Under the Eye: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”

“Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”

The writers of the show continue to remind us there was a different world before the takeover and, consequently, we’re fed unreliable narration from June that signals to us Gilead has been around either for five years or forever. June, Luke, and Hannah visit a carnival and “Daydream Believer” plays in an unsettling echo. June is being punished for not being pregnant. Perhaps Serena believes June has the awesome, unimaginable power of shutting off any potential pregnancy at the snap of a finger. Given what we eventually learn about Serena, I don’t think that’s the case. The crime, in my view, was of getting her hopes up and delivering nothing. It’s a lot like the narrative structure of The Handmaid’s Tale: weeks of promises and no pay-off. Last week’s “Late” was a better episode than it ever deserved to be, and that’s because there were some delicious morsels of back-story, even though much of it made no sense. We got our dessert first, but now with “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum,” we have to eat our undercooked brussels sprouts and lima beans, and damn but this is undercooked! June finds some writing on the wall inside the closet: the title of the episode. Latin. A dead language perfect for a dying culture. Another flashback takes us back to the handmaid orientation facility with Moira etching graffiti into a bathroom wall – her idea of resistance. This is another one of those annoying Lost-style flashbacks.

“Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.”

Rita freaks out when she sees June passed out on the floor, and Serena arranges for a visit to the hospital. June remembers being taught the Ceremony. There is an inconsistency with Janine’s character here. She is already the flighty weirdo she would eventually become after being broken, but a couple of episodes later after giving birth, she is her old self: defiant and saucy. June waits in the hospital. I feel bad for these Guardians who wanted to crush skulls but find the only job they can get is receptionist. Something extraordinary happens. Her doctor gives her a check-up, tells her she’s perfectly healthy, but then lets slip that the men are sterile, and she’ll probably never have a child by Fred. The doctor then offers his services, if you know what I mean. She politely turns him down. Back to the carnival and fun times! Again, why aren’t we packing up the car and getting the fuck out of Dodge? “Are you dying,” Serena asks, unconcerned and only worried June’s condition will delay this night’s Ceremony. Offred begs to be let out of her room. Serena ain’t having it. In a flashback, Moira and June attack one of their Aunts (unfortunately not Lydia), steal her clothes and make for the trains. It’s interesting to me how frightened this particular Aunt is, knowing the weight and gravitas these creatures carry within them. Before the Ceremony, Fred offers Offred a Scrabble re-match. During the Ceremony, Fred can’t seem to achieve an erection. He tries to jerk off and then he just walks away. Serena offers to help, but it ain’t happening.

Cue “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye.

In flashback, Moira and June make it to the train station, but are then separated and it appears Moira successfully escapes, whereas June is caught and punished. Do you think the Sons of Jacob sit around and come up with ways to torture women? It seems more thought is put into brutalizing women and burning away the last vestiges of the past than infrastructure and resources. I don’t see how everybody can laud June for being such a “strong female character.” She’s not strong. She’s vulnerable, needy. She’s not particularly bright. She has no sense of smell for the incredible opportunities that are practically handed to her. Maybe that’s my frustration right there: in those strange, sunken spring-green eyes that scream, “help me,” but then sink into the shadows because she can’t find her inner-hero. Five years of Gilead is five years too long. During the Scrabble game, June wonders about the previous handmaid while flashing back to her punishment. Aunt Lydia seems to know of June’s past. June is an adulterer. Her feet are whipped. In the present, she asks Fred about the meaning of “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.” He tells her it’s a joke. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” She asks Fred what happened to the previous Offred. Fred tells her she killed herself, hung herself from the ceiling of her room. Oddly, she found her life unbearable. Imagine that! For some reason, this empowers June. She uses this new information to manipulate Fred into letting her out of her room. The episode ends on a sick joke of June strutting with confidence along with other handmaids and proclaiming in voice-over, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum, Bitches.” This episode made me sick to my stomach.

