Offred is a Terrible Spy But an Excellent Manipulator

This week, The Handmaid’s Tale dipped briefly into spy caper, with Offred deciding that she wants to help out with the Mayday resistance and then being terrified when they immediately take her up on it. Because for all that she raged to Nick in the prior episode about him being complacent with the way things are, it’s a huge leap from penning a secret note to her actually-alive husband to picking up a mysterious package from Jezebels. And while she’s a pro at cajoling the Commander into sneaking her out of the house again for another “thrilling” night of pleasure, once they return to Jezebels she can’t even make it out of the damn room to track down said package. Offred does not make a very good spy.

Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale 1×09 “The Bridge”

I’m glad that the TV series hasn’t diverged much from the books in that case. Offred isn’t a dystopian heroine like Katniss Everdeen; she’s just a woman trying to stay alive. She possesses some skills, but not a quiver full of them. It was fascinating to note that while she can intuit what the Commander wants to hear and pitch her voice just right and choose just the right words to convince him that she loved dressing up for him (shudder), she has to do so with her back to him. Her face, such an expressive face, could give her away, so she waits to look him in the eyes until she nearly has him agreeing with her plan, believing that he thought it up himself.

The Handmaid's Tale 1x09 "The Bridge"

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Like a good spy movie, this episode had a number of misdirections. The purpose of returning to Jezebels ultimately isn’t for Offred to pick up the package; it’s to see Moira again, a welcome divergence from the books because we couldn’t have our last glimpse of her be so defeated. This time she’s angry—furious that June would willingly put herself in danger rather than just keep her head down. Their argument is the natural continuation of their conversation from the night before, the roles reversed and June prodding Moira to action. This time, she brings up Hannah:

June: Moira, I thought you were dead. I thought they killed you. I thought they strung you up somewhere to rot. It tore me apart. But I didn’t give up like a coward.

Moira: You think what you want.

June: I think you’re a liar. ’Cause you said we would find Hannah.

Moira: You will find her.

June: No. We will. That’s what you said. When all of this was over, you promised—you fucking pinky swore—but don’t you remember? Moira, do not, do not let them grind you down. You keep your fucking shit together, you fight.

Moira: Was doin’ all right until I saw you again.

My skin crawled when the Commander was flaunting “Ruby” in front of Offred like a thoughtful gift, his assumption that they were “friends” carrying the same innuendo as Luke’s question over their illicit lunch years ago. When Offred curtly cuts off his attempts at a threesome, he turns almost petulant: “Relax. I did something nice for you. ‘Thank you, Fred.’” And she has to parrot “Thank you, Fred” like a scolded child. When she allows herself to sob over Moira in front of him, he looks disgusted: “Pull yourself together.”

The Handmaid's Tale 1x09 "The Bridge"

A recurring theme of this episode is the exasperation of Commanders and Wives when the Handmaids won’t act within the expected constraints—when they let their guards down and experience real, gutting, awkward (for the Commanders) pain—when they don’t act grateful for what little they have. In the book, Janine’s story ended with her mad-eyed at the Salvaging, having finally cracked. The series has expanded her story so that that descent into madness is just one of many cracks. It’s not just that she has to formally give up her daughter Angela to her Commander and his Wife, but her insistence on believing the Commander’s promises that the three of them—he, her, and baby Charlotte—would buck the system and become their own family. When instead she’s sent on her way with empty thank-yous about how honorable and blessed her sacrifice was, then immediately transferred to another household, the Commander’s promise is revealed as the complete fiction it was.

The Handmaid's Tale 1x09 "The Bridge"

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Another Wife, the one married to Commander Daniel, displays a surprising amount of sympathy to Janine, now Ofdaniel, on the night of their first Ceremony. (And how rough is it that the Ceremony comes so soon after she’s been transferred?) She’s so welcoming and almost even warm that I briefly wondered if we were heading into a subplot where it’s a Wife who’s sweet on a Handmaid. But it’s just sympathy, as she soothes Ofdaniel: “Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’m nervous, too.” Except that when the rape happens and Janine can’t take it, the Wife turns impatient, unsympathetic: “Aren’t we in this together?” becomes “Don’t move.” Kindness only goes so far when a Handmaid is being uncooperative.

Janine’s reaction is especially difficult to watch, after all of the Ceremony sequences have featured Offred’s stoic, silent face. By contrast, she acts like an abused animal, curled up in the corner and whimpering. So it’s no surprise that, like a lost pup, she finds her way back to Commander Warren’s household to steal Angela/Charlotte away and try to escape Gilead the only way she knows how. And so, to the eponymous bridge.

The Handmaid's Tale 1x09 "The Bridge"

“The Bridge” nicely contrasted the dramatic with the domestic, in a number of small, effective moments. The most striking was the late-night conversation between Serena Joy and Rita over the kitchen stash of liquor, in which the Wife confides in the Martha about Mrs. Putnam complaining about her wailing baby. Rita is one of the characters who hasn’t been expanded much beyond the book, despite being a constant presence in the scenes set in the Waterford household. But even as she’s performing the emotional labor of patiently listening to her boss’ woes, she manages to reveal a detail: She lost her son, a 19-year-old, in the war. Vox makes an excellent point in noting that Serena Joy cuts Rita off before she can imply that her son was fighting against Gilead: “I’m humbled by your son’s sacrifice. Blessed by they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” “Praised be,” Rita responds, a tad dryly, and they’re back to communicating in worthless platitudes.

