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'Handmaid's Tale,' Ep. 8: Would You Rather Be a Handmaid or a Jezebel?

As it turns out, the sanctimonious evangelical Commanders are just as hypocritical and corrupt in dystopic Gilead as their evangelical GOP lawmaking counterparts in present-day U.S.A.
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[It goes without saying: Spoilers abound]

After a departure to the (dare I say plodding) episode about whatever happened to Luke, The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu is back to what it does best: interspersing the backstory of its secondary characters with the current plight of Offred/June’s current daily struggle as a Handmaiden. This week we learn all about Nick, driver and personal guard by day, member of “The Eye”—the special police force in the Republic of Gilead—at night.

Offred is becoming far more comfortable with her growing physical relationship with Nick, noting that in a world where she has control over virtually nothing, not feeling alone is the only comfort she has left. There are many types of "feeling alone" in Gilead, and the most common seems to occur when Offred is with Commander Waterford, who also appears to be getting more comfortable with a physical relationship—way too comfortable.

In the current period of Gilead, the Commander has now gone full-on Master with Offred, dressing her up in revealing pre-Gilead clothing, shaving her legs for her, giving her makeup to wear and cloaking her in his wife’s cape as he sneaks her into Jezebels, a delightfully modern mix of roaring 1920s speakeasy and brothel. Here, Offred finally learns what happens to women who don’t play by the Biblical rules of the new regime—Jezebels is a haven for the journalists, professors, powerful female CEOs, and others who aren’t connected or docile enough to be wives, fertile or obedient enough for Handmaids, and still sexy enough not to be sent to the Colonies. 

And that includes Moira, whom we find out was caught leaving Boston and never made it to safety when she escaped the Red Center. Moira clues in Offred on the quintessential choice for women in Gilead: have sex with strangers in a good Christian home where you are trapped and have to live without vice, or have sex with strangers at a high-end brothel where you can have alcohol and drugs and at least walk away from them after you are done. “The only way you get out of here is in the back of a black van,” Moira tells her. Of course, the same is true for a Commander’s house, too.

Still, the Jezebels have their own way to usurp power, as we learn that some of them are actually spying on the Commanders, dignitaries, and foreign leaders brought into the club for a night away from the dull, strict world of Gilead. As Offred is being shown around by the Commander, we learn that Nick has a completely separate mission of his own—working a black market of alcohol and drug that both enter and exit the club.

“What is the ketamine for?” he asks a pleasant Martha who apparently was once a James Beard–award-winning chef in her previous life (and who frankly deserves an episode all of her own). “Some of the men have Sleeping Beauty fantasies,” she responds nonchalantly. “But sometimes the women put them under and go through their phones.”

Because as we see pretty clearly, Gilead may be a Christian Dominionist paradise, but its leaders are just as hypocritical and morally corrupt as they were when it was still the United States. The social conservative “family values” Republican who cheats on his wife today is still a wife-cheater, it’s just that now he gets to call it a “ceremony” and sneak her into a sex-house to booze her up and have sex with her. The biggest difference is that now, it’s totally illegal for her to say “no.”

And that, apparently, is where Nick comes in. As we learn from his backstory, he was a pre-Gileadean ne’er-do-well who couldn’t hold a job—primarily because he was too busy trying to take care of his family to work steady, regular hours. After a meeting at “Worthy Path Career Counseling” he is recruited into the early stages of the Sons of Jacob, the right-wing religious group that will eventually take over the U.S. While driving around the original Commanders, including Waterford, Nick is a witness to the beginning of the plot to address the fertility crisis by “rounding up all of the remaining fertile women” to be “impregnated by superior men,” namely themselves. When it was pointed out that the wives might find their husbands repopulating the Earth a little repulsive, it is suggested that “maybe the wives should be there for the act,” arguing that “they” might find it “less of a violation.”

Apparently it is the wives, not the fertile women, whom they fear will think it’s a “violation.” To help them get over that, it is suggested they call impregnating women “a ceremony.” “Sounds good, nice, and godly,” the New York Commander enthusiastically agrees. “The wives will eat that shit up.”

It’s Nick’s first glimpse into the hierarchy of the new leaders and he quickly learns that the Commanders are just a corrupt as the government they sought to replace. While in public they are true believers, in private they are the same power-hungry, lustful beings they claim God was offended by when He refused to grant the world more children. That of course includes Waterford, who was semi-secretly using his first Handmaiden as a mistress until she eventually killed herself. It was after the first Offred’s death that Nick agrees to become an Eye, the secret police group sworn to “clean up the corruption in Gilead.” When Nick’s Eye boss—the same man who recruited him into the Sons of Jacob years earlier—asks Nick if he understands that his new duties will include reporting on Commander Waterford himself, Nick is sternly agreeable.

But now that reporting on the Commander also includes potentially endangering Offred/June, he appears to be less sure of his allegiances.

“You could wind up on the Wall,” Nick tells her as he tries to distance himself from her and their new relationship, referring to the structure where those who break Gilead’s commandments are killed and their bodies displayed as punishment. What is unspoken, of course, is that it could well be Nick who puts her there.

“At least someone would care when I’m gone,” she snaps back.

Nick seems persuaded by her argument, but for Offred it’s too late. “Under His Eye,” she says as a cold good-bye to her new lover, making it clear what she really means is she won’t be under that Eye for a good, long time.

The episode ends with Offred, alone again, this time with a music box Serena Joy brought back for her from the Commander’s wife’s old childhood bedroom. Offred sees it as highly symbolic, a “girl trapped in a box, who only dances when someone winds her up.” But maybe Serena Joy was saying something else with the gift, which came with a lock and key: You can have your secrets. You can lock up the things you treasure.

It’s hard to see anything Offred would have now that is worth keeping from prying eyes. But in a world where she has no control, where the Commander can demand she perform in a myriad ways both emotionally and sexually, where her husband and child have been stolen from her and her only solace was in a man who could have her killed for sleeping with him, maybe just knowing there is a small space that can be just her own might offer a little of the comfort that Nick no longer can.

Robin Marty is a freelance writer and speaker and the author of CROW AFTER ROE, a book outlining the blueprint to end abortion one red state at a time. Marty’s articles have appeared at Cosmopolitan.com, Politico, The Guardian, and other publications, and she is a Women’s Media Center SheSource Expert on Reproductive Rights and Politics. Follow her: @robinmarty
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