May 10, 2017
Warning: Spoilers throughout.
From the Women’s March the day after inauguration to former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates’s blistering Congressional testimony on Monday, there is little question that when it comes to resisting President Donald Trump and his far-right administration, it is women who are leading the charge. Art imitates life that way in this week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale as the women of the Republic of Gilead begin their own efforts to undermine the patriarchy ruling over what remains of the United States of America.
Episode 4 ended with Offred (June) urging her fellow Handmaidens, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.” Instead, however, it was Offred who appeared to be resistant to her own advice. Much of the episode revolved not around the women of Gilead, but of Offred’s own relationships with the men in her lives, relationships that seem to revolve around the unavailability of her potential partners.
The episode begins with Offred continuing to develop her new, decidedly un-Handmaidenly relationship to the Commander, complete with flirting, drinks and forbidden glossy women’s magazines with stories like “10 Ways to Know He’s Interested.” Offred’s storyline with the Commander is interrupted by flashbacks of her history with Luke, the father of her child, who we learn was married when they first got involved. June met him on the street when Moira solicited his opinion on June’s Tindr profile photo. “This one,” Luke says, stopping on one photo in her phone. “She looks invincible.”
Both relationships have a number of commonalities—the sneaking behind their wives’ backs, the illicit flirting, the meetings as “just friends” that escalate rapidly into something more. Flirting with the Commander gives Offred a small hint of normalcy and a tiny return to her prior life. However, it’s one that the Commander easily shatters when he informs her that her former companion Ofglenn, who had disappeared, had been punished for her lesbianism with forced female circumcision. Offred is once again reminded that in this world, it is the male leaders who have the control and that it is the women of Gilead who need to take it back.
And that is what they are doing in ways large and small in the background of episode 5. Serena Joy, a somewhat one-dimensional character in Margaret Atwood’s novel, continues to take on even more complexity in this episode as she encourages Offred to have sex with Nick in an attempt to get her pregnant. Yvonne Strahovski’s portrayal of the Commander’s wife continues brilliantly call into question where her loyalties lie: Is Serena Joy trying to help Offred because she will do anything for a child? Or is it her way of undermining the hierarchy of the Republic, one where she has absolutely no role unless she is given a baby by her surrogate?
Serena Joy’s motives may still be in doubt, but we learn that other Commander Wives are definitely on the side of the Resistance. Ofglenn, returned to society after her brutal operation, has been moved to a new home where she is now “Ofsteven.” As ceremony night approaches, her Commander’s wife offers to pretend to have the flu in order to put off the event, which Ofsteven turns down. “You can’t pretend to be sick every month,” Ofsteven notes glumly. The wife nods, then places her hand on Ofsteven’s shoulder in comfort—possibly the only physical interaction depicted of a Wife and Handmaiden that wasn’t either during the ceremony or an act of violence.
Of course it is Ofsteven who shows the rest of the Handmaidens how to resist. For much of episode 5, Ofsteven gives every impression that the murder of her lover and her own subsequent clitorectomy has completely broken her. That is, until she urges Offred to find her own way to “May Day,” the movement fighting the patriarchy of the Republic of Gilead, even breaking a taboo by telling Offred her real name (Emily). Ofsteven then springs on the opportunity to impulsively hijack an unoccupied car.
“What is she doing?” asks Ofwarren (Janine), as all of the Handmaidens stare in awe. “Driving,” Offred smiles just moments before Ofsteven runs over and kills a military member, fulfilling the reoccurring fantasies of murder Offred has been engaging in with increasing frequency.
“They didn’t get everything,” Offred surmises in a voice-over. “There was something inside her they couldn’t take away. She looked invincible.”
By the end of the episode, Offred is once again ready to overturn the patriarchy, in some cases literally. She’s poised to hunt for the “May Day” resistance, she’s decided to have intercourse with Nick on her own terms rather than as an order from Serena Joy, and she physically rejects the missionary position during sex, mounting him in order to embrace physical joy in the act rather than just procreating in the hopes of a pregnancy, despite the fact that it is utterly forbidden.
The resistance will be female, and once more June is embracing her invincibility.