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Under the Eye: “Offred”

“Offred”

Let’s just speculate for a minute. This is our world. This is a world of the Boston Red Sox and Friends on DVD. This is the world of the free press, of Annie Lennox, of Bruce Springsteen, of debit cards, and over-priced soy lattes … but … Our world has gone topsy-turvy. Something has changed, as in all good science fiction. The birth rate has plummeted due to an unexplained crisis. Bible literalists make their move. Through an extraordinary and unrealistic set of circumstances, these people have captured The United States of America. A coordinated series of terrorist attacks has crippled our Lady Liberty and made her impotent. Whomever you are, remember your place in the world when your freedom was deleted. The set-up is astonishing. June (Elisabeth Moss), her baby Hannah, and her husband Luke are running from men with machine guns as they attempt to flee the continental United States. Luke is shot and June and Hannah are captured. Hannah is relocated to a privileged family. June is forced to become a handmaid, the brood mare for a prominent family led by the Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski). She is given a name: Offred, meaning “of Fred.” The property of Fred.

Get used to shots like these.

All of this would work well if not for the persistent confessional-style voice-over of June. Her purple prose comes across like a 15-year-old’s self-mutilation journal. The handmaids are told by their devoted Aunt Lydia that the “plague” was God’s plan; a response to birth control and abortion, drugs and pre-marital fornication. When Janine mouths off, she gets a cattle-prod to the neck and loses an eye. The handmaids have been selected for their fertility. They are to be “adopted” by the families of the powerful and impregnated by their commanders. Handmaids walk together spouting bizarre platitudes as bodies hang high up from railings. These are the bodies of priests, Jews, and homosexuals. There are men with machine guns behind defensible piles of sandbags awaiting … what? Attack? Attack from handmaids? Attack from enemy forces? It’s hard to believe in this total nightmare dystopia anyone survived the ferocious assault of the Sons of Jacob. That’s what they call themselves. They call the land they have stolen Gilead. The Republic of Gilead. Even though this is not a republic. This is not America. This is occupied land. The people may look like Americans, act and speak like Americans, but they are the Programmed and they intend to program the handmaids. There are cult-like sessions where handmaids are shamed, judged, and punished by their fellow handmaids until they are broken and then re-built into baby-makers.

“Respect the cock and tame the cunt!”

The Ceremony is a stylized ritual of rape. Creepy organ music plays as Waterford reads a passage from the Bible justifying this action. In strict interpretation of the Bible, Jacob had two wives, Rachael and Leah. Jacob loved Rachael more than Leah, so God rewarded Leah by taking away Rachael’s fertility and giving it to Leah. These Sons of Jacob have re-written their Bible so that Rachael instead gives Leah to Jacob as a “handmaid” so she will bear Jacob’s children, hence the Bible Literalists are not so literal with these sticky digressions. As with every cult, they highlight the passages that advocate their beliefs and disregard others, namely the love, mercy, and compassion present in many passages. Unimaginable cruelty is the name of the game in Gilead’s Bible. I say this as a proud atheist: you cannot mock what you don’t understand. Margaret Atwood’s, and by extension, the writers and producers of the series view, of religion (Christianity, in particular) is sadly warped and misguided. I have no doubt there are practices and sub-practices of different denominations that embrace cruelty and violence. We hear of them on occasion, but these are the exceptions and not the rule. At some point in the story, June’s old friend and lesbian, Moira, escapes from the handmaid orientation facility, but we won’t see the circumstances of the escape in this episode. June believes her to be dead.

“Mongo only pawn in game of life.”

The handmaids are gathered in a central meeting place to kill a man accused of rape. They each take turns stomping on him and ripping him to pieces. Why would the handmaids be required to execute this man, if only to make them all complicit in a murder without due process? In a flashback, we see June and Moira in more normal times when June informs her she is pregnant. There is talk of the danger of having children in these times, but there is no talk of the coming onslaught, the dark cloud of Gilead, perhaps because no one could ever believe it would happen. Along the way, June gets little indications that not all the handmaids have been programmed (the “true believers”). Her assigned traveling companion Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) clues her in by revealing her favorite ice cream (salted caramel) is better than sex. It occurs to me the character moments hold together better than the world that is being built. Ofglen informs June there is an “Eye” in her house. An Eye is a spy, a secret agent working for the higher-ups who’s job it is to keep tabs on Commanders, Commander’s wives, and Marthas. Marthas are essentially “the help.” Infertile, older women who cook and clean the palatial homes the Commanders have stolen from their rightful owners. June learns in short order the Commander’s wife, Serena, hates her, presumably for her ability to have children and the jealousy of “sexual contact” with her husband. June tells us she intends to survive for her daughter.