Also this week, we get the inevitable Nick backstory. Unfortunately, I have a hard time caring about Nick, and this episode did nothing to change that. It turns out he has a vaguely troubled past, as well as a hypothetically justifiable reason for becoming an Eye. But you know what my problem with Nick is? He’s boring. Even after watching an episode largely devoted to fleshing his character out, I feel nothing. This guy is all smoldering looks and cryptic, loaded silences. He barely talks and when he does it’s pretty anticlimactic.
Anyway, talking isn’t what Nick and June appear to be up to these days. As the episode opens, we see June in bed with Nick. Now that she knows Luke is alive, June feels a bit disloyal about sleeping with Nick over and over. But she’s doing it anyway. Why? “Because it feels good and I don’t want to be alone.” When she puts it like that, who can blame her—even if Nick is a dud.
Now we get our first flashback of Nick’s pre-Gilead life, in which he reveals himself to be more or less a run-of-the-mill screw-up: He has a hard time holding down a job, he has a brother who makes family life difficult…. Compared to everyone else’s problems on this show, that seems relatively tame, but sure, okay. The scene takes place at an employment agency where Nick is trying to find work; but before he even gets through the interview, Nick throws a punch at another guy in line, and is swiftly thrown out by security. For some reason, however, the guy interviewing him follows him outside and takes him to coffee. This guy, it appears, is a higher-up in what will become the Gilead revolution, and he’s looking for a driver. What did he find so compelling about Nick, I wonder. His desperation? His scrappy, rough-around-the-edges manhood? I’m not totally sold, but regardless, we learn that this is how Nick ended up in the “group” that took over America.
Back in the present, June returns to her room, where she’s startled to discover Commander Fred waiting for her. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to care where she’s been. (Nick’s, presumably.) He wants to do something “a little different” that evening—nope, he doesn’t mean Monopoly. What he’s thinking involves a little grooming: First, he shaves June’s legs (ew). Then he gives her some makeup, a sexy dress, a pair of heels.
“Stunning,” he says, as she presents herself in the outfit. “Tonight I’m taking you out.”
Where is he taking her? June thinks it must be to Boston—or what used to be Boston. She and Commander Fred are in the back seat while Nick drives through various checkpoints. Nick does not look thrilled with this setup. He and June are making a lot of intense eye contact through the rearview mirror.
Another Nick flashback. Now he’s driving the guy from the employment agency, along with another guy who looks literally exactly like him—so much so that later on in this episode I can’t tell these two old white guys apart—and Commander Fred. It seems to be at the birth of the new political order; the men are discussing the concept of forced impregnation for fertile women, and how the wives might not be super into the conception process. One of the guys suggests having the wives in the room during “the act” to make them feel better about it. This idea gains traction, but Commander Fred has a marketing note.
“‘The Act’ might not be the best name from a branding perspective,” he observes, before suggesting an alternative: “‘The Ceremony?’” Later, it’s just Nick and the Commander in the car, and they start chatting about this new world. “Better not to form attachments,” Nick says.
Back in the present, the car arrives at its destination: A private club for powerful men to drink, have sex (with lovers and/or prostitutes), and otherwise debauch. June and Commander Fred walk in, and the Commander takes off June’s cape (borrowed from Serena Joy). She suddenly looks very exposed and vulnerable in her slutty outfit. Although it’s nothing compared to the relative state of undress of most of the other women in the room; there’s even one who appears to be dressed in a Slutty Handmaid costume.
Who are these women? June asks. “Some were working girls before,” the Commander says. I thought he meant that they were prostitutes, but no, he just means women who previously had professions: There’s a former sociology professor, lawyers, a CEO, a few journalists. They’re looking around the room when June sees Moira. Not dead after all! Moira spots her, too, and signals for June to meet her in the bathroom, where they have a brief, tearful reunion before Moira is called away. She instructs June to meet her downstairs later.
Meanwhile, Nick is running some errands, i.e. picking up some contraband for the Eyes. He nabs some drugs, some hair dye, some pregnancy tests, etc., and in exchange he gives his contact—a Martha—some fresh basil. She offers to make him some of her award-winning pesto with it, but he demurs. He also demurs when she attempts to seduce him. “Not tonight,” he says. Nick is not happy that June is having her wild night out with Commander Fred, it would appear.
The next flashback gives a little context as to why Nick is acting so uptight about this whole expedition. It’s back at the Waterfords’ house, and he’s running through the halls as Martha screams. He finds Offred’s body—this is the Offred before June, the one who wrote in the closet wall in Latin—after she kills herself. Nick has to cut her down from the ceiling as Martha stands there, wailing. They were her friends. But she got too close to the Commander, and it killed her. Now June’s falling into the same trap, and so is Nick, with June. Better not to form attachments, right?
Back in the sex hotel, the Commander starts to seduce June, and she does what she has to do. But when he’s asleep, she sneaks downstairs to see Moira. Turns out, Moira’s escape from the red center was short-lived. She was caught, but instead of getting sent back to be a handmaid she was given a choice between going to the colonies—which basically seem like nuclear wastelands where death is more or less inevitable—or becoming a prostitute (a “jezebel”) and working sketchy hotels like this place. June starts plotting how to get her out of there, but Moira shuts that down fast.
“Forget about escape,” she says. “No one gets out.” Luke did, June replies. “He isn’t us and he isn’t in here,” Moira says. “We’re alone, June. Just take care of yourself.”
The two say their goodbyes and June makes it safely back to her room before being snuck back to the house later that night. Yet more loaded glances between Nick and June, naturally.
Nick flashes back again. This time, he’s with his old friend from the employment agency, agreeing to become an undercover Eye. The Eyes are best known for the thuglike guys who are constantly zooming around in big black vans. The employment agency guy says, “Our best intelligence comes from plainclothes operatives.” He tells Nick he’ll be informing on his own commander, Fred Waterford, because Offred killed herself. He hopes Commander Fred has better sense with the next handmaid he’s assigned. “No one’s above the law,” Nick says. Hmmm. How does he feel now that he’s complicit in breaking it?
Back in the kitchen, June smiles at Nick and he ices her. Uh oh. Is he gonna report her now that she had hotel sex with the commander? “We can’t do this anymore,” he tells her. Rude! “You know I had to go with him last night,” June says. “You know I didn’t have a choice. I don’t have any choice.” Nick, true to form, is completely silent until June accuses him of accepting the Gilead way of life. He finally tells June she’s being stupid (nice!) and then tells her it’s too dangerous for them to have a relationship. “You could end up on the wall,” he says. True, but if you ask me he’s looking out for himself. “At least someone will remember me in this place,” June responds. “At least someone will care when I’m gone.”
Nick finally feels a little bit of compassion—or humanity, or something. He tells June his full name and where he’s from (keep in mind, June told him her name weeks ago). Too little, too late, dude. “Well, Under His eye, Guardian Blaine,” June says sarcastically.
She’s walking up the stairs, crying, when Serena Joy stops her. She has a little gift for June. It’s a music box—one of the old-school ones with a dancing ballerina, a relic from Serena Joy’s own childhood. How apropos, June thinks. “A perfect gift. A girl trapped in a box. She only dances when someone else opens the lid. When someone else winds her up.”
At the end of the episode, June’s back on the closet floor, looking rather wild, and carving something into the wall. You are not alone, she writes. “If this is the story I’m telling I must be telling it to someone. There’s always someone. Even when there’s no one. I will not be that girl in the box.”
What’s your plan, June? I’m ready for some action.
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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