Trigger warning: this post contains discussion about rape, sexual abuse and mistreatment of women.
Spoiler alert: Don’t read unless you have watched the first five episodes of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Maxim: a men’s magazine featuring midriff-baring hotties. Maxim: “a general truth, a fundamental principle.”
“Faithful”, this week’s installment of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is packed with both glossy magazines and intense one-liners, so let’s dive in piece by piece, shall we?
“I have a present for you.”
This episode is positively littered with visual bookends. The first scene opens with a camera scanning up Offred’s leg. A wooly knee sock clings to the curve of her calf, making her look like a model in an American Apparel ad for Amish fashion.
After some faux-flirty chit-chat and an observational voiceover from Offred, the Commander decides to toy with his little pet. He whips out a magazine called Beautify. At first Offred refuses. Is she afraid to break yet another rule? Or is it deeper? Is she afraid to open the door to the old world?
As she flips through the familiar pages, the Commander, scotch in hand, eases into his chesterfield sofa and salivates over her like a smug child predator. Classic move. It reminds me of 1983’s two-part “very special episode” of Diff’rent Strokes, “The Bicycle Man”, which terrified me as a child. I found the scene uncomfortable and triggering. Offred thinks she’s manipulating him, but he’s in control the whole time.
(Also: shoutout to Peggy from Mad Men! She totally could have written that “Lipsticks to Die For” ad. Nice easter egg, folks.)
The show gets meta for a second, when Offred references a Margaret Atwood poem.
“you fit it into me / like a hook into an eye / a fish hook / an open eye.”
I read the poem for the first time in college. I was in an abusive relationship at the time, so the words resonated with me. I felt stuck in a toxic loop that I couldn’t escape. Offred thinks of herself as the eye in the poem, trapped, penetrated, forced to remain open.
Oh, the listicle. May it claim its place in history!
Offred happens upon a listicle while perusing the pages of Beautify. The article, a staple in quick-consumption content (guilty of writing and reading them myself!), details the most obvious ways in which a man may tip you off to his romantic inclinations. He brings you presents… he shows up unexpectedly, etc. Offred has a rare moment of happiness as she remembers her meet-cute with Luke, which involved Moira, street meat and a Tindr profile. As Nick wanders into the kitchen and sips from a teacup, Offred seductively twirls a spoon under her two front teeth. She’s pleased with herself, it seems. She has two suitors, and she’s making the most of her circumstances. She’s gained some control by using her feminine charms.
And, of course, Serena Joy swoops in to kill Offred’s boner. While pruning the hydrangeas, Serena Joy, with her ever-misty eyes, asks Offred if she wouldn’t mind propagating with the family driver.
Offred has no choice but to agree. And yet, there’s no true consent. There’s no yes when you can’t say no.
“Whose fault is it? It’s her fault!”
Gilead can really get to a girl. Nick warned Offred, “Everyone breaks down.” And we see it happening to Offred, her spiral into self-doubt, the hooks of Gilead’s bizarre religion taking hold, her strange half-contempt for the women in the magazine who had no idea what was coming for them.
She internalizes the rape culture of Gilead. As Serena Joy leads her to bed with Nick, she asks herself why it feels like she’s “cheating on Luke.” She’s a wanton woman. A sinner. An adulteress. She’s all about abandoned wedding rings and bare shoulders.
Another flashback, lunch with Nick. In an airy lunchroom she wears green, the color of freedom in this show, the color of choice. As innocent girls in red dresses dance in a circle on the other side of the glass, Offred/June sits, clad In her green jacket, across from married man as they plan his delicious infidelity.
Isn’t she awful? Isn’t she a terrible person? Surely she deserves whatever happens to her. She needs to be taught a lesson, right?
