Episode 4: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”
In this episode, the character of Commander Waterford is developed further, and we gain insight into his behavior toward Offred. A lot happens in 50 minutes, so bear with me.
At the start of the episode, Offred is still locked in her room (having failed to become pregnant the previous episode) and the Commander learns that an Aunt (leader/instructor of the Handmaids) escaped from a Red Center and made it across the border to Canada, where she gave an interview to the Toronto Star. The Commander calls her tales hyperbole, yet it’s clear that he’s perturbed. Locked in her room, Offred learns something about its previous inhabitant when she discovers the phrase “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” written in a difficult to see place in her closet. She reflects on the bravery it took to write anything at all, and through a flashback to the Red Center and time spent there with Moira, we learn that the punishment for writing is to lose a hand. Thus, Offred derives comfort from these words because they symbolize resistance, and she spends her time in isolation lying down in the closet, staring at them.
Unfortunately, while Offred is thus positioned, the household Martha, Rita, enters with her food, and is so startled to see Offred on the floor that she drops the tray of food she has brought. Offred claims that she fainted, as there is no good explanation for why she is lying on the floor with her head in the closet. Since it is Ceremony Day, she is sent to see the doctor—which, for a Handmaid, means a gynecological exam. In the waiting room sit Handmaids in red cloaks, waiting to be seen, while on the wall hang pictures of wives holding the children their Handmaids have borne them.
In the exam room, the doctor determines everything is normal and ready for the Ceremony. He remarks that it’s likely that the Commander is sterile, which is a risky thing to say—men aren’t sterile in this world. The doctor tells Offred she can talk to him—she stays silent. He then locks the door and offers to impregnate her so that she doesn’t get in trouble again next month (again, assuming the Commander is sterile). She can’t react to this with the horror that we feel as viewers, but instead politely says no thank you.
On the ride home, she rages and screams, curses and pounds the walls in the back of the car (the barrier between her and the driver, Nick, is up and curtains cover all windows as an extension of her punishment for not being pregnant). When they arrive home, Nick opens the door to let her out, and offers a meek sort of apology, which Offred reacts to coldly—after all, the complacency and cowardice of men and others like him have led to the life of sexual slavery she leads now.
Offred flashes back to the time she and Moira escaped from a Red Center by disguising Moira as an Aunt.
That night is the Ceremony. The Commander is early, and invites Offred to play Scrabble again. Before she responds, the rest of the household enters. During the Ceremony, the Commander is unable to get it up, and when his wife offers to help, he refuses. In Offred’s flashback, she and Moira enter a train station—Moira has the chance to get on a train, and Offred tells her to go as she is detained by policemen. Back in the present, Offred appears resolved, and goes to play Scrabble with the Commander.
During the game, Offred wonders about her predecessor, and boldly asks the Commander to translate the words in her closet: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.” He tells her that the words mean, roughly, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” and asks her if she knew the previous Offred. It’s clear that he knew her well enough to know where those words came from. Offred asks what happened to her. The Commander says she killed herself because she found her life to be unbearable. “And you want my life to be bearable?” she asks. She asks the Commander to talk to his wife about letting her out of her room again. At the end of the episode, she steps outside—it appears she got her wish.
In the past, Offred lies on a cot with bloody feet from the whipping she received for running away from the Red Center, and her fellow Handmaids walk by, each giving her a piece of food to eat. There’s still love and human connection in this world, and Offred still has hope.
Now that the exposition of this world and its organization are done, the episodes can show more and explain less, which this episode does well. The careful interlacing of flashbacks with the present shows us Offred’s journey from hopelessness to resolve, while the subtle interactions between The Commander, his wife Serena Joy, and Offred show us that though the roles they fill are quite different in terms of comfort and privilege, each is suffering (some more than others) within the rigidity of a system that doesn’t allow for personal connection.
Featured Image: Hulu