Season 1, Episode 5: Faithful
Moving on to our fifth installment of our Women in TV Blog Series covering The Handmaid’s Tale, today’s blog mark’s our halfway point into this exploration of religious and imprisonment themes (yahoo!). In episode 5, ‘Faithful’ we join Offred as she continues to grow her personal relationship with the Commander and the controversy over his sterility creates more tension and problems for the household (need an episode 4 refresh?).
We’re starting to get to the meat of the matter, so let’s sharpen our knives and dig in! (Maybe I shouldn’t start these blogs right before lunch)
KD: First thing, have you noticed there’s no kissing in Gilead? It’s like Vi from Pretty Woman is running the show or something. It struck me particularly at the end of the episode, but wow, what a thing. No intimacy, no tenderness in Gilead.
The quote I wrote down and circled about seven times was from the Commander towards the end, “Love isn’t real, was never more than lust or a marketing campaign.” I sat with that for several minutes. Not only does this reduce love to sex and sex without joy or pleasure, it reduces human existence to transactional. Love, the kind that bonds humans beyond logic and yet remains an active choice, is what powers our lives. To dismiss it so casually is astounding and yet completely necessary for the construction of this world.
There were a few things dropped in this episode - like what the hell are the Colonies? - that I think we’ll return to in later bits, but I’d like to pause on the conversation that Offred has with the new Offglen. She makes the point that the new world order of Gilead is better for her than what she had before because Gilead brought stability. Did that strike you as it did me?
EH: We’re going to to put a pin in your opening salvo about the lack of intimacy and emotion because I have an appropriate rant once we get towards the end of this episode.
In going back to my notes on Offred’s conversation with the new Ofglen, I loved this mirroring language between her and the Commander. Where the Commander claims that they (who formed Gilead) wanted to make the world better, our initial introduction to it, through Offred’s eyes and emotions, gives us a very limited (and negative) perspective. What the conversation with new Ofglen (Ofglen 2?) reminds us is that all experiences (even those of imprisonment or confinement) happen on a spectrum. What Offred sees as restrictive and oppressive, Ofglen 2 sees as protection, safety and security. This scene provided much needed nuance and sets up this fascinating fundamental dichotomy that removing emotion and pleasure, and forcing women to focus on their biological imperative is either good or bad for societal progress. Phew!
As always, we learn more about June's backstory and discover that she was convicted of adultery. Since we are only really given June’s voice as an internal monologue, I was both intrigued and upset to see the problematization of her character. What did you make of what we learned about her in this episode? Did it change your opinion of her?
KD: Ya know, it did. I like that she’s more complicated and therefore human, but I’m not sure she’s someone I would want to spend time with. Extra-marital affairs are a challenge for me to empathize with (I certainly can, but it’s a challenge) and the moment where she asks him to leave his wife… I immediately placed myself in the wife’s shoes and grumbled at June. She hit me as fundamentally selfish, which may be why she works as a protagonist in this world where she must resist. If she wasn’t so sure of her self importance, the mindset of Gilead mind seep in more.
Can we go back to the opening bit? Offred has sex twice with Nick in this episode. Once, with the Wife in the room (her levels of imprisonment are myriad as well) and then once in her own agency. What did you think of that dichotomy?
EH: *Cracks knuckles, prepares for keyboard rant* I’m so glad you asked about what, for me, are the pivotal scenes in this episode. Yes, we learn more about Ofsteven (formerly Ofglen 1, formerly Emily, formerly Rory Gilmore) and we advance the storyline of Offred’s role in the organized resistance movement. Yet, I think this dichotomy we started with, the balance of procreation and pleasure, is so fundamental to understanding the role of women and mechanisms of individual resistance.
I totally agree with you on Serena Joy, the sheer desperation while she organizes and then ‘supervises’ Offred and Nick’s first sexual encounter is palpable. The societal pressure placed on her to have a handmaid that conceives -- because she is involved in the Ceremony, she is complicit in it’s success or failure -- is extraordinarily high. She already suspects, or knows, that her husband is sterile, but in a world where that is not a viable explanation, she is pushed to take action.
Shifting to the second scene, we have Offred actively confronting the society that believes there is no value in emotion, pleasure, and intimacy. The very fact that they had sex in private, without the watching eyes of the Waterfords, is an act of resistance. But quite clearly her power and her resistance is expressed through taking control in the room and while having sex, she claims agency back over her own body through her sexual pleasure.
If handmaid’s are imprisoned in their own bodies, not being able to enjoy any sensorial element of joy, happiness, pleasure – they are merely vessels for the survival of the species. Offred’s decision to take agency and control over her body, through sex with Nick, is an act of resistance against the social system that controls her body – in direction resistance to her Commander’s claim that the only thing worth living for is fulfilling their biological imperative. Thus, we have this dichotomy perfectly encapsulated, and while in the last episode we were exposed to collective means of resistance (through communion and communication) in this scene we glimpse the high-risk potential for individual means of resistance. What the consequences of these actions will be, we will just have to wait and find out! *And exhales*
KD: Excellently put, missus. And that’s a good place to wrap this up and move onto episode six!