Handmaid’s Tale Episode 4 Explained in Detail

Sorry, sorry sorry. Life caught up with me and pulled me down from behind. Who knew? Have I mentioned that this site is a hobby lately? Some people seem to think this is actually my job? Which, to set the record straight, I would ADORE doing… and yet, the last time I checked I don’t think you paid much to read my bloviations! Nope. Just double checked, you didn’t. So, barring that, it’s still a hobby. But regardless, we have another great episode to consider today in the land of the new Handmaid’s Tale world. So exciting.

But what’s more exciting? Handmaid’s Tale has just this past week been renewed for a season two! Boom.

The Narrator of Handmaid’s Tale

One thing I want to say before we dive into the ep4 overview – is that the narrator of the Handmaid’s Tale is actually a cheeky little minx. For example we know for a fact that Serena Joy is a made up name that the Narrator (assumedly June) gave the Commander’s wife as a bit of a joke. We know this from the ending appendix material and the commentary from the end which states that there was no Commander’s wife with that name. We also get an idea that maybe she played with some of the other facts as well. Though we don’t know exactly what facts or why. So the book is even more clever in that we are viewing these events from the optics of the book that she editorialized through. Right? So this doesn’t effect this episode as much, but I’m sure it will come home to roost soon enough.

Handmaid’s Tale Episode 4 Overview

If you are a fan of Handmaid’s Tale I’m betting you would really get into Westworld. It has a very similar advanced modern dystopian feel to it. But in Episode 4 of Handmaid’s Tale, this feeling went to 11 for me. Mainly because of Offred’s attempt to get out of the locked down compound. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

During this episode we got a pile of glimpses beyond the insular compound that Offred is trapped on. How does the government work? How is it connected to the outside world, or is it? Well, at the outset of episode 4 we hear from Commander Waterford that an Aunt had escaped from the “Needham Red Center”. So we know for sure there are just this one center. We also learn that she made it across the border and was telling her story. Which caused Waterford all manner of discomfort. Apparently this caused craziness at the UN and also in Gilead’s relationship with Canada as well.

Interestingly enough, we see the “training” session for the handmaids where Aunt Elizabeth explains how the Ceremony will work. “Wait, we are to have intercourse with the commander while his wife holds our hands?!?” When I saw the dazed and confused look on the women’s faces as this was playing out I thought back to Aunt Elizabeth’s soliloquy about how all of this will become normal in time. That humans were capable of normalizing pretty much anything. And she was right, this is definitely an anything… Definitely an extreme thing to normalize to. To put it lightly.

Solitary Confinement and Busted Ceremonies

I have to say, it’s pretty amazing that Offred hasn’t gone stark raving mad already. Her daughter is AWOL. Her husband might have been killed. She branded as a slut and forced to work as chattel for the wealthy as a trafficked sex slave. And now Serena Joy (which, isn’t even her real name, just so you know. It’s the name she picked from her gospel choir performing days… which hasn’t even been mentioned yet in the show. SERENE? JOY? Gah!) has Offred locked up in her room? Of course she’s starting to drool a little and wonder what the air smells like.

And then she finds: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” carved into the closet wall. Or, ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’. I took Latin (and Greek) years ago, while in college and there were a ton of these joke-like phrases that got tossed around all the time. But to be clear, bastardes isn’t latin. Nor is Carborundorum. But it still communicates the message clearly. Which is why so many people (women specifically) think it is a fantastic tattoo idea. It deconstructs the standard Latin language constructs (the old boy’s school’s tongue) while simultaneously being code among women to not let the men wear them down. Right? It’s clever. But it wasn’t a phrase that Atwood created. It was a thing back when Margaret Atwood was at school as well apparently.

Handmaid’s Tale Escape Plan

The episode takes a turn in a flash black that is surprising in it’s audacity. Moira and June put a knife to an Aunt’s throat and take her clothes. When this first kicked off I was like, um… what the heck? And Moira and June are off to the races. They head out to the subway station in order to head towards the city (wherever that is) but all to no avail. Moira gets on the arriving train, but leaves June behind. And as a result Offred is caned on the bottom of her feet. (Hard Core.)

Viagra Anyone?

