The second episode of The Handmaid’s Tale opens with Offred getting raped, yet again, by the Commander while she stares at the pale-blue paint of the ceiling. “Our car was that color,” she muses, almost absent-mindedly. “We bought it off Craigslist.” It’s getting more normal now, almost like Aunt Lydia promised. Is that better or worse?
Today Offred gets to leave the house for a very rare non-grocery trip, conveyed to assist in the birth of another Handmaid in a car called the Birthmobile, because Gilead is a cloyingly literal place. Nick has two unnerving pieces of information for her before she leaves: She shouldn’t get too close to Ofglen because it’s “dangerous,” and the Commander wants to see her alone in his office that evening, a great big no-no according to the rules that say that their contact is limited to the creepy, maudlin pseudo-threesomes with his wife.
That thought sits in the back of Offred’s head as she goes to what seems like the perfect garden party, complete with candy-colored towers of macaroons, where a wife dressed in white groans in fake labor while an actual goddamn harp plays in the background. She’s the one who will be the “real” mother of the child, and so she has to pretend to give birth to it. Offred chuckles quietly to herself because these people are almost too ridiculous to take seriously, except for the fact that you have to or they will kill you. Fascism!
Upstairs, Janine is actually giving birth, while Aunt Lydia — the woman who took out her eye — crouches beside her, the picture of warmth and concern. “Good girl,” says Aunt Lydia. “We’re so proud of you!” This moment is the most attention, the most care, the closest to something approaching love that a Handmaid will ever receive. Why? Because something valuable inside her will be taken away and given to someone else. She is special in this moment only as the vessel that contains it. As the moment of birth nears, the wife in white sits behind Janine, pushes, trying to take even this away. The baby is born healthy — a small miracle — and quickly swept into the arms of the wife, who names her Angela, because again: painfully literal.
Back at home, Offred realizes that it’s time for her secret evening rendezvous. Women are not permitted in the Commander’s office, not even his wife, and so there is something terribly transgressive and frightening about knocking on his door. “I can’t stop thinking about the girl in the horror movie who goes down into the basement when the lights are out,” Offred thinks as she walks into the dark, illicit space. “That girl’s a fucking moron. Please God don’t let me be a fucking moron.”
In horror films, the role of women is often very simple: to be titillating, terrorized, and torn apart. We like our women sexy and scared, appealing and vulnerable. There’s another way of looking at horror movies, too: not that the women in them are stupid, but that they are often the only ones saying that something is wrong, who have the intuition and perceptiveness to know that maybe you shouldn’t break into the haunted house in the middle of the woods after hearing that a serial killer is on the loose. It’s just that no one seems to listen to them. We blame them anyway for dying, if they are not fast enough, not brave enough, not careful enough. Her fault.
So much of Atwood’s story is wound around exploring what happens when a society takes arch-conservative ideas about women to their absolute conclusion: If a woman’s place is in the home, what would that really look like? If a woman’s body does not belong to her — if, as some actual politicians have suggested, they are nothing more than “hosts” for babies — what would that really look like? If women are to blame for sexual assault if they drink or wear the wrong clothes or don’t fight back enough, where exactly does that ultimately take us?
These ideas do not end in smiling pictures of wholesome nuclear families. They end in places where women’s bodies are not considered their own, where they are treated as objects to be used, where they are forced into bearing children — an actual reality for many women in America today, where access to abortion has been deeply eroded by punitive regulations, women get put in jail for having miscarriages, and the president feels totally cool going on television and saying there should be “punishment” for women who get abortions.
Misogyny is not a fantastical, speculative-fiction invention; it is very real and we breathe it like air. One of the most insidious, self-perpetuating things about misogyny is that it encourages people not to believe women, so it can be difficult to convince some men that it exists at all. After all, the thinking goes, if things were that horrible, surely someone would be doing something about it! Which is how we get a New York Times columnist opining about how the campus rape epidemic can’t possibly be real, because if rape were really that prevalent, why would any sane woman set foot on a college campus? Newsflash: The rape and assault of women is not magically confined to higher education; it’s a very real threat women face every time we leave the house. We could, I suppose, stop going to college, stop leaving our houses entirely — and then we’re in Gilead. See how that works?
Let’s roll the tape back and say it again, because this part is important: Life as a woman is so dangerous that some men find it literally unbelievable when confronted with its realities. To them, it is akin to Gilead, a world that is surely too terrible to be true. But the terrible thing about Gilead is all the ways that it already is reality, albeit one with the sexist volume turned up several notches.
Back in his office, the Commander is feeling very gracious, so he decides to turn it down a notch. “Thank you for coming,” he tells Offred after she enters. Of course, she had no choice, but that isn’t his point. The point is that he’s so magnanimous that he’s willing to go through the motions of pretending that she did. What a mensch! They love to be forgiving, Ofglen told her. They love to be generous. They like to take things away so they can feel your gratitude when they give you a fraction of it back, to starve you so they feel like heroes when they secretly feed you scraps beneath the table.
“I’d like to play a game with you,” the Commander says. Are his desires perhaps … unconventional? In fact, his desires are hilariously conventional. The next thing the Commander does is take out an honest-to-god Scrabble game and invite her to play. Yes, the deep, dark fantasy he wants to act out with Offred in his mysterious inner sanctum is board-game night. They are acting out a scene from another world, where men and women used to sit and play games and make jokes. Although there’s an exhilarating feeling of freedom in it, make no mistake: This is not for Offred at all. She is an actress, here to act out a fantasy for the man who controls her. It is just another way he is using her, albeit a less rapey one.
The Commander wins — or more accurately, Offred lets him win — and he suggests a rematch after he comes back from his next trip. “I’ll check my schedule,” she dares to joke, testing the limits of the small, provisional freedom she has been granted in this room. “See if you can squeeze me in,” he zings back. The joke is that she is enslaved to him and has no choice, ha-ha! But it’s darkly funny nonetheless. He shakes her hand when she leaves, an odd, charged gesture that feels both like giving something to her and taking something from her, offering her a tiny gesture of personhood wrapped in the inescapable threat of his power.
Back in her room, Offred bursts into barely concealed laughter about their “illicit journey into the world of triple-word scores,” about how ridiculous these people are. For all their supposed piety and power, the somber, suited men who run Gilead with an iron fist are nothing more than lonely little boys, sad that they’ve locked their favorite toys away in boxes and can’t play with them the same way anymore. The Commander wants to take her out to play Normal Life, and then put her back in the box that men like him built. But it’s a dangerous game for Offred, who is little more than a doll to him. After all, what happens when you get tired of your toys?