Season 1, Episode 4: Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum
Hello folks! We’re back for the fourth installment of our Women in TV Blog Series featuring the Emmy award winning, The Handmaid’s Tale (the third installment found here). When we last left you, Offred and Ofglen were both facing horrible circumstances of imprisonment and abuse. In this blog, we’re talking about Episode 4 "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum" where we learn more about Offred’s struggle to maintain her sense of self through her new found confinement, and we also continue the flashbacks to her transition from free wife to imprisoned handmaid.
This was a really symbolically rich episode, so gird your loins and let’s get talking!
EH: Right, so going from the end of the last episode, where we learn that Ofglen has had her clitoris removed so that she “cannot want what she cannot have” I was super nervous about what was going to happen next.
The episode opens with Offred being confined to her room, with all the human contact and ‘normal’ elements of her new routine removed. As each day passes we get to watch (joy of joys) Offred truly become a prisoner, but even more importantly of her memories of the past especially when she is prevented from making any new memories by leaving her room. It really was an extraordinarily convincing depiction of how humans suffer with the loss of autonomy and freedom, even when the routine of her new ‘imprisoned’ lifestyle is disrupted.
We’ve returned again to the idea of fertility and sterility and I have in my notes that Old Testament scripture is being used to justify the new ‘sacred’ Ceremony (read: sex) and we learn that male sterility is not spoken of and that the word itself is forbidden. Yikes! Do you want to unpack some of the religious language they use here? Or talk about how hard it is to watch Offred go through the emotional turmoil of being locked in her room? (Moss really did earn that Emmy).
KD: Well, let me just say that the way that Gilead has interpreted the role of Bilhah in story is, from my opinion as a theological scholar, incorrect. I can go into much stronger language, but instead of understanding the cultural context in which Rachel, Leah, Jacob, and Bilhah existed and why some of their choices were made, the founders of Gilead took a literal interpretation as a commandment for future action. Common wisdom is that the Torah and Old Testament books are not meant for such a purpose, but are instead to provide guidances and stories through which we can understand the character of God and engage our critical thinking skills.
Allow me to pause here and put my professor/pastor hat on. The story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel is essentially a soap opera trope come to life. Jacob was in love with Rachel, worked years in her father’s fields to marry her, and then the father switched the sisters on the wedding night, unbeknownst to Jacob. Married to Leah and not happy about it, Jacob works for longer for the right to marry Rachel and eventually does. I just ache for Leah when I read this story. When the relevant bit to Gilead picks up in Genesis 29:31, we learn that God gave Leah sons because she was not loved.
After she has four and Rachel has had none, Rachel’s jealousy consumes her and she lashes out at Jacob, who reminds her he has no control over her fertility. She makes him marry her servant, Bilhah, who then conceives two children. There’s a few more kids until finally, Rachel gives birth to Joseph of the magical technicolor dreamcoat. This is a story of jealousy, mourning, polygamy, and an agricultural culture which needed sons to survive. Not really a story of political domination and theocracy as Gilead would have us believe. (One of my favorite details of this is that it’s Leah who is really remembered in history - she’s one of the five women named in the lineage of Jesus as presented in Matthew 1.) Pastor hat off, but I think the context is important.
Also, the physicality of how Gilead does it is dehumanizing to ALL involved as well as the act itself, as if we are told God created humanity, then pleasure centers activated during sex were intentionally created as well. There is a relatively easy way to make the Biblical argument that if sex isn’t pleasurable for both parties involved, it’s not fulfilling its full purpose.
This world is entirely devoid of pleasure, however, even for men. I was glad they included a bit where the Commander couldn’t perform, as it were, because I was wondering what happened with circumstance. Do you think that connects to his need to play Scrabble? And to flirt with and almost date his handmaid?
EH: Preach, Pastor Kristen! So much of this context is NECESSARY (especially for us heathens). I think invention of an emotional relationship with Waterford’s handmaid is entirely about his difficulty performing during the ceremony. We learn more about his potential sterility in this episode, in a very telling (and downright scary) scene where the doctor that examines Offred offers to inseminate her so that she can become pregnant. Yet, we aren’t quite sure if he is actually sterile or just so dehumanized by the ritual that he can’t ejaculate.
It’s fascinating to me that through his need to reestablish the emotional dynamics that Gilead has removed from relationships, with the Scrabble and the flirting, he is humanizing, reanimating, both himself and Offred.
While this episode is right in your religious wheelhouse, what struck me from an imprisonment and resistance standpoint was the representation of communal/shared experiences and the bond that this creates with the imprisoned. This concept frames this episode through Offred’s discovery of the latin inscription in her bedroom closet - where she is connected to the previous handmaid through her act of resistance - as handmaid’s are not allowed to read or write.
We also see it in our flashbacks, in the way the other handmaid’s steal food for Offred when she is punished for escaping with Moira. It is this unification through small acts of resistance that empowers Offred to continue her efforts with the Commander and I’m sure will lead her through the rest of this season. What was your reaction to these two scenes of small, yet beautiful resistance?
KD: So, one of the core traditions in nearly every stream of Christianity is communion. Call it eucharist, Lord’s Supper, whatever, it’s the ceremonial remembrance of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on the night before his death. For me, his command to break bread and drink wine together in remembrance of him is core to the faith, to the extent that my best theology is worked out around tables and over meals. Food is essential and so is community. That final meal Jesus had was the night before he was going to be killed as a political prisoner of the Roman state, and he was already a known rabble rouser.
When the four gospels were written (scattered between AD 33 and AD 90), Christianity was still illegal. So, one interpretation of Jesus’ request that we remember him at meals is that we remember the resistance. We remember when we stood up to Empire and said that Caesar was not a god and certainly not anyone we would worship.
As Christianity became the legal religion, this interpretation got lost for sure. When we moved from being the outcast to being in power, what were we resisting? In fact, I would imagine that most Christians these days forget the oppression and politics of the Roman Empire and certainly fail to see commonalities between Rome and … say … America. Or Gilead. But in a theocracy like Gilead, the counter-cultural incarnational political radical who was executed for saying Caesar wasn’t god and we really should all love each other equally is back in his exegetically* rightful place. Placed there by the handmaid’s and their resisting acts of breaking bread and remembering.
This bond forged in resistance is one I’ll be watching closely as we move through the series, and I’m certain you will too, Erin.
EH: Oh heck yes. Call me Captain Obvious but I have a feeling that resistance to systemic oppression (in all the tiny and huge and in between ways) is going to be central to the rest of the series. What a great point to end on, I had never (I know you’ll be shocked) made the connection before between communion and resistance. Another notch in the argument for the importance of historical context! On that note, let’s roll on to episode 5!
*For those of us that aren’t theological scholars, this word means 'within the text.'