lydia’s Holy Trinity of cajoling, chiding, and chastising the Handmaids-in-training about their new normal. But for all of her indoctrination, the Handmaids don’t actually realize what awaits them in the Commanders’ households; they think they’ll be inseminated via turkey baster. In the book, there’s never a moment when the Handmaids are unaware of what is expected of them regarding the Ceremony. But in the TV series, we are shown the horrifying moment when they learn the truth.
It’s “a sacred ritual,” Aunt Elizabeth begins tremulously, then shoots a look at Aunt Lydia—”a wonderful ritual,” Lydia emphasizes. But Moira undercuts their bullshit with a clear-eyed question (“So you’re telling me, we’re going to have intercourse with these men?”) and Alma looks scared for the first time and June begins to shake as another shred of control is ripped away. And then they must take hands and learn how to coach one another through the Ceremony so that when the hands gripping theirs are not sentimental, they have something to think about.
Something like a message scratched into a closet baseboard.
Yet just because someone has it better than someone else in Gilead’s hierarchy doesn’t invalidate their own yearning.
What makes a woman lucky? Getting out.
Moira’s escape is successful, as it happens, only through sheer luck: While she and June collaborate on a plan of escape, she’s the one with the shiv, the one who threatens Aunt Elizabeth and puts on her attire. In each stage, June—dressed as a Handmaid but not yet assigned to a household—is Moira’s distraction: she lures Elizabeth into the bathroom; she is Moira’s excuse for marching through the streets, a subordinate creature who needs to be accompanied by someone above her in the pecking order. She legitimizes Moira as an Aunt, gives her a reason to be outside. But, just like any distraction, she catches the wrong attention; at the train station, her nervousness lures Angels to ask her name, her posting, where her partner is—all details June and Moira have not yet learned outside of the Red Center. If only they had known that they could both escape as Handmaids, a pretend pair out running errands and keeping one another in check.
Instead, June distracts the guards long enough so that Moira can slip onto the train as an Aunt—solitary, trusted to mind her own business—while June’s subterfuge is revealed and she is hauled back to the Red Center. Back to Aunt Lydia, shaming her not even for escaping but for her lack of gratitude. And back to Aunt Elizabeth, who either doesn’t value her own good fortune in Moira choosing not to shove the cattle prod into one of her orifices or who isn’t allowed to care. They thrash Offred’s feet with metal cables to keep her from running away again, to remind her that Gilead has need for only her womb and nothing else. To force her gratitude that they haven’t done worse.
But that’s how they get you. That’s how the bastards grind you down—through gaslighting, reminding you that you’re just so lucky to be a Wife, to be a Handmaid. You could be out in the colonies breaking your back and watching your skin slough off, but instead you get a room and clothing and food; you get taken care of, so long as you know your place within Gilead.
They grind down your edges so that you become indistinct, so that your desires are no longer unique. Unless someone singles you out and reminds you that you are not just a Wife, not just a Handmaid.
I knew this series was going to make me cry, but I didn’t anticipate that it would be at another non-book moment: Confined to her bed because of her ruined feet, June awakens to a line of Handmaids dropping food on her bed: only scraps that they could get away with, like pieces of apple or bread, but together it is a treasure trove. She helped Moira escape by allowing herself to be dragged back to the Red Center.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum is a scrap. It’s a clue that Offred is not the Commander’s first emotional mistress. It’s a look into his mind, something that he dismisses as a joke, but to her it is a lifeline.
What makes a woman lucky? Other women.