'The Handmaid's Tale' recap: A night with the Jezebels

For The Baltimore Sun

I moved to Pre-Gilead, aka Boston, this week, and watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” is even stranger being in the city where it takes place. Oh, look! The Mass Ave T-stop! There’s a nice little red center there, right by this awesome café that does avocado toast. Hopefully, Boston will stay Boston for the next several centuries, or we may have to roll up our sleeves and dump some tea again.

But back in Gilead, Offred continues to sleep with Nick, and their connection is growing deeper. She wants to know him more intimately, but you know how Eyes are: so closed off and into sports.

In one of the subtly grand moments of the series, Offred acknowledges that for all the talk of smashing the patriarchy, she still wants to be there in his attic bedroom “because it feels good and I don’t want to be alone.” Sometimes, you aren’t plotting a revolution or doing it for the greater good. Sometimes, when the rest of your world is ash and misery, a little company is all you want.

Nick has been a sullen, brooding figure throughout the show, and if Offred can’t crack his outer shell, certainly some well-timed flashbacks will. Nick is originally a Michigan man, living in a financially depressed area and having to care for an alcoholic brother. Ever since the steel mill closed, he can’t seem to hold down a job and finds himself back at the unemployment agency, where a long line of people wait for their shots to make a living.

When an extremely impatient Michigander tries to cut off Nick’s time with the agent, Nick shoves him and then ends up punching the agent himself. Under normal circumstances, Nick would be fired from being hired, but the agent follows him outside and offers to buy him a coffee. He sees potential in Nick, the guy who can lash out and take on a man three times his size, and wants him to join him for his local bookclub, The Sons of Jacob. Did you know they have chapters in 30 states and two in the outlying U.S. Virgin Islands? Their mission is to clean up the country, bring back decency, and eliminate 24-hour breakfast at McDonald’s as The Creator intended.

It’s important, the agent says, for Nick to remember that through all of these difficult times, all the hopelessness and economic frustration, there is a group of friends there feeling the same pain.

“You are not alone, Nick,” he says.

It’s easy to see where that chapter meeting (undocumented, though assuredly crazy) leads. Nick begins working as a driver for Commander Waterford and some of the other followers. The topic for their morning commute is figuring out a way to convince the wives of Gilead that the men should have sex with the Handmaids. Without the wives’ support, The Sons of Jacob wouldn’t be able to bring Gilead to life, and wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Commander Waterford cites the scriptural precedent of Jacob and Leah, and suggests calling it The Ceremony, something “nice and godly” that the wives can participate in. The other men agree and plan to consult the future Handmaids’ on their opinions through group focus testing and mail-in surveys.

When Offred returns to her room after seeing Nick, she finds the Commander waiting for her.

“Let’s do something different,” he says.

“Monopoly?” She replies, stealing what would have been my best joke of this recap.

Something different means Commander Waterford shaves her legs for her — “He’s good at this. He’s done it before” — gives her a 1920s cocktail dress, and watches while she applies makeup. Oh, I see. When Teen Vogue tells me what pastel eye shadows I should look for this season, it’s blasphemy, but when you tell me red is my color, we’re all under his eye. *Punches a hole through the wall*

Mrs. Waterford is out of town visiting her mother, and The Commander wants to take Offred out. But where to? A movie? A show? The dollar section at Target? The location remains an eerie mystery, as Nick drives them across the city checkpoints and they pretend that Offred is Mrs. Waterford. Good job checking under that green hood, fellas. That is some mighty fine detective work.

Commander Waterford brings Offred to a seedy, back alley basement, and this is where I really start to fear that this whole night is a setup. He knows about Nick, Offred! Distract him by saying you see a woman reading over there and run! But Offred knows that she doesn’t have much choice. She would not get terribly far even if she had more comfortable walking shoes, so she holds her breath and opens the door and…

Oh, it’s a harem. That’s slightly better than the puritan witch trial I thought it would be. But not by much. The Commander has brought her to an orgiastic version of The Ritz Carlton. The luxurious bar is filled with old, rich white men being pleasured by half-nude women. In the world of Gilead, they’re called Jezebels, and they are there to provide the male officers and senior officials with company on those lonely nights when they’re not ruining everyone’s lives.

