You know things have gotten bad in Gilead when the local fertility slaves are excited to get back to the old routine. But in the fourth episode of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale adaptation, Offred could not be more desperate for a return to normal—or at least what passes for normal in this current dystopian reality. “Things can get worse for you,” Serena warned Offred at the end of the last episode. Guess what, she was right.
Since last we saw her in episode 3, Offred has been banished to her small, extremely depressing room, and she appears to be going nuts. It’s been 13 days since she unwittingly led the household to believe that she was pregnant (her period was a few days late and everyone got very excited), and Serena still isn’t over it. Suffice it to say that Offred is not looking her best. Her face is bruised and her knuckles are bloody—reminders of the beating she endured last episode at the hands of Aunt Lydia—and she has taken to lying on the floor of her closet in her nightgown.
“I am like an explorer, a traveler to undiscovered countries,” Offred narrates. It’s pathetic, she realizes, but better a little escapism than to become obsessed with memories from her old life, when she had a family, a job, some degree of agency. So Offred has gone hunting in her bedroom for something else worth thinking about. And look at what she found: On the bottom of the closet wall is an inscription, written in Latin. Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum, it says. She doesn’t know what it means, but she knows it’s a message meant for her.
Unfortunately, given that she doesn’t read Latin, Offred can only occupy her mind so much with this secret note. She’s been shut in her room for 13 days; naturally, she can’t help but rehash old memories. This is how we start to find out how Moira went missing, and how she might have ended up dead.
We flash back to Offred and Moira at the re-education center, talking through a hole in the wall of the bathroom stall. Moira is writing a message in the door with a knife she’s been whittling down during bathroom breaks (and which she’s been storing in the toilet), foretelling plans for an eventual escape. Offred warns Moira that her message—she opts for the somewhat lame ”Aunt Lydia sux”—isn’t worth the risk of writing it. If they catch you, she says, you’ll lose a hand. Whoever sees these words, Moira counters, will know she isn’t alone. Back in her room in the present, Offred silently thanks the person who did her the same favor.
The next morning at breakfast, we get a depressing sliver of insight into Serena and Commander Fred’s relationship. He’s preoccupied because an aunt ran away to Canada and lived to tell the tale—she’s talking to the press and presenting everything in “the worst possible light,” he gripes. Serena has some tactical advice for an appropriate government response. Sounds like she maybe has some experience? But Commander Fred shuts her down fast. “You don’t need to worry about this,” he tells her. “We’ve got good men working on it.” In other words: You may not be a sex slave, but you’re still a woman, and don’t forget it. Serena’s eyes go dead. “Praise be,” she capitulates. Turns out life as a Gilead wife might not be the romp we’d all assumed.
Upstairs, Rita walks in on one of Offred’s lying-on-the-floor-in-despair sessions. Seeing Offred’s two very-dead-looking feet poking out of the closet door, Rita screams and drops her breakfast tray. “I fainted,” Offred offers as an excuse, thinking fast so as not to reveal the secret message she found on the wall. She’s rewarded for her lie: Offred gets to go to the doctor, and the trip serves as a little respite from her captivity.
Obviously, though, there’s no escape from the hellish reality that is life as a handmaid. When Offred sees the doctor, he inspects her undercarriage and then promptly propositions her. “I can help you,” he whispers, pointing out that it’s not just women who are infertile in Gilead—most of the men are sterile, too. “If Waterford can’t get you pregnant, they won’t blame him. It’ll be your fault.”
He steps out from behind the gauze curtain and for the first time we see his weirdly normal-looking face. “It’ll only take a few minutes, honey.” What a gentleman! Nevertheless, Offred declines his “help” and instead has a lite nervous breakdown in the car on the way home. Nick offers some pitifully useless words of comfort. (By the way, when are these two going to finally get together? Do we really even care?)
“So. Are you dying?” Serena asks when Offred returns to the house. Turns out Offred is not the only character with a capacity for sarcasm. In fact, there’s a lot about Serena we don’t seem to know. I’m excited for whichever upcoming episode gets into the details of her backstory.
Offred breaks down and begs to be released from house arrest. “I’ve learned my lesson,” she grovels. “Please. Let me out.” The suggestion of camaraderie Serena offered last episode is nowhere to be found, and Serena is sent back to her chambers.
