The Handmaid's Tale
Offred and the Commander are playing their 34th game of Scrabble, which is the sort of thing you track when your entire life consists of grocery shopping, getting raped, and playing board games. The Commander has a present for her: an illicit fashion magazine that was saved from the cleansing fires of Gilead. When he holds it out to her, she says the right thing first: “It’s not allowed.” A genuflection at the altar of his power, a test to see if this is a test. “It is with me,” he says.
They are flirting, chatting, and letting each other win. There is more intimacy here, somehow, in these bizarro fireside dates than we have seen almost anywhere in Gilead, a country that demands joyless compliance, that physically and emotionally amputates parts of people who want to touch each other and be touched.
Thank you, Offred tells him. “That look on your face is thanks enough,” he says, pleased. There’s real pleasure in her smile as she reads the magazine, a flicker of June bleeding over from the flashbacks. Abusers are very good at that: at shrinking the size of your world, punishing you when you cross an invisible line that is perpetually moving, until you are standing very still on a tiny patch of grass like a dog unwilling to cross an electric fence. It’s amazing, too, how grateful you feel when they finally open the gate to take you for a walk, how even when they own you, even when you are still firmly on their leash, they can somehow make it feel like freedom.
There is often a deep insecurity at the heart of coercion, to taking away someone’s choices until the only choice left is what you want. It is, after all, the only way to be sure. As we see with the Commander, this impulse is often evil-twinned with its opposite: the desire for something genuine, for connection, for someone who means it. Gilead, like so much of patriarchy itself, is about the emotional precariousness of entitled little boys, acted out on the world by grown-ass men with fists and knives and guns and no self-awareness.
If our society were the world of 1984, then toxic masculinity would be the Ministry of Strength, an institution that parades as its opposite. It’s a masterful little bit of rebranding, really: to take all of your insecurities, all of your fears, your need to both avoid them and deny them, to fill an entire suit of armor with those broken, unexamined pieces of yourself, and then hang a sash on it that reads Strongest Man in the World.
There are few things as terrifying as taking off your armor and your excuses and your lies and your numbness and whatever Renaissance parade of domino masks you’ve created for yourself and for the world, and sitting alone in a room with whatever is left until you aren’t scared anymore. Toxic masculinity says that vulnerability is death, that emotional truth is a Trojan horse that will allow a kind of weakness behind your walls until it destroys you, emasculates you. There’s a reason the Commander has to have secret rendezvous with a woman he controls completely — and could kill instantly — in order to feel any sort of connection: It’s safe because he can make it disappear at any moment. It’s not real, but it’s just real enough.
It’s a dark mirror version of June meeting her husband, Luke, who was someone else’s husband when she met him. It was just lunch at first, then just jokes about how they would never have an affair, and then of course it was not a joke at all. One day after a clandestine encounter, June finally asks him to leave his wife. “Okay,” he says, with barely a pause. “I’m in love with you. What else am I gonna do?” It was that simple. It was love and they went toward love. In the end, this is what doomed June into becoming Offred, this adultery, this selfish choice, this choosing of the self even when the rules said it was wrong.
Serena Joy is also breaking rules, also admitting to things that are not supposed to exist. She whispers to Offred in the garden that she thinks her husband might be sterile, that she wants Offred to sleep with Nick instead. “What about the Commander?” Offred asks, saying the right thing first. “Forget about the Commander,” Serena Joy snaps, breaking the kayfabe of the whole glorious patriarchy bullshit out of desperation, because she needs this, she needs this, and in this moment the rules don’t matter.
There is an odd, sad intimacy in these moments, when even the architects of Gilead admit that the world they built is functionally impossible to navigate as a human being. They need to make their own secret spaces inside it, break their own rules, have their own heresies in order to have anything close to happiness. There’s something bitter about it, too, when the piety and rationalizations fall away. It’s the clear, cold realization that the “forbidden” things taken from you were never wrong, really — just something that someone else wanted to control.
The problem with compartmentalization is that these things have a way of not staying in their compartments. The Commander’s “connection” to Offred starts to bleed into the real world more at the next Ceremony, when he starts looking directly at her as he penetrates her. He’s not just performing an act, he’s fucking her, and it is terrifying particularly with Serena Joy mere feet away. In this moment, the rules don’t matter. He needs this.
Afterward, a furious Offred goes down to the office without an invitation — a bold move, but he’s given her a long enough leash to be a little bold. He’s going to get her killed if Serena Joy figures this out, Offred rages. He apologizes, offers a drink, and holds out a magazine. She declines. Women used to have choices, Offred says. The Commander counterpoints that now they have something more important: respect, protection, and the ability to fulfill their “biological destinies” without pesky distractions like free will. Nobody preaches the glory of self-abnegation quite like someone who is trying to take power away from you.
What else is there to live for besides children, anyway? “Love,” answers Offred, and there is so much more inside the word than some nebulous, honeyed notion of happiness. She means love not as feeling but as action, as the truest agency of the self. The right to love is the right to be a person — which is not just about what you want from someone or take from someone, but what you give back to them freely. It is both the possession of the self and the giving of the self, and you cannot truly do one without the other. You cannot give what you do not own.
In Gilead, everything is taken, never given. This, to the Commander, to the men of Gilead, is a better world. “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some,” he says before Offred leaves. She goes to the kitchen and retches into the sink. She feels what Ofsteven felt when she jumped in that car and drove across the head of one of the fascists who enslaved her: Fuck you. The power of fuck you isn’t about the other person, really; it’s about being a person who still feels like they have the right to say it.
And so later that night, Offred goes to Nick’s room. She’ll fuck him again not because she was forced but because she wants to, because she is still a person, and because she needs to remember this. She needs this.