The Handmaid’s Tale
Ofglen is gone. “She left nothing behind,” Offred says, except her name, which was not even hers.
Offred says that she is awake to the world now, that she was asleep before. “That’s how we let it happen,” she thinks. “Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” The change was incremental at first: Their rights were suspended in the interest of national security, in the name of fighting terrorism. They were asked to make sacrifices, perhaps, to give up just a little of their rights and freedoms for the greater good. Once you’ve made one compromise, what’s another? What’s one step more?
This is how they take everything from you: one thing at a time.
Perhaps each change is inconvenient, uncomfortable, even upsetting, but for the most part, the world kept turning. As long as you can go about your business, most people will. You can imagine the naysayers chuckling lightly, telling everyone to calm down, that they’re overreacting, that it isn’t the end of the world. It wasn’t the end of the world until it was.
In a flashback, we see June and Moira stopping at a coffee shop, where they discover that June’s credit card has stopped working, and the woman who usually works behind the counter has been replaced by a very unhelpful man who calls them “fucking sluts” and tells them to get out.
A truly instructive thing happens when racism and sexism become tolerated openly: Suddenly, people don’t have to pretend they aren’t terrible. They are free to be as shitty as they want to be, as shitty as they secretly always were. Lift up the rock and see what comes wriggling out. For example, after a man who boasted on tape about sexually assaulting women became the actual president of the United States, a Republican politician reportedly celebrated this victory by grabbing the crotch of a female employee and saying, “I love this new world. I no longer have to be politically correct.”
If your nightmare is someone else’s dream, if their paradise means turning you into a toy, an object, a thing, what does that tell you about what you are to them? Conservatives like to talk about “political correctness” as though it’s some sort of intellectual cage, rather than an expectation of basic respect and human decency, which makes it pretty terrifying when they rhapsodize about throwing off its shackles. Above, for example, “politically correct” is actually just shorthand for “not a sex criminal,” and yet somehow these limitations have really been chafing this guy, really been making him feel like he isn’t truly free. Doesn’t he deserve to be free? Always be careful when people start throwing around the word “freedom.” Always ask: Whose freedoms are we talking about, and freedom from what?
June is on the phone with the bank trying to figure out what happened with her credit card when men in black start marching through her office with machine guns. This is when it changes. Water can heat for a long time, but there’s always a boiling point. Moments later, their nebbish boss Roger calls a meeting to announce that he has to let them go, that it’s the law now. “Ladies, you should all know that I feel really sorry about this,” he whimpers, shrugging ineffectually. Thanks, Rog. That and two bucks will buy them a cup of coffee.
Back at home, June and Moira and Luke drink wine and make dark jokes, because what else do you do when the world is ending? Bank accounts owned by women have been frozen and are being transferred to their male relatives; women are no longer allow to work or own property. “They can’t just do this,” June says. “They can,” Moira replied. Can’t was gone a long time ago, after martial law was declared, after the Constitution was suspended, after authoritarianism and fundamentalism crept into the halls of power and everyone just kept going about their business. Now all that’s left now is shouldn’t, which is rarely an effective weapon against people with machine guns. Now they get to write the can’ts, and they have a very long list prepared.
Back in Gilead, Offred’s period is a couple days late, and Serena Joy’s white-knuckled hope for a child spirals quickly into premature excitement. “How do you feel?” she asks Offred, her usual icy demeanor melting into to a thirstiness that is both desperate and frightening. “Are your breasts tender at all?” Rita and Serena Joy stand there watching Offred eagerly, suddenly so caring, so expectant. There’s something unnerving about receiving kindness from someone who has hurt you many times before, a precariousness, like an unlatched door that could slam shut on your hand at any moment.
Serena Joy invites Offred to come along to see baby Angela, as though the proximity of the baby could somehow bring another into existence. “Did you have fun?” Serena Joy asks later, after Offred has met up with the increasingly unhinged Janine. “I imagine you two have a lot to talk about these days.” The expectation settles over Offred like a weight, a terrible promise she never made but somehow has to keep.
On the way home, Nick remains oddly silent until he suddenly turns to Offred and says she needs to know something. “You can’t change anything about this,” he tells her. “It’s going to end the same way no matter what you do so there’s no point in trying to be tough or brave. Everybody breaks.”
Is he talking about life as a Handmaid, how the bastards inevitably grind you down? Nope, he’s talking about the big black van sitting in the driveway back at the house, where Aunt Lydia and the Eyes are waiting to interrogate her. They’ve got all kinds of questions about Ofglen: What did she and Offred talk about on their walks? Where did they go? Did Ofglen ever touch her? Turns out that she wasn’t arrested for working with the resistance, but for having a relationship with one of the Marthas. Offred ends up getting smashed across the skull with Aunt Lydia’s cattle prod and zapped repeatedly before Serena Joy races in and calls them off, screaming that she’s pregnant.
If things are bad for Offred, they’re worse for Ofglen, whose trial for “gender treachery” lasts all of ten seconds before her lover is condemned to execution and she is sentenced to “redemption.” The two women are put in a van where they can’t speak through their muzzles, so they hold hands and weep until the other woman is dragged out and hung from a crane. It happens so fast that you almost can’t believe it; one minute she’s in the van, and the next we see her body swinging through the back window as Ofglen screams into the mask, even the sound of her grief disappearing from the world.
Later, Ofglen wakes up in a medical gown in a very white room. She looks down to find bandages over her crotch, and we realize that female genital mutilation is one of the many tools wielded by the Gilead regime. Just when you think they’ve taken everything, they find another piece of being human to cut away from you. “Things will be so much easier for you now,” Aunt Lydia says. “You won’t want what you cannot have.”
After the beating, Nick comes into Offred’s room to check on her, bringing ice that he presses into her hands with an alarming intensity. “I should have just driven away with you,” he says. It is a sweet thing to say, but also an easy one, now that it’s all said and done. Should’ve is the story of who we wish we’d been, not the story of who we were, and only one of those stories matters. Their mouths are so close to each other that it feels like sex, but they never touch. It is everything and nothing.
Then, of course, Offred gets her period. She goes to tell Serena Joy the unfortunate news, and to make things maximally terrible, she finds her in the midst of cleaning out a spare room to turn into a nursery. “I want to tell you something,” Serena Joy says, her eyes gleaming. “Fred and I, we tried for so long, and it was hard to keep faith, but here you are. You’re right here. You’re my miracle.” She kisses Offred’s hands.
But when Offred quietly reveals that she’s not pregnant, Serena Joy’s face falls, hardens. Gilead has set Offred up to be someone who not only takes something from Serena Joy — the sexual fidelity of her husband — but someone who seemingly withholds the one thing she wants most. This is not just a disappointment; this is a betrayal. Her body has broken a promise, has broken Serena Joy’s heart. She grabs Offred roughly by the hand, drags her through the house, and throws her onto the floor of her room. “You will stay here, and you will not leave this room!” she screams. “Things can get much worse for you.”
This is how they take everything from you: one thing at a time.