Any breathing room “Birth Day” has given us is quickly closed off again in Handmaid’s Tale’s third episode, “Late.”
Offred tells us what she’s learned about Ofglen’s fate, and we see her friend being walked into prison, unable to speak or scream for the mask on her face. Alexis Bledel says nothing in this episode, and it’s the most powerful, horrible silence. It’s also her most compelling performance to date, but we’ll get back to that.
It’s hard to imagine, or maybe not so hard, as the case may be, how America got to this point, and so quickly. Apathy, fear, and a stubborn disbelief that it could happen seem to be the main culprits according to Offred: “We were asleep before,” she says in voiceover. But she’s right in that nothing happens instantly. It’s small things that add up to dystopia or dictatorship. They didn’t start by rounding up all the fertile women and killing all the scholars. It started with an “attack” on Washington DC by so-called terrorists. Suspending the Constitution and declaring Martial Law most likely met with little resistance because people were so afraid. It readily evokes the famous Franklin quote about Liberty and Safety, and it’s easy to watch and think “well how could they just let them do that?”, unless you think about other times in the real history that we have, out of fear, been willing to give up just a little to feel safe. I imagine the “What does it matter to you, if you have nothing to hide?” mentality we see today was prevalent in the beginning of this story. One of the most terrifying things about Handmaid’s Tale is just how plausible it is. How easily you can see the slippery slope that leads to mass slaughter, subjugation, and torture.
We see a slip in a flashback of June and Moira, running while getting dirty looks for their “immodesty”, being called sluts by the barista when her card doesn’t work, and being told that June (and all the women in her office) were being let go, since women were no longer allowed to work. There is a slide when we later learn that women are no longer allowed to own property, and that June’s account was frozen because the government was transferring all women’s money to their husbands or male next of kin. Moira isn’t wrong when she says to Luke that he’s “the fuckin’ problem” After he says he’ll “take care” of June. That isn’t the point, which Luke knows, but doesn’t understand fully. As we slip and slide again in the past, we learn how one of the Rights we take for granted is stripped away as Moira and June go to a protest condemning the new law. Rather than being there as peacekeepers, the new police fire into the crowd, dispersing them and, as if that weren’t enough, bombing them. That’s an easy way to stop dissent.
Back in the present, the Waterford’s Martha is weirdly kind to Offred when giving her lunch, and when she gives Offred a rose that “Mrs. Waterford cut for you herself”, and the tension inches up. A rose is not a rose in this house. It’s not long before Serena Joy herself walks in and asks Offred invasive questions about pregnancy symptoms. Offred is late, after all, and now being treated like a prize winning cow rather than a nuisance. It’s almost worse because it’s hard to know where you stand when moods of your “master” are so mercurial.
Later, the two go to the Putnam’s house to see baby Angela, and when Offred visits Janine we see a little more of this change. Janine bites Mrs Putnam and, other than wishing “that girl” would be gone, nothing is done to punish her (that we see or hear about). She had a healthy baby, and with that comes it’s own rewards. She gets ice cream. She can “do anything she wants.” Seeing her is heartbreaking though, as she talks about “Charlotte” and how her commander loves her and wants to run away together. The trauma of their new existence can be too much to bear. Serena Joy seems to know this when later she accidentally admits that what she and Offred do is terrible before correcting herself to say “terribly hard” and says she feels blessed to have someone as “strong” as Offred.
When Nick drives Offred home, he warns her to not be brave and to just tell them anything they want to know. Then we see the black van in the driveway, with an investigator and Aunt Lydia waiting. Offred prays and offers up herself, tells God she’ll be compliant, so long as she doesn’t have pain. The two question her about Ofglen, their time together, whether Ofglen ever “touched her”, and prodding about whether their relationship was illicit. Offred finds some bravery though, and quotes Scripture to Aunt Lydia, getting a beating and shock for her trouble.
Aunt Lydia: Remember your scripture; blessed are the meek.
Offred: And blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. I remember.
It’s a bigger rebellion than not eating a cookie, and Offred pays for it, until Serena Joy comes in, yelling that she is pregnant. The beatings are stopped and congratulations given as Aunt Lydia and the investigator leave. Later that night, Nick sneaks into Offred’s room with an icepack and the two share a moment. He apologizes to her and says he should have just driven away with her, and we are left wondering exactly who is Nick? Is he an Eye? Is he just a man? Or is he something else?
Back to Ofglen. After a five second trial with the Martha with whom she was in a relationship, Ofglen, or Handmaid 8967, is sentenced to “Redemption” since, though a disgusting gender traitor, she is fertile and therefore still needed. The Martha is not so lucky and in a mostly silent scene she is sentenced to the “Common Mercy.” Martha 6715301 is hanged while Ofglen is forced to watch, before being taken to another facility.
The next morning, Offred comes downstairs to find Serena Joy getting a nursery together. It’s a bit premature, especially since Offred got her period (“no ice cream for you this month, young lady”) and the swift change from “You are my miracle” to banishing Offred to her room with a terrifying warning when Serena Joy learns she isn’t pregnant is jarring.
Ofglen wakes up in discomfort and we learn her fate when we see the gauze over her pubis. Aunt Lydia comes in and tells “Emily” that things will be so much easier now (that you’ve been mutilated). Emily can still have children, but she won’t want what she can’t have. The episode ends on a close up of Emily’s face as she glares, cries, and screams at the atrocities inflicted upon her.
“Things can get much worse.” Indeed.