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The Handmaid’s Tale: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”

I am, if not in real life, certainly in my TV world, an unabashed romantic and optimist. I will ship most anything if it means my favorite character gets some happiness. Hell, I have some admittedly problematic ships hidden away there. I always want there to be some reprieve. I always want to believe that characters all have in general good intentions or at least their motives make their behavior make sense. You might notice how I sometimes talk about Serena Joy’s own pain at her barrenness, or speak about her awareness of the horrors she’s inflicting upon Offred. This is my brain trying to relate to her, trying to give her some kind of absolution because it’s what I always do. It doesn’t work in The Handmaid’s Tale, however, because in reality Serena Joy’s awareness only makes her actions worse. The Commander’s need to connect with Offred in order to rape her monthly only makes his actions more reprehensible, because that means in his mind, at least, it’s not as awful if they play a game of Scrabble afterwards, or have a chat. He can pretend this is some kind of relationship while Offred is left literally carrying the burden of other people’s actions.

Offred has been locked in her room for 13 days, except the door to her room doesn’t even close all the way. It doesn’t need to. The control the Waterfords have over her is so complete that the idea of disobeying is unthinkable to her. It seems she is well and truly broken when we begin episode four, until she finds a message carved into the wall of her closet: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.” Offred doesn’t know what the message is, but it’s a lifeline. It’s a tangible mystery she uses to drag herself from the edge of the abyss. Written by the Offred before her, it gives her a focus, rather than the memories of a life she can never again have. And, to risk losing a hand for writing, as we learn in flashbacks with Moira, means the message is pretty fucking important.

After feigning a faint, Offred is finally allowed to leave her room to go see the doctor. Not really out of concern for her well-being, but it’s Ceremony Day and better make sure the baby machine is in good working order. The whole episode feels as claustrophobic as the closet Offred shuts herself into, right up until the end. Offred can’t trust anyone. Certainly not the doctor who offers to fuck her while he examines her, and most definitely not the “new” Ofglen. She is surrounded by dangers and people wanting to use her.  Even Nick, who seems like he cares about her, can’t help her. All he can do is offer platitudes and apologies, and what fucking good are those?

When returning from the doctor’s office and before the ceremony, The Commander breaks protocol and comes to talk to Offred. He mentions not seeing her much as if her absence was a choice and not a punishment for failing to conceive. She doesn’t answer him, and when it’s time to perform, The Commander isn’t up for the task. Even his wife’s efforts to help him are rebuffed and Offred gets a reprieve.

The episode is peppered with flashbacks of Moira and Offred’s time at the Red Center. The realization that not only were they to be forced surrogates, but that it wouldn’t be through artificial insemination. Learning that they would be required to have sex with these men was more than Moira and Offred could take, and so they flee. They make it as far as the subway, Moira in a stolen Aunt gown, before Offred is stopped. It’s an emotional and heartbreaking moment, in which Offred silently gives her friend permission to leave her behind.

After the failed Ceremony, Offred once again plays Scrabble with The Commander, while playing him as well. We learn the fate of past Offred, and the meaning of Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum. More importantly, Offred gets a tiny bit of power. It’s small, but it’s enough to hold onto. She notices a Latin dictionary in The Commander’s office and asks him if he knew what those four words meant. The Commander knows she learned the phrase from the previous Offred (It was written in his childhood dictionary) and tells her it roughly translates to “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” He asks if she knew her predecessor, and tells Offred that she killed herself. Offred uses this information to play him, the small smile, the conciliatory tone, and the not too subtle threat of suicide gets her what she wants: out of her room. Offred has some power. It’s a hopeful note to end on, Offred going to the store, interspersed with the flashback of the other handmaids bringing her scraps of food in solidarity after she was returned and beaten on the bottoms of her feet. My only complaint is that the Wall of Handmaid Solidarity is a bit too on the nose for my taste at the end.

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.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

 

What do you think of Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum? It was nice to end on a hopeful note, that’s for sure, even if it was a bit cheesy to me.

 

Sidenote: Elisabeth Moss is killing it once again. The way she uses her face to convey all the emotions and thoughts is stunning.

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