NOLITE TE BASTARDES CARBORUNDORUM, BITCHES (HANDMAID'S TALE EP. 4 RECAP)
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches. Everyone’s favorite fake Latin tattoo is finally here in this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hillary Clinton’s (speech writer’s) favorite new show. But before that, woah. And woe. Offred is suffering from her prolonged solitary confinement after getting her period last episode. It’s been two weeks since she’s been allowed out of her room, and she finds herself slipping. She keeps imagining a carnival with derp derp derp Luke and Hannah, and she is losing it. Bruises almost healed, she is pale and ragged and almost feral. All those escapes she tried not to think about seem much more available.
Offred decides to explore her room, and ends up in her closet. She finds a strange phrase scratched into the wall in the closet “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” She knows that the former Offred must have written these words, under the pain of hand-cutting-off (surely there is a fancy way of saying that, like defenestrate.)
Meanwhile, we see flashbacks to the Red Center and Moira. The two friends have taken to meeting in the ladies room, where Moira disassembles a toilet and scratches her own graffiti, in this case: Aunt Lydia SUX. June chastises her for writing, the punishment for which is having your hand cut off, and Moira snaps back that some other woman will see it someday and know she is not alone. Also, in Gilead, they call periods “my monthly woe,” which we should all adopt immediately. It becomes clear that the women in the Red Center don’t really know what’s going to happen with them.
The Aunts have other plans. They introduce the women to the Ceremony by having them pair up and lie on beds. Very gradually, it dawns on the women: they are not going to be artificially inseminated but instead raped while another woman holds them down. They are not happy about this. Moira, following the rules, raises her hand and asks if they are going to be having intercourse with the men. “Why, yes, dear,” Aunt Lydia (who sux) says. "It’s all here in this crazy part of the Old Testament.”
Moira and June are not having it, so they engineer a daring escape. Using her toilet lever, they grab Aunt Elizabeth and force her to strip. June zaps her with the cattleprod several times. Elisabeth Moss is great here, angry and brave and I’d argue, putting on a big show. This doesn’t seem in June’s character, but I think that Moira has the ability to bring things out in June. Moira puts on the Aunt’s outfit and they tie and gag Aunt Elizabeth and just waltz right out of the Red Center.
And on to the unrecognizable streets of the new Republic of Gilead. All the street signs are gone, and several times the women ask, where are we? Where are we? This question lingers as they walk past dead bodies in wheelbarrows, hanging from the side of a sports arena, and littering the ground. Workers shovel books and papers and art into a bonfire. Armed men stand everywhere. (Hey, I guess Gilead has zero unemployment. You can hold a gun, burn shit, or be dead.) They move out into a busy street, where handmaids walk in pairs. Moira says if they get to the city, the Collective still has some safe houses. Samira Wiley looks so cute in her too-big Aunt costume, like a little girl with the saddest Halloween costume.
Sidenote: speaking of Halloween, who is planning to be a Handmaid? I know it is super far away but I do think this is THE COSTUME of 2017. Also, I dressed as Hester Prynne from the Scarlet Letter when I was in ninth grade because I was the girl with the saddest Halloween costume.
Anyway, the two make it down to the subway where men are diligently chipping words off the wall. June and Moira can’t figure out which train to take (full disclosure: I’m from the country and I don’t understand public transit.) Moira womans up and asks a man which is the train to Boston. Meanwhile, June is accosted by a guard. It’s all very tense. The train pulls up! The man asks for June’s ID card! Moira looks at June! June gives her a subtle “go ahead” smile! Moira jumps on the train just as the men grab June. June is dragged back to the Red Center and punished by having her feet flayed by the Aunt they grabbed. It’s terrible! At the end, all the Handmaids bring her pieces of their dinner, like half a brown banana and a bitten cookie and stuff. Solidarity!