Maybe it’s Serena’s ruthlessness that will ultimately drive Offred to more drastic measures. After all, we discover, she’s taken them before. Once again, we flash back to Moira and Offred in the re-education (“red”) center. The two women use Moira’s homemade knife to hold Aunt Elizabeth hostage, tie her up, and steal her costume. “I know this wasn’t your idea,” Aunt Elizabeth pleads to Offred, as Moira changes into her outfit. “Shut up,” Offred replies. She can be ruthless, too.
We know the escape must have been fruitless—after all, it’s in a flashback, and now Offred’s a handmaid and Moira’s apparently dead—but for a second the attempt looks kind of promising. After breaking out of the red center, the two make their way to the train station amid chaos in the streets. Corpses dangle from buildings, men with machine guns stand guard, fires burning in the street. Meanwhile, the street signs have been taken down. It’s hard to get around.
But they just have to get to Boston, where they’ll be safe, Moira says. There are safe houses there. Unfortunately, when they get to the train station they can’t figure out which train to take, because the train station, too, has been stripped of any signage. Moira goes to investigate, and—because a solo handmaid in the wild is very conspicuous—Offred is immediately approached by what appears to be a small paramilitary unit. The train comes, and she gives Moira the green light to get on it without her. At least one of them might make it to safety, she thinks then.
Back in the present, it ceremony night, and Commander Fred startles Offred by arriving to the room early—against protocol—to invite her for another late-night scrabble game. Offred is dumbstruck. “What do you think?” he asks, as she stares at him blankly. What’s he trying to do here? Before she has a chance to respond, the rest of the crew arrives for the ritual. “Who’s an early bird today?” Serena stares daggers at her husband and Offred looks deeply uncomfortable.
The mood doesn’t exactly improve as the ceremony continues. Commander Fred, it appears, has developed some performance anxiety. (No surprise, given the number of spectators present.) He storms out of the room and then rejects Serena’s offer to “help.”
“I’ll be blamed,” Offred tells herself after she’s sent from the room. “He tried to talk to me before the ceremony. He tried to connect. That’s what he needs.” Again, she thinks of Moira—who wouldn’t “take this shit”—and forces herself to drag her “crazy ass” to the commander’s office for another lightly flirtatious Scrabble game.
It’s here that Offred is finally able to start decoding the messages she’s been getting—the one in her closet wall, and the strange signals the commander’s been throwing her way. As they play Scrabble—”Maybe I should let you win again,” she quips—Offred sees a Latin dictionary on the wall and realizes where her predecessor learned it.
“Has she been here, my predecessor?” Offred wonders. “Knower of Latin, scratcher of words? Am I not the first he’s invited to this room? What happened? Did she say the wrong thing? Did she displease him, the divine emperor of this house? And what price did she pay for her insolence?”
In another flashback, we see the price Offred paid for her own attempted escape. She’s strapped face-down to a table as Aunt Lydia enters with a huge iron claw, which she then uses to bloody Offred’s feet.
Offred decides to ignore any internal warning signs and presses on in her fact-finding mission. It turns out the message in her closet, is, as the commander says, kind of a joke. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” he translates. But the woman who wrote the words on the wall didn’t follow them herself: According to the commander, she killed herself. “I suppose she found her life unbearable,” he says. “And you want my life to be bearable,” Offred realizes. “I would prefer it,” he says.
Offred is not one to pass up an opportunity for improving her circumstances—and to score one over Serena in the process—and she grabs this one strategically by the horns. “It has been so hard being alone in that room all the time,” she hams it up. “I’m afraid I’m starting to give up. Like my friend.”
The next day Offred is in her wimple again, approaching the door, looking ecstatic. She steps outside and breathes in the fresh air. She sets off on her little path and exchanges a smile with Nick as she goes. Things could always be worse, remember? As she leaves she looks back up at the house and sees Serena glaring out at her. Offred glares back.
“There was an Offred before me. She helped me find my way out. She’s dead. She’s alive. She is me. We are handmaids. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.”
Margaret Atwood, Elisabeth Moss, and the Women of The Handmaid’s Tale
From left: Margaret Atwood, Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley, Ann Dowd, Madeline Brewer, and Yvonne Strahovski.
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and consulting producer of its Hulu series.
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