This week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t jam-packed with plot points like the last three, but that isn’t a failing. Upon realizing that June is not, in fact, pregnant, Mrs. Waterford has locked her in her room. Well, “locked” isn’t entirely accurate – June makes a point of telling the audience that her door is unlocked, sometimes even cracked open. This is how the entire society of Gilead continues to survive – making sure that everyone knows the severity of the punishment for stepping outside the lines.
She’s been well and truly isolated for almost two weeks. She finds a carving on the inside of her closet, a handful of Latin words: “nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” The Martha – whose name is Rita – finds her on her closet floor and assumes that she’s fainted. June goes along with it to get out of the house, hoping for the walk, but she’s forced into the confines of the car. Mrs. Waterford slams the divider shut so she can’t even talk to the driver, Nick.
The doctor (hey, it’s Donnie from Orphan Black) is also separated from her by a translucent sheet – he can see her genitalia, but not her face. Of course. When he breaks with protocol by offering casual speech, you’re reminded slightly of Ofglen, and you wonder for a second if he could actually help her. It quickly becomes clear, though, that when he says “I can help you,” he means by having sex with her himself to increase her chances of getting pregnant. Also: of course.
There might be good men left in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale – Nick might even be one of them – but I have trouble believing it. The fact that men hoard all of the power means that trusting any of them isn’t a possibility, at all. (Not all men? Sorry, yeah. All men. To a smaller degree, this is what it feels like to be a woman in our world: always checking over your shoulder, never walking alone, always making sure your friend knows where you are in case… in case.) The only potential allies are other women – and the hints at female solidarity that have existed throughout the series grow in this episode.
It becomes clear here that the flashbacks aren’t just for the audience’s benefit; some of them serve as a coping mechanism for June. Throughout the episode, she returns to the same memory, going to the carnival with her husband and baby daughter. She turns it over and over, trying desperately to draw out joy from it. Instead, she uses the privacy of the car to rage.
The “ceremony” (read: rape) comes around again, and it’s not any easier to watch this time. Luckily for June, Commander Waterford can’t get it up. We get an insight into Mrs. Waterford in a scene between them, when she offers to “help” but is turned away by her husband. June isn’t the only one who’s completely isolated, but the power imbalance between the wives and the handmaids makes sure that they won’t find comfort in one another.
June plays Scrabble with Waterford again in his study, discovering the fate of the previous Offred (she killed herself) and the translation of the phrase she found in her closet (don’t let the bastards grind you down). She uses Waterford’s guilt against him, wheedling for a little more freedom. And even though I’m pretty sure he knows exactly what she’s doing, he allows her back out of her room.
During this episode’s flashbacks, we discover what actually happened to Moira. The two devise a plan: they attack an Aunt, tying her up in the basement, and Moira poses as an Aunt escorting a handmaiden. They just have to get to the outside world – which exists, by the way. The most unsettling moment this episode, by far, was seeing Commander Waterford using the Internet and talking about the U.N. “What’s going on with the rest of the world in these dystopias? Are they just watching America go completely off its rocker?” Well, the answer here is: yeah, abso-freaking-lutely. He mentions that an Aunt escaped and told her story in the Toronto Star, and the normalcy of it is staggering. But, anyway: they almost make it. They thread their way through the subway (the T) and past ever-present armed military, trying to board the train to Boston. But June gets stopped by a guard. She and Moira lock eyes, she nods, and Moira boards the subway without her.
It’s fascinating that an episode spent almost entirely in solitary confinement provides the strongest touches of female solidarity yet. They’re small, and many of them are acts of resistance themselves. In such a world, they become irrevocably linked: to unite is to resist. When June finds the carving, she knows it was written by the previous Offred – she knows it’s a message left explicitly for her. She finds herself linked to her in this small kindness, reminded of Moira doing the same thing in the bathroom of the center (“AUNT LYDIA SUX”).
“If they catch you writing you’ll lose a hand. You know that, it’s not worth it,” says June. “Yeah, it is,” Moria insists. “And once we get outta here, there’s gonna be a girl who comes here and reads it. It’ll let her know she’s not alone.” After her feet are beaten for trying to escape, one by one, every single handmaid silently lays a scrap of food by her pillow. Solidarity; resistance.
June isn’t alone in her alone-ness, because the ghosts of Offred, and Moira, and the other handmaids are there to buoy her – and they do. They make her bold enough to get what she can from the Commander, and the episode ends with the image of her and the new Ofglen walking the streets again. Another pair of handmaids flanks them, and another, and another, and another. The message is clear: the revolution is coming, and they’re going to lead it.