After that unfortunate flashback, we flash forward back to Commander Waterford’s home and the ceremony. The Ceremony, which doesn’t work. And I can’t imagine why it doesn’t work – that would be the least romantic thing imaginable in my mind. Awful really. But even in spite of the ineffectual Ceremony, Offred and Commander Waterford still play their second round of Scrabble. And even after playing the word Sylph Offred still figures out a way to throw the game. She’s more clever than I realized!

And while challenging the word, Offred sees a Latin dictionary and asks the Commander if he took Latin growing up. And apparently he did. So she asks him if he could translate something for him. “What does Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum mean?” And Commander Waterford explains that it isn’t Latin really at all. But rather something of a joke meant for schoolboys that enjoyed that sort of a thing. But that it means, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” And so, Offred asks the Commander if maybe she could be let out of her room again… and he complies. And as the group of women are leaving the neighborhood together the show ends with June saying, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorm bitches.” Which is just a war rallying cry of sorts.

More Thoughts on the Fourth Episode

The direction that this relationship is going between Offred and Waterford is highly disconcerting on a number of levels. First, Offred has been something of a milktoast protagonist. I understand that she is doing her best to stay sane, and stay alive in the worst of all imaginable circumstances. And she is anything but complicit. Of course. And yet, her games with the commander are definitely beginning to make me second guess her objectivity and understanding of what is going on here.

Think about it. I say Commander Waterford. Check your emotional state. Now, I say Serena Joy. Which do you hate more? Oh, it’s easy at this point. You obviously hate Serena Joy at a really deep emotional level, which is how Offred feels too. But really? All our angst is directed at the lady of the house and not one of the founders of this Republic? Really? Waterford’s hands are covered in metaphorical – no actual – blood. Serena’s hands? Tainted. Sure. But bloody? I’m seriously conflicted here. Especially knowing where this thing is going. But hey, we are have another season to think about. Right? This could go way off the rails here soon enough.

Love to know what you thought of episode 4…

Interested in reading all of my Handmaiden’s Tale episode recaps so far? You got it – I will update them here as I write them:
Episode 1 – Offred
Episode 2 – Birth Day
Episode 3 – Late
Episode 4 – Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum
Episode 5 – Faithful
Episode 6 – A Woman’s Place
Episode 7 – The Other Side
Episode 8 – Jezebels
Episode 9 – The Bridge
Episode 10 – Night
Season 1 Deconstruction

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5 Responses

  1. Judy

    Actually, although Serena Joy presents as an unlikable character, I realize that she’s in quite a lot of emotional pain – we don’t know what kind of career she had before she had to take on this subservient-to-husband role, so she’s most likely terribly bored – plus it is obvious that she’s in love with/extremely attracted to her husband and not only does she have to watch him having intercourse with the handmaid, she has to HOLD the handmaid between her own legs, plus her husband rebuffs her amorous advances – and, oh, imagine the agony of that kind of rejection. I remember as a teen having a gigantic crush on a boy who didn’t return my feelings, and when he started dating one of my friends and I’d see them making out during parties or bus rides or whatever, the pain I felt was indescribably intense, my self-esteem plummeted, and I became extremely depressed, which led to me being irritable, impatient and downright grumpy. Imagine me having to HOLD my friend while they were making out – oh, geez… anyway, Serena Joy’s emotional pain in general, plus her resentment towards Offred, must be off the charts, and that has a lot to do with her bitchiness…

    Reply
    • Taylor Holmes

      Serena Joy (or Pam, which is probably her real name(?) – per the book anyway) was an accomplished and touring singer before the rise of the republic. Post revolution, the book tells us she was a motivational speaker, and only did that (ie work outside the home) because she cared about the republic and was doing it as a sacrifice. Outside of that, she was a very accomplished knitter. heheh, and spent much of her free time knitting.

      But yes, totally on target. She is in a really really bad way. (And it is only going to get worse for her before it gets better(?)) My only point is, we hate her because she is a tyrant. And yet, it isn’t too surprising she’s a tyrant. I’ve read some interviews with Yvonne Strahovski and she was fairly bowled over by the part. She really worried about taking the part home with her. Etc. What I was most interested in, was why I didn’t hate the Commander as much. I mean, besides the fact that he’s nice. Which, should be irrelevant. But it is an interesting question.