She has two back-to-back, awkward threesomes. Nick attempts to impregnate her while Serena Joy looks on. Is it just me, or does Serena look a little hot under her bow collar? The rape-a-thon continues with the Commander that night. Unlike last week’s episode, old Mr. Fred seems to have found his mojo. He thrusts her hard and lustily. Her head bangs against Serena’s lap, and it almost looks like Offred is, herself, a penis. Very odd.
Offred is disturbed by his show of enthusiasm. In her head she screams, “Stop it. Stop it. Don’t look at me like that,” and then just begs, “please.”
Under his eye.
I have a friend who is very fond of sending me cheeky memes. One was a series of images, depicting Earth, the solar system, and then, eventually, the observable universe. There, at the outer edges of existence, Jesus bends and whispers, “Don’t masturbate.”
It’s funny because it’s true. Many times I wondered if God was watching me. As a child I was told he was. Even in my private moments I was not free to do as I pleased. In Offred’s world the male gaze is a key part of maintaining order. Men are always watching. It’s not so different from this world in that way.
After the Commander’s grandstanding, Offred confronts him in his office and tells him never to behave that way again during the ceremony.
“I didn’t mind it,” he says. “I don’t think you did either.” What big teeth you have, Commander. Though he’s the wolf, he claims she is. He justifies his rape. She wanted it.
Don’t we always? After all, women can’t be raped, can we? Don’t we have ways of shutting that whole thing down?
The Commader makes an insincere apology and quickly follows up with another justification.
“I just find the whole thing impersonal,” he says.
Offred shoots back, “You think?”
He bristles, and through a clenched jaw says, “You sure you wouldn’t care for a drink?” He’s put her in her place with a simple pleasantry. He later pulls out a new magazine and, in another visual bookend, he shakes it in front of Offred like the ball Ofglen/Emily/Ofsteve tosses to the family dog.
“Lists of made up problems,” he remarks. “No woman was ever rich enough… young enough… pretty enough… good enough.” He’s right. We know these criticisms. Women have internalized the misogyny of our culture. It stings to see him use them as a justification to oppress women under the cloak of “protection”.
The Commander has several Don Draper-esque one-liners in this scene:
“Love isn’t real. It was never anything more than lust with a good marketing campaign.”
“Every love story’s a tragedy if you wait long enough.”
In his best quote, one that Offred later repeats, the Commander says, “We only wanted to make the world better. Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.”
Ain’t that the truth. I couldn’t help but think about the Republicans’ ham-handed attempts to sell America on the benefits of the AHCA last week. Tax cuts for the rich while the poor die. At least the Commander has the guts to be honest about inequality.
This show is nothing if not nuanced. Ofglen 2 tells Offred to straighten the hell up. Life is better for her in Gilead. She has a clean place to sleep, good food, and people are nice to her. Even if she had to give up her freedom, she feels she got an upgrade. Or perhaps, judging by her shaky voice, that’s how she sells it to herself.
No longer able to participate in the Resistance, Ofglen/Emily/Ofsteve goes out in a badass, “Grand Theft Auto” blaze of glory when she joyrides a Mercedes and runs over a solider. Can you still call it a joyride if it’s suicidal? The officers did not shoot her, so I’m hoping that the show plays by Game of Thrones rules, and we will see her again. I need those sad, blue Rory Gilmore eyes.
Ofglen’s Thelma & Louise moment inspires Offred. “They didn’t get everything,” she says of her friend. “There was something inside her that they couldn’t take away.”
Offred channels her murderous thoughts into action and decides to join the resistance. She sneaks into the mother-in-law suite out back and bangs Nick, who had previously confessed to being a government spy. After one last scan of her shapely, sock covered leg, the episode ends as Offred flips Nick on his back and rides him cowgirl-style. A Nina Simone song plays over the credits. Nina croons, “What’s the matter Daddy? Come on, save my soul. Drop a little sugar in my bowl.”
Looks like old June isn’t ready to hang up her little red habit just yet. After all, the road to salvation is paved with sin.
See you next week for Episode 5. Until then, I’ll meet you on Twitter.