The Handmaid’s Tale S01E04 “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” REVIEW

The Handmaid’s Tale S01E04 “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” REVIEW

0 comments 📅18 June 2017, 20:53

Airing on Channel 4, Sundays at 9pm
Writer: Lila Gerstein
Director: Mike Barker

Essential Plots Points:

  • June and Luke are taking Hannah to the fair. It’s glorious and happy and resolutely normal. ‘Daydream Believer’ by The Monkees is playing.
  • Offred has been in her room for 13 days. The door isn’t even locked. It doesn’t need to be. Offred is losing it. She’s aware of it too but she’s losing it.

  • She lies down in her closet and sees Latin written on the frame. It reads; Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.
  • In the past, Offred remembers Moira carving a similar message in the bathroom of the Red Centre.
  • Downstairs, Waterford is up early. Serena Joy finds him and he explains that an Aunt escaped across the border and has spoken to the press. He offhandedly reassures his wife and goes back to work.
  • Rita takes Offred breakfast and finds her on the floor. Rita panics and thinks she’s dead. When she asks what Offred was doing she lies and says she passed out.
  • Rita passes the information along and Serena Joy refuses to call a doctor. However, when Rita points out the Ceremony is due that night, she relents.
  • Offred is giddy at the thought of getting to walk to the Doctor but Serena Joy makes her take the car. She steps out into the rain and is helped into the car.

  • In the past, at the Red Centre, Aunt Lydia takes the Handmaids through rehearsals of the Ceremony. It’s grotesque, dehumanizing. Moira asks the question; will they be having sex with the men between the wives’ legs?’ Aunt Lydia responds with scripture. And makes it clear that the answer is ‘yes’.
  • In the present day, Offred goes in to see the Doctor and it’s deceptively normal. The Doctor is friendly, charming. He even offers to talk to her.
  • Offred says nothing.
  • The Doctor pushes. He explains that Waterford is probably sterile and if she can’t get pregnant then she’ll be the one who gets blamed.
  • The Doctor offers to help.
  • He offers to help her get pregnant.
  • He offers to rape her.

  • Offred, seconds from a psychotic break, turns him down. Somehow she manages to do it politely.
  • In the car she flashes back to the past, living in the memories of her daughter. She breaks, pounding on the partition between her and Nick and screaming. He ignores her.
  • Nick apologises to her and gives her his hand to get out of the car. She refuses it.
  • Offred apologises to Serena Joy and begs her to let her out. She banishes Offred back to her room.
  • In the past, Aunt Elizabeth is asked to look at one of the overflowing toilets. She’s jumped by Moira and June who hold her at knifepoint and force her to strip. They tie her up and Moira takes her clothes.  They escape.
  • In the present, Waterford breaks every tradition by coming to the Ceremony early. He invites Offred for a Scrabble rematch and she agrees.

  • That night at the Ceremony, Waterford comes in, masturbates but not to climax and leaves.
    Serena attempts to help him, kissing him and preparing to fellate him. Fred asks her to stop. Offred is sent to her room.

  • Back in the past, June and Moira realise they have no idea where they are. The street signs have all been taken down and the city is grey, anonymous and crammed with armed soldiers. They walk past carts carrying dead people, walls of dead bodies on nooses, bonfires of art and books being destroyed.

  • They head down into the subway and Moira asks directions for the next train. He becomes suspicious as the next train pulls in. Moira is nearer and torn between helping her friend and getting away.

  • Offred smiles at her, hidden by the wings of her headdress. It’s permission and forgiveness all in one.
  • Moira escapes.
  • Offred is taken away.

  • In the present, Offred rebels against Serena Joy. She gets up and goes to play Scrabble with Waterford. It’s gentle, and flirtatious. And the whole time she’s wondering just how her predecessor screwed up.
  • In the past, Offred is chained, face down, on a rubber mattress. Aunt Elizabeth whips her across the soles of her feet until they bleed.
  • In the present, Offred, feigning ignorance, asks Waterford about the Latin phrase. He reacts, but shrugs it off. He does give her the translation though: Don’t let the bastards grind you down
  • He asks where she heard it, and she says ‘from a friend.’
  • And then Waterford asks if he knew her.
  • Suddenly, in the honest, liminal space they occupy, they’re talking as equals.
  • Waterford claims the previous Offred hung herself because she found her life unbearable. Offred asks if he wants her life to be more bearable and he says he’d prefer it.
  • And that gives Offred the crowbar she needs. She manipulates Waterford into letting her out and he knows it and does it anyway.
  • Offred goes back to her old routine for the first time in weeks. Nick smiles at her, Serena Joy stares from her window. She doesn’t care.