Offred wants to know who the women are, and The Commander flippantly remarks that they used to be lawyers and CEOs and such, but their small female brains could not compute how awesome The Followers of the Faithful were, so they’ve been given an alternative career path. *Punches a second hole in the wall*

At the bar, Offred treats herself to a Manhattan, hopefully with top-shelf liquor, but while The Commander continues to make advances, she suddenly sees a familiar face across the room —Moira! She’s alive and sadly working nights in the lounge. Offred catches her eye and excuses herself to The Little Handmaid’s Room, and finally, after so long, they reunite. It’s actually extremely touching: the two collapse in sobs, Moira feeling terrible to have left Offred behind at the train station, and Offred just relieved that her friend is alive at all. They both have to return to their companions but plan to meet up again later that night. Offred rejoins The Commander in the lobby, and he wastes no time whisking her upstairs to a hotel room.

Nick watches them from the lobby door, pining but also genuinely afraid for Offred’s safety. For the past few scenes, he’s been doing business with Rita, trading liquor and pregnancy tests for all manner of prescription drugs — presumably for people other than himself, but Nick won’t open up to me and say. It’s revealed that Rita and Nick often do other business together, and Rita is game for the evening, but Nick isn’t feeling the romance in the fluorescent storage basement — and, more importantly, his mind is still on Offred.

Which brings us to a flashback of the Waterford House: Upstairs, Rita screams wildly and brings Nick running into the room of Offred #1: She has hanged herself from the ceiling. Her body is wheeled out by The Eyes, with Serena and The Commander watching solemnly.

“What did you think was going to happen?” Serena hisses at The Commander before storming into the house, and the impression that Offred is not the first Handmaid to go to casino night is only solidified.

Once The Commander is asleep, Offred quietly heads down the hallway toward Moira’s dorms. Along the way, she can hear sounds of violence and pleasure, all blending together, and in the elevator she encounters the disturbing scene of man sucking on the arm of a woman punished with the loss of her hand.

She reaches Moira’s “dormitory,” which is mostly mattresses separated by hung sheets, and Moira recounts her doomed escape into the city. She found temporary shelter through a Quaker house but soon learned of an organization that was smuggling handmaids to Canada. She made it close to the border before patrols caught up and shot the man helping her. Instead of being sent back to Aunt Lydia, who said she was a terrible influence on the other Handmaids in training, she had the option to work in The Colonies or become a Jezebel, the latter of which provides plenty of “booze, drugs, and good food.” Moira seems resigned to her fate, and even when Offred reminds her that Luke got out and there’s still hope to escape, Moira is unconvinced.

“He isn’t us,” she says somberly. “We’re here and he’s not.” True. Luke is in Canada enjoying poutine and free health care, so the comparison is uneven. Offred doesn’t want to give up, though, and she hugs Moira goodbye with strong words of love.

Offred, The Commander, and Nick return home with plenty of time to pretend that they were all bored and lonely without Serena’s presence. Offred greets Nick warmly in the kitchen, but he has retreated into his gloomy former self. She tries desperately to reach him, but his face goes straight to voicemail. Offred accuses him of wanting nothing more in life than to shine the Commander’s car and get a Handmaid pregnant every blue moon, and to that he finally tells her they can no longer sleep together because it’s too dangerous. Well, sir, Offred would rather die strung up on that wall and be remembered by someone important to her than keep living like a wind-up doll. GOOD. DAY.

Nick calls after her, and finally it looks like he might say something deep and true, which turns out to be: “My name is Nick Blaine and I am from Michigan.” Really emotional, Nick. You could have at least pointed out where you lived on your palm.

Offred storms past him and is met by Serena Joy. She brought her back a present from her mother’s house. What do you get for the Handmaid who has everything? It’s a music box with a twirling ballerina that plays “Swan Lake” on cue. Offred can’t help notice the similarities between her life and that of the doll: open on command, play music when wound up. But she’s still resistant. In her room that night, she carves “You are not alone” in the closet above the Latin phrase and definitively states she will “not be the girl in the box.”

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