The Handmaid’s Tale: Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum

This post includes spoilers for “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”
(Season 1, Episode 4) of The Handmaid’s Tale. As usual, the link on the left has full summaries of all of the episodes that have aired so far. 

While this episode included several important world-building moments, it wasn’t as action-filled as the previous episodes have been. The picture on the left is one reminder of just how out of the ordinary “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” was, but we’ll talk about that more in a few minutes. Let’s stick with the slower pacing for now.

You see, Offred had spent the last 13 days banished to her room as punishment for not being pregnant. Women in Gilead weren’t allowed to read or write, so she had absolutely nothing to occupy her time during those long days and nights.

It was only after examining every last square inch of her room that Offred noticed the phrase nolite te bastardes carborundorum scratched into the wall in her closet. I loved the way they showed her staring listlessly at this phrase as she tried to figure out who wrote it and what they were trying to communicate with her. She had found out in the first episode that the Commander and his wife had a previous Handmaid, but she didn’t know what happened to her predecessor.

There was an important clue to the first Offred’s fate that was revealed to the audience when Martha discovered our Offred lying on the floor and assumed she was dead. Offred lied and said she had fainted in order to prevent anyone else from finding what she’d found in the closet.

The doctor’s visit our Offred was sent on to make sure she was healthy made my skin crawl.  Not only was the doctor creepy in a sad sort of way when he told Offred that he could try to get her pregnant, the rows of pictures of Commanders and Wives holding healthy babies in the waiting room made me wonder exactly how many Handmaids there were altogether out there. For some reason, I thought there were far fewer of them than all of those happy portraits hinted there could be.

They also made me wonder how many of those babies were genetically the doctor’s offspring. Once again I’m glad that I’m only recommending this series for the 14+ crowd. The failed ceremony scene was even more disturbing this week in light of the doctor’s comment about many of the Commanders being sterile. Assuming this is true of Offred’s Commander, then all of the trauma of those nights happens for no reason at all.

My favourite scene, though, occurred at the end of this episode when Offred decided to take the Commander up on his invitation to play a forbidden game of Scrabble after everyone else in the house had gone to bed. Knowing what his intentions were this time didn’t make their interactions any less strange. She was his property. He wanted her to be happy with the arrangement and with her unorthodox relationship with him. In fact, he couldn’t get an erection this month without the illusion that they had some kind of connection.

The nice thing about Offred realizing this was that she was able to use it to find out that the previous Offred committed suicide and that “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” jokingly translates to “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It was through pretending to have a connection with the Commander that she was also released from her confinement to her room. His fear of another Handmaid killing herself was stronger than Serena Joy’s desire to keep punishing Offred.

Some of the other reactions to this episode that I’ve read have talked about feeling sorry for the Commander in light of how concerned he was about Offred. Given how much power he holds in this world, I had a lot of trouble feeling that way for him. He was so far up the ranks in Gilead that I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d played a key role in creating this world. No, I haven’t read any spoilers about the future episodes. It is pure speculation on my part, but he struck me as someone who fought for something that only sounded good on paper. Once he actually began to experience the world he helped to create, he seemed to feel some buyer’s remorse.

The thing is, the Commander hasn’t had anything important taken away from him. He still has his name, his identity, his family, and as much freedom as anyone can reasonably expect to have in this world. It will be interesting to see if my opinion of him changes in the future, but for now all of my sympathies lie with the Handmaids and everyone else who lost everything to this system.

I have not decided yet if I have sympathy for Serena Joy (who is pictured on the right). The way she treated Offred was abusive and abysmal in this episode, but I’ve also seen the men in her life treat her terribly, too.

That’s not an excuse for her behaviour, by the way. It’s simply an acknowledgement that all of the women in this society have been dealt a crappy hand.

The fact that she has stubbornly refused to help the other women in her house unless it directly benefitted her in some way makes me dislike her intensely. I also hate the fact that she feels so entitled to stealing and raising someone else’s child.

While I have sympathy for her inability to get pregnant when she so clearly yearns to be a parent, wanting to separate a baby from his or her biological mother when the mother has done nothing wrong and has zero history of harming children is horrific.

This is something I hope will be explored further in the future. There have been multiple examples of this sort of thing happening in recent human history, from the Plazo de Mayo mothers to the Baby Scoop era of the 1940s-1970s.

Overall, this was not my favourite episode of this series so far. It was still very good storytelling, but I’m hoping that next week’s episode will have more action in it for Offred’s sake as well as for ours.

Previous posts in this series:

5 Things I Want from The Handmaid’s Tale

Introducing Offred’s World

Gender Treachery

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