  • In the past, at the Red Centre, every handmaid gives Offred, on bed rest, as much food as they can steal.

  • The episode closes with Offred talking about the phrase and how empowered she is as six handmaids walk towards the camera. They don’t look cowed anymore. They look powerful.


There are two concepts that resonate through every second of this episode. The first is the idea of prison. The second is a specific moment from V For Vendetta. Written by Alan Moore and drawn by David Lloyd, V For Vendetta is one of the greatest comic series ever written. It’s the story of a Britain gripped by a myopic, dystopian government of bigots. They’re opposed by Evie Hammond, a young woman who wants to become part of the resistance and V. V is a super soldier. V is a monster. V is an idea and, as the series famously states, ideas are bulletproof.

There’s one particular sequence where Evie, in prison and close to death, finds a letter a previous prisoner hid in the wall. That letter, and what it details, gives her hope. To say anything more would be to ruin the sequence and, especially given how brilliantly it’s transferred to film, that would be a disservice to both you and the text. Treat yourself, read the book, see the movie, it’s worth it.

That sequence, we now realise, riffed off Attwood’s original novel that the TV show adapts. The TV show, in turn, borrows a little stylistically from V For Vendetta. Evie is in her cell, Offred is in her’s. Neither of them are free. But neither of them are bound thanks to the notes they receive from their pasts. What happened to them is disgusting, an obscene abuse of power and privilege.

But they’re more than their pasts, and this episode, Offred realises that. The final salute here, and yet another killer final line, is the first time anything in this show has been hopeful. It’s incredibly powerful as a result.

Especially as prison, captivity and freedom echo up and down the rest of the episode. Serena Joy is trapped in a loveless marriage by duty. Waterford is trapped in a body that refuses to function as it’s assumed to. Rita the Martha is trapped in the liminal spaces she’s expected to occupy. Offred is trapped in her room, in the house, in the positions Handmaids are expected to assume.

And yet, this episode, she both grants freedom and is given it. The moment where she gives Moira permission to escape is yet another in the show’s long list of silent heart-breakers. It’s impossibly brave and kind and it will undoubtedly cause tension when the two women meet again. But its brave, and it takes Offred out of every prison and the other handmaids reward her for that.

What’s becoming more and more apparent, both through flashbacks like this and the present day plot is just how strong Offred is. It’s not even that she can’t be broken, it honestly seems like she doesn’t know how to be. Her near psychotic break becomes a crack to hold onto as she scales the impossible slopes of Gilead’s nightmarish society. Her willingness to let her friend escape at her own expense gives her the admiration and respect of the other Handmaids. Even her defiance of Serena Joy and manipulation of Waterford gives her enough freedom.

For now. None of those victories are long-term, none of them are secure but all of them are real. Offred may be imprisoned a dozen different ways but she can’t be kept in those boxes for long. And as the episode ends, it becomes clear she may not be alone in that belief. The Handmaids endure. The Handmaids remember. And the Handmaids are everywhere. Now the question is, what’s she going to do with that new-found, hard fought freedom? And how long can it last?

The Good:

  • This show is still epic at profanity. Once again the final line is a moment of quiet, defiant, angry joy.
  • The ‘Previously’ section always opens with the first rape. That’s hard to watch. That’s the point.
  • The monthly Ceremony is horrific, shot at odd angles and almost silent, clinical and somehow as bad despite the lack of penetration.
  • The Doctor’s office is a masterpiece of worldbuilding. Look at the photos of healthy babies on the wall, the Wives all in similar clothes. No Handmaids anywhere to be seen.
  • The polite SWAT officer who helps Offred and ultimately arrests her is another example of what this show excels at; banal, civil evil.
  • ‘She’s dead. She’s alive. She is me.’-When you take everything away, when you make identity interchangable? You make everyone behind that identity invincible. Ideas are bulletproof, once again.

The Bad:

  • Again, nothing. Not even with a director and writer changeover this week.

And The Random:

  • Lila Gerstein has written for The O.C., written and produced for the much loved in these parts Eli Stone and created Hart of Dixie.
  • Mike Barker has directed for Outlander, Rogue, Broadchurch and Fargo, as well as charmingly nasty film noir Best Laid Plans.

Review by Alasdair Stuart

Read all our reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale

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