Rebellions and betrayal are the names of the game in “Faithful,” the fifth episode of the superb Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale.
There isn’t much room in a show as oppressively dark as this for laughter and joy, but “Faithful” manages to imbue the show with hope and a stark contrast between what love and sex were, and the state-mandated fucking that it’s become in Gilead.
Watching this episode, we see Commander Fred more relaxed with Offred, wearing a t-shirt, playing Scrabble, and laughing while offering her the present of a contraband magazine. They flirt and talk and it seems real for a moment, as if he were just a charming and likeable guy on a nerdy date. It’s almost enough to somehow convince Offred that she’s winning, which is very dangerous for a woman, let alone a Handmaid, to believe.
She is reminded of her place the next day, however, when Serena Joy takes her out to the garden. At first Offred is afraid Serena Joy has learned about her games with the commander, and the ease they have with each other. It’s one thing for your husband to be fucking another woman to procreate, it’s a whole other story if he starts to like it. Offred is so preoccupied with thinking of ways to escape her fate, that she doesn’t even hear Serena Joy until she says it might be Commander Fred who is the problem, not her. That gets her attention. All I can think while this whole thing is playing out is how it took a year of trying to get pregnant for me, and I was under considerably less stress. Serena Joy “suggests” using Nick as a stud, basically, to try and impregnate Offred. Nick has already agreed, she says, and assures Offred that he can be trusted. Offred agrees, because what else is she going to do?
“Faithful” is peppered with flashbacks of June and Moira when they first meet Luke, a married man who helps June improve her Tinder picture in an adorable meet-cute that’s made all the more heartbreaking when we know how it all ends. The scene not only contrasts the flirtatiousness with Offred’s calculated manipulations with Fred, but again puts it in the audience’s face just how recently this all happened. It’s not a well-established dystopia that we normally see, having been the way of things for decades. It’s still new. It serves to show how completely and crushingly things can change in just a matter of a few years.
Back in the present, Offred and New Ofglen (from here on to be referred to as NO) are at the store, and we see that Ofglen, now Ofsteven, is back from wherever she was taken. I’m ashamed to admit how long it took me to realize that the Handmaid’s names are “Of-Whoever Your Commander Is” but Ofsteven/Ofglen/Emily has nothing to tell Offred about whether Nick is an Eye or anything else, for that matter. She has been compromised too much and can’t help the resistance (called May Day) anymore. NO eventually steals Offred away and, on the way home, makes it clear that she is not around to fuck up or make waves. Unlike Offred, NO’s life was hell before, and now she’s clean, has food, a place to sleep, and people who are nice to her. It’s a reminder that this new order doesn’t seem repressive for everyone, and even some subjugated will do what they need to to keep their situation.
Serena Joy takes Offred to Nick’s apartment after NO drops her off and Offred reminds herself to calm down, as her feelings that she is being disloyal to Luke threaten to unnerve her. They sneak inside and the breeding begins. It’s cold and impersonal, especially when cut with memories of June and Luke’s courtship and first time. The soft lens and laughter, the sheer joy and discovery that the first time together should be. The use of Nick and Offred as a stud and mare is an affront to the act, and made all the worse by the gun in sight and Serena Joy in the room, the look of regret on Nick’s face. Afterward, Serena Joy says a prayer over Offred’s belly and tells her to lie down. I have been told that I am a little too hard on Serena Joy, that she is just as much a prisoner of her situation as Offred and the other handmaids. She is not a valued partner to her husband, and really has no more freedom than any other woman.
I don’t think I’m too harsh on her, but when we see Ofglen/Emily at her new home, there is a glimpse of compassion with her new mistress. She tells Ofglen/Emily that she’s feeling ill, and they should skip the ceremony tonight. One could question her motives, but she seems to truly sympathise with Ofglen/Emily, even if she can’t be sick every month, she offers a reprieve.
Speaking of Ceremony Night, some things have changed in the Waterford house. Fred has started looking at Offred while he has sex with her, he touches her while she silently begs him to stop. She is the charge of Serena Joy, and a surefire way to get sent to the colony is to give your mistress a reason to distrust you. Later that night, Offred goes to his office and tells him to never put her in that situation again. He either doesn’t know or (more likely) doesn’t care the effects his actions have on her life, and shrugs off her concerns. He offers her a magazine to read, and talks to her about how much better things are now that women don’t have to be worried about the way they look anymore. They are “respected” and allowed to fulfill their biological imperative in peace. Because silly ladies don’t need choice! They just need to pop out babies. It’s then that Offred learns about her friend’s fate. Fred uses Ofglen/Emily’s female genital mutilation as an example of mercy. They could have killed her for her “unnatural” urges, but as a gesture of respect for her position, they just mutilated her, instead. Horrified, Offred leaves with The Commander’s words ringing in her ear: “Better doesn’t mean better for everyone, and always means worse for some.”
While she’s being sick in the kitchen, Nick comes in and apologizes. He couldn’t say no when Serena Joy asked him, and he seems genuinely sorry. Offred tearfully asks him if he knew about Ofglen/Emily and he nods, then she asks him if he’s an Eye and he tells her yes before sending her to bed.
The next day at an outdoor market, Offred sees Ofglen/Emily again, and tells her she knows what they did to her. Ofglen/Emily says she can’t help May Day anymore, but Offred still can, and tells Offred her real name before stealing a car.
It’s a mixture of terror, joy, and desperation on her face as Emily drives in circles, eventually hitting a guard. She pauses for a moment, and with a slight nod from Offred, hits the gas, killing the guard. She knows her life is basically over, but she takes control for that moment, and it’s beautiful. Emily is taken away in a black van, and the crowd is dispersed, but that act of rebellion stirs something inside Offred that not even a not-so-subtle warning from Serena Joy can quell.
Later that night, Offred once again climbs the stairs to Nick’s apartment, and in a wordless scene, takes off both her own and his clothes, Nick being passive until they’re both naked. It’s again a stark contrast to what we have seen so far, as Offred takes agency over her body and makes a choice. Nick is really going above and beyond as a driver, and maybe isn’t so great at his job as an Eye. Maybe he’ll report her? But how could he without also implicating himself? Does it really matter?
Like June, Offred likes to be on top.
Sidenote: The poem that Offred mentions in the beginning was written by Margaret Atwood in a nice nod to the author:
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye