In Gilead, everyone acts very pious—but based on this most recent episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it appears that pretty much every person in this f—ed up dystopia is stabbing someone in the back.
Episode 5 is called “Faithful,” which is a fun way of underscoring the fact that no one in this world really is. Religious authoritarianism may be the law of the land, but that doesn’t mean Gilead isn’t populated at every level by people who betray their wives, husbands, governments, and of course themselves. In other words: You can take away a person’s freedoms, but she’s still going to find a way to go behind your back and have sex with your chauffeur. But more on that later.
We start off with a cozy scene in Commander Fred’s office, where he and Offred are curled up by a fire drinking whisky and playing Scrabble. This has become a routine, it turns out: Offred tells us this is the 34th game they’ve played together. They flirt, they drink; clearly they share some sort of intimacy. In fact, they’re so comfortable with one another these days that the commander has given Offred a little gift in the form of an old women’s magazine. She flips through it, musing at the models. “I used to buy magazines like this at the airport,” she says to herself. “Now the models all look insane, like zoo animals.” But you can tell the whole scenario makes her nervous. These two are playing a dangerous game, and Offred has way more skin to lose.
Speaking of long-since-banned things like women’s magazines, we flash back to the old days, when people had phones and used them for things like online dating. It’s back when Offred is single, and Moira is assessing her dating profile. Not up to par, she says, enlisting the opinion of an impartial bystander, which turns out to be Offred’s future husband, for confirmation. This is Luke and Offred’s meet-cute, which is made slightly less cute by the fact that at the time Luke is wearing a wedding ring.
Back in the present, Offred is silently sizing up Nick in the kitchen when Serena comes in and asks if she wants to go to the garden with her. Offred is immediately suspicious. What has she discovered, she wonders? The Scrabble? The inscription on her closet wall? The magazine? She’s waiting for a black van to pull up and throw her in the back seat when Serena offers a very different explanation for this tête-à-tête: She wants Offred to have sex with the driver, Nick.
“Maybe he can’t, the commander,” she tells Offred, referring to the possibility that Commander Fred is sterile. “I was thinking maybe we could try another way.” Nick, she says, might have better luck—and plus, she trusts him. “What about the commander?” Offred asks. “Forget about the commander,” Serena says. Offred, who has pretty much no choice, agrees to the plan. This probably isn’t how Offred envisioned her flirtation with Nick playing out.
Later on at the grocery store, Offred sees that her old friend Ofglen—actually now Ofsteven, because she was already replaced as Ofglen—is back in town. Despite her crime—a few episodes ago it was revealed that she was having an illicit relationship with another woman—Ofsteven’s life was spared (again, thanks to her two functional ovaries), but she doesn’t appear to be super thrilled about that. Offred tries to find out what happened but Ofsteven, does not want to get into the details of her genital mutilation in the grocery line, understandably. She does tell Offred the name of the resistance group she had been part of, however. It’s called Mayday.
Before Offred can find out anything else, the new Ofglen snatches her away and drags her back toward home. This Ofglen isn’t going to be nearly as simpatico as the old one, it appears: She’s not here to mess around and get in trouble, she tells Offred—and she’s not gonna let Offred mess things up for her, either.
Later that day, Offred is back lying in her closet when Serena fetches her yet again—it’s time to execute their covert sexual mission. They head off to Nick’s bachelor pad. How does one get to be a driver in Gilead, I wonder? His apartment looks pretty nice. He’s got a record player, and… wait, is that a gun? Hm. Anyway, Nick and Offred cut to the chase. As with every sexual encounter we’ve witnessed in Gilead so far, this one is supremely awkward and debasing—not least because Serena has chosen to remain in the room. (Thankfully, she didn’t assume her Ceremony posture this time around.) It’s over quickly, at which point Offred daintily straightens her wimple and returns to the house with Serena.
Interspersed throughout the telling of this encounter are scenes flashing back to the evolution of Luke and Offred’s (née June) relationship. It all started off properly enough, we see: Innocent lunches that ultimately gave way to sex, love, Luke’s divorce from his previous wife, and, as we already know, marriage and a kid. It’s all very pure, except for the lies and adultery. Betrayal isn’t unique to the monsters in Gilead.
Speaking of which! It’s ceremony night, which means Offred gets to endure the state-mandated rape at the hands of her commander again. Apparently Fred has been inspired by his and Offred’s secret Scrabble nights, because tonight he really goes for it. Much to Offred’s horror, the commander is enjoying himself. “Stop it,” she says, panicked, in her head. “Can she see him doing this? Can she feel him?”
Later that night, Offred confronts the commander about his behavior. “Don’t you ever do that again… Touch me like that. When she’s there,” she demands. “I just find the whole thing so impersonal,” he apologizes. Lol, you think?
In short order, the cracks in the commander’s pleasant demeanor turn into huge, gaping holes. This guy is a real asshole! Not only does he believe the only thing a woman has to live for is her children, it turns out, but he also reveals that he’s behind Ofsteven’s sexual mutilation, which Offred now learns happened.
“We helped her,” he tells Offred. “We saved her, we had a doctor take care of the problem. It’s such a small problem, truth be told. Every love story’s a tragedy if you wait long enough.” Offred looks sick. She excuses herself, but not before Commander Fred gives her a real taste of his perspective. “We only wanted to make the world better,” he tells her. “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.”
Offred tries to stagger up the stairs to her room, but she can’t make it that far; first she has to vomit in the kitchen sink, so sick is she to have trusted this man. But guess who’s lurking in the shadows again? Nick! Nick, it turns out, already knew what happened to Ofsteven. You know why? It turns out he’s the Eye Ofsteven warned Offred about—Offred gets him to admit it. This seems like a dicey situation for Offred, given that she’s cheating on her commander with him. But maybe it’s okay, since according to some Cosmo-like “rules” outlined in the women’s magazine she was reading at the beginning of the episode, Nick seems to have a crush on her.
The next day or so, Offred’s walking to the market (the only place handmaids are allowed to go, pretty much) when she sees Ofsteven again. “I know what they did to you,” Offred tells her. “I’m so sorry.” Ofsteven—real name Emily, she tells Offred—doesn’t want to talk about that. She wants Offred to find Mayday instead.
And now, in a glorious and bloody scene, we have Emily’s liberation. Before Offred can believe her eyes, Emily has stolen a guard’s idling car and is making a getaway attempt. She’s careening around, running over guards; she’s got a car but nowhere to go, so she just drives in circles and takes a few men down as she does. Finally, the guards drag her out of the car and away to a certain fate—not even Emily’s exemplary ovaries can save her this time, as surely she knew. We hear gunshots offscreen. Alexis Bledel, I hope we see you in flashbacks soon.
Back at the house, Offred stands outside and watches as black vans speed by. She contemplates the word Mayday (it means “help me” in French) and goes inside to face her dismal life. “I heard there was a bit of trouble in town,” Serena says, as Offred heads upstairs. “Are you alright?”
Offred has a weirdly serene smile on her face as she considers the question. “I’m fine,” she answers slowly. She’s eyeing a set of sharp garden tools on a nearby table, contemplating what she could do with them. There’s a glint in her eye. She’s thinking about Emily. “They didn’t get everything,” she tells herself. “There was something inside her they couldn’t take away.”
That night, Offred goes to Nick’s bachelor pad of her own volition. Might as well, right? Finally, we see a decent sex scene in Gilead. Offred is going to have a little fun after all.
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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