Speaking of Marthas, we can’t forget the return of the Martha who used to be a James Beard Award-winning chef. On Nick’s second visit to Jezebels in a row, she’s pushing carbonara on him instead of pesto, but he’s too distracted by Offred’s brazenness to appreciate it. His inquiry into whether any of the Jezebels are acting suspicious shows that he’s taken notice of Offred’s spurious reasoning for coming here so soon again. What’s interesting is how the Martha chides him for putting his own neck out there—”a driver” asking around could get himself strung up on the Wall, she says, which means she doesn’t know that he’s an Eye.

Mere hours after returning from Jezebels doubly unsuccessful, Offred must don her Handmaid garb and play hostage negotiator at the bridge, saving the child and talking down Janine, in that order. But it’s not platitudes about “blessed be the suffering” that will get through to Janine, nothing that engages her as a Handmaid. Offred speaks to her as June to Janine, drawing on memories of life before and, in an incredible risk, alluding to the resistance:

June: Change is coming. There’s hope. All of this, it’s all gonna be over one day. And everything is gonna go back to normal. We are gonna go out, we’re gonna go out drinking. You and me.

Janine: And Moira?

June: Yeah.

Janine: And Alma?

June: Yeah.

Janine: Can we do karaoke?

June: Sure. Whatever you want. We’re gonna get hammered. We’re gonna go dancing, watch the sun come up.

Offred may have failed to pick up the package from Jezebels, but standing on that bridge, she nonetheless delivers something just as valuable: hope. Unfortunately, Janine is too far gone for it to mean anything. After handing off Angela/Charlotte, so that the child will have a chance at a future, Janine jumps.

What’s fascinating about Janine’s stunt is that it very publicly demonstrates the consequences of a Commander’s dalliances with a Handmaid: She yells at Warren, without regard for his title or power, about how he lied to her, how she endured “the kinky sex shit” that his Wife wouldn’t do, all so she could have a baby and they would be a family. Warren looks visibly shaken by her recriminations, not a Commander but simply a guilty man caught out. It looks as if next week’s season finale will deal more with Gilead punishing Warren for his sins, so I’ll hold off on more commentary til then.

The Handmaid's Tale 1x09 "The Bridge"

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Janine’s faltering faith in her beliefs feels sadly inevitable, but Aunt Lydia’s is downright surprising. “A Woman’s Place” revealed that Lydia really does buy into this rhetoric, that the Handmaids will be rewarded for their suffering (or she would probably call it sacrifice). None moreso than Janine, who was the example of what happens when you mouth off to an Aunt. Not that I would expect Lydia to feel any sort of remorse for such violence—I think her self-righteous whipping of June’s feet in “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborondorum” speaks volumes—but I’ve noticed that she pays special attention to Janine in the present. Aunt Lydia is the one who soothes Janine when the maimed Handmaids must miss the big party because of their appearance; she presides over Janine’s transfer, bringing her from Warren’s household to Daniel’s without ever taking her eyes off her. Perhaps she sees Janine as a project and wants to make sure that she eventually achieves the supposed heavenly reward coming to her; maybe she simply acknowledges her Stockholm syndrome-esque power over the poor girl.

Which is what makes the final shot of the two of them so powerful. Initially I was frustrated at seeing Janine in a coma, thinking it was a narrative cop-out; I expected someone to die on that bridge. To be honest, I was surprised Janine didn’t throw the baby into the water to save her the potential fate of becoming a Handmaid someday. But it took reading The A.V. Club’s review for the true horror of the episode to sink in: Janine survives. As long as she’s still breathing and being fed nutrients, she’s still a vessel able to potentially support life. (A very uncomfortable Google search led me to this horrifying story from 1996, so there you go.) And now she can’t run away.

The Handmaid's Tale 1x09 "The Bridge"

But Lydia remains by her side, sitting next to her body after murmuring, “May the Lord keep you in his mercy, you stupid girl.” Is she acting as Janine’s chaperone and keeper even while the latter literally can’t move? Or does she want Janine to wake up to a familiar face?

The MacGuffin of the package gets mostly forgotten in the bridge drama, which makes us share in Offred’s surprise and delight when the butcher hands her a special delivery:

The Handmaid's Tale 1x09 "The Bridge" Moira package

And when it cuts to Moira, a new fire in her eyes and a toilet shiv in her hand, I cheered. June’s message of hope reached someone, the package got into the right hands, and shit is going to go down next week.

The Handmaid's Tale 1x09 "The Bridge" Moira

Natalie Zutter’s notes this week included oh thank god threesome averted and is Moira gonna stab a bitch. Share your finale predictions with her in the comments or on Twitter.

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