This is a major departure from the book. In the novel, Moira escapes on her own and is captured and punished the same way. As I wrote in the roundtable discussion of the novel, Offred’s character is passive throughout. I think this turn toward agency is probably necessary in a visual adaptation. She has to do stuff in order for it to be interesting.
In present time, Offred is still going a little mad. Rita, the Martha (delivering her breakfast and A+ sass levels), finds her lying on the floor in the closet and drops the tray, clearly scared. They agree that Offred is sick, so they go to talk to Serena Joy, who has gone full monster. Serena grudgingly agrees she should go to the doctor. Offred is overjoyed at the idea that she can breathe free air, but Serena Joy insists that she be chauffeured by the supposedly sexy Nick.
The Waterfords have a little conversation that is quite interesting and off-book. Fred is feeling very sad and overworked because he has Fiennes’ face, although his hair is so shiny it is mesmerizing and he is wearing the worst suit ever. She asks if he was talking to the UN, and I’m like, Fuck you, UN, if you are going to negotiate with this regime. He tells her that an Aunt has escaped to Canada and is telling all! Serena Joy snaps into business mode and tells him they have to minimize and discredit her. I’m getting some definite Kellyanne Conway vibes from her. But good old Commander Fred just smiles and tells her to shut up with that vagina talk.
At the doctor, Offred is wearing her “I’m sick” sweatshirt and scarf. I was totally into this sweatshirt, and the scarf is pretty good too. She has to climb on a table behind a curtain and the doctor comes in. He tells her she’s basically okay, and that he might as well check her readiness for the Ceremony. He’s quite chipper behind that curtain. He sees that she is assigned to the Waterfords, and says “Oh, that sucks. He’s probably sterile. All the top guys are.” Offred is terrified because the word “sterile” is off the table, just like “gay.” Women are fertile or barren, but men cannot be sterile. The doctor offers to “help her out” and she is again terrified. He pops his dumb face around the curtain and he looks like he could have been a junior copywriter in the first season of Mad Men. He’s like if Paul Kinsey and Harry Crane had a stupid baby. Offred demurs because it is too dangerous.
In the car, she straight flips the fuck out. Nick the supposedly sexy is like, um, I’m uncomfortable. But good news! Tonight’s the Ceremony. The Commander comes in while Offred is kneeling, breaking protocol. He’s like, “hey girl, how you doing? Haven’t seen you around in a while, that’s weird. Anyway meet me later and we’ll play some word games.”
Upstairs, Commander Fred is not up to the task. He goes off into the closet to work it out. And here we have one of the biggest assaults to human dignity in Gilead. Just a man, standing in a closet trying to get it up, and a woman joining him and trying to help. I can’t imagine having to fluff your own husband so he can bone another woman. And! INSULT TO INJURY! Commander Fred rejects Serena Joy’s generosity. THIS FUCKING GUY! THIS FUCKING SYSTEM! All intimacy is stripped away. The sexual expression of love is denied. This makes me so sad.
The Ceremony is postponed due to technical difficulties. Offred decides she has to do something, so she goes to her Scrabble date with Commander Sterile Dead Dick. She kicks his ass at Scrabble, because two weeks in solitary have eroded her give-a-fuck, and he challenges her word and has her get the dictionary. Literally, a whole giant book filled with words. While she fetches it, she sees a Latin grammar book and decides to take a chance. She wins her Scrabble challenge (you go, girl) and drops her Nolite te bastardes carborundorum on him. He looks surprised and says it's basically just a schoolboy Latin joke. (He took Latin because his parents thought it would help him with his SATs. Chilling.) It means, sort of, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” He asks where she heard it. She says from a friend. He immediately assumes she must mean the previous Offred. Current Offred asks what happened to her, and he tells her that she killed herself. Offred says, well, if your fucking wife doesn’t let me out of here I’ll kill myself too.
Like Moira’s bathroom graffiti, Offred can tether herself to her predecessor and survive. Those traces can't be erased. They're carved in. The next day, Offred gets to hit the streets with her crew. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.