      Reply
  2. Judy

    Well, I’m just going to have to read the book! 🙂 Perhaps we will come to like the Commander less – and Serena Joy more – oh, darn, can’t wait till Wednesday…

    Reply
  3. Happy Pancake

    So much to chew on! Perhaps I ought to organize by character.

    Serena Joy – I try to keep in mind that not only is she forced to watch her husband have relations with another woman on the regular, our Offred isn’t the first other woman/handmaid/Offred that SJ has had to watch this happen with. I don’t know how long Gilead has been around, but presumably she was married to the Commander prior to it – and if this is the third woman he cannot impregnate, it is likely he who is the problem and she has guessed it. Perhaps that is why SJ became so joyous at the sliver of possibility that Offred was pregnant. It was quite the turnaround of behavior, and it seemed like even more than baby-fever and religious-ferver. She truly was treating treating Offred as a miracle, as if her husband had one sperm live and make the journey alone. Additionally, if Offred was pregnant, SJ would have to endure the Ceremony no longer.

    The Commander – As you pointed out, he is an architect of the regime, and a true antagonist our story. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, power corrupts. He invites his Handmaid for forbidden personal time, game playing, dictionary usage, latin translation and alcohol. He gifted her a magazine that he should have burned, and he allowed himself to be manipulated by an underling to let her leave her room. He is indulging himself in emotional corruption, and I don’t believe it is because he felt bad that pre-Offred offed herself. He wants the Ceremony to have some intimacy by connecting with Offred as a person. Additionally, we saw him rebuff his wife. I imagine SJ has changed. Hardened. Who wouldn’t under the circumstances? She is not the woman he originally fell in love with. So he is excusing his indulgences. But he has an inscrutable face, unchallengeable power (for certain in the home and much power outside of it), and I fear for Offred as she tests the limits of his indulgence.

    The Driver – A young man without power but who seems to have some autonomy and some knowledge of both the regime and the resistance. He seems attracted to Offred and worried about her, but I am reminded that there is an Eye in the house. If the Commander can be swayed by emotion, so could a driver who is an Eye. Just a possibility.

    Martha/The Cook – We know the least about her. She also may be the Eye, but I think it is less likely in that she seems to leave the house the least and that would not afford her the opportunity to pass along information to the regime. She also had a significant turn of personality when she thought Offred might be pregnant. Would it be because the household in general would be happier and that would make things less difficult for her? What else would she get out of it?

    The Eye – I believe the Eye would spy on all levels of caste and power. So it would not be the Commander or his wife. It must be someone who could pass as resistance, and thereby gain information from resistance. It must be someone who gains the ear of power so any cracks therein could be revealed. So, perhaps it is the Driver. Perhaps his kindness to Offred is merely a manipulation. He was aware already that Ofglen was “dangerous.”

    Offred – If I haven’t said it before, Elisabeth Moss is MAGNIFICENT as Offred. The subtle expressions that tell of deep pools of emotion and life beneath. Offred’s inner monologue…no….inner prayer, as she is about to face the Black Truck interrogator and Aunt, praying to God(?) that she will be devout and compliant if she can just get through this. But deep down, devout and compliant will never be who she is. Not one minute later, she was withholding from the interrogator and sassing the Aunt. Withholding was survival, but sassing was cavalierly standing up for herself. It was resistance. It was an assertion that no matter how compliant they make her body, they will not take her heart and mind.

    Moira – I hope she escaped and was not killed. The rumor of her demise was not definitive. I sometimes make the choice to look at imdb and see how many episodes an actor is in, and that can tell you things about their character’s fate, though that is not as helpful when flashbacks occur. As Offred’s husband and child have been lost to her since her ordeal began, Moira is Offred’s touchstone to reality. She was present in both before and after, and she is the living embodiment of hope – that she got on the train and made it out.

    Reply
  4. anuska

    Can somebody explain to me why Offred didn’t escape with Moira? I mean when the soldiers started to harrass Offred, Moira should’ve said something like “leave her alone, she’s with me, we’re going to Boston” and they could’ve get on the train together. Am I missing something important? That scene made no sense to me this way.

    Reply

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