Fun story: I was out of town last week, hence no Episode 4 recap, and when I tried to pay for Dunkin’ Donuts in the airport, my card was declined. I immediately assumed that the Followers of the Faithful had cut off access to my funding, passport, and Twitter account, but it turns out the magnetic strip was just wearing off.
This is all to say: a) I’m terribly sorry for the lack of a recap, b) always carry quarters for emergency coffee and c) “The Handmaid’s Tale” is an extremely visceral viewing experience, but it is the kind of television that keeps coming back to you long after you’ve watched. No, obviously, my card wasn’t declined because of my gender, but good dystopian fiction wants to make you question your current day-to-day life. Mission accomplished, Hulu.
The last episode ended on a power note, with Offred finding resilience in her predecessor’s message of “nolite te bastarde carborundum,” roughly translated from Latin to “Gilead is the worst, but don’t let it ruin your day.” It’s clear from the opening scene of Episode 5 that Offred has taken the message to heart. She plays Scrabble on the floor in her stockings (scandal!) with a whiskey in her hand (double scandal!) and allows herself to be at ease while she still can. Given the trauma of this world, can you blame a girl for wanting a stiff drink?
The Commander rewards her good spirits with a style magazine, banned from the public after it suggested bringing back frosted tips, and while she’s hesitant to accept, he reassures her that it’s OK to read when she’s in front of him.
Golly gee, thanks, mister.
In a flashback, Moira is examining June’s Tinder profile and swiping left on anyone she doesn’t approve of, as a best friend should. Moira particularly disagrees with June’s profile pic selection and calls over a random guy to get a male perspective. Surprise: it’s Luke! Tinder really does bring people together! He flips through the photos and chooses one that he says makes June look “invincible.” OK, yeah, that’s really thoughtful, buddy, but what about the filter?
Back in Gilead, Serena Joy summons Offred to the garden for help picking what look like extremely dead flowers. While Serena Joy selects the least lifeless weeds, Offred wonders how hard it would be to stab her with shears, but her plans for Serenacide are interrupted by Mrs. Waterford’s whispered confession that she is concerned the Commander may not be as virile as he wants everyone to think. She thinks they (read: Offred) should try sex with another man, and it just so happens she already has Nick on board, ready to go after the daily trip to the supermarket. Won’t that be fun?
Offred is obviously horrified at having to have sex with another strange body but agrees to try at the risk of being shipped to the colonies. Infertility is never the man’s fault in Gilead, so after a while I suppose even a truly fertile woman could be sent there.
At the supermarket, a place whose stacked order and brightness still manage to creep me out five episodes in, Offred is elated to see that Ofglen has returned. Except, she is no longer Ofglen: her new name is Ofsteven, and if you haven’t figured out by now that handmaid’s names are just Of[the name of their commander] …well, better late than never, I guess.
Ofglen/Ofsteven has had the spirit drained from her, speaking with a monotone murmur and watching the world through blank eyes. When Offred presses her for information, Ofglen sadly responds that she is now considered too dangerous for the “Mayday” resistance. Before Ofglen/Ofsteven can lay out said organization’s mission statement through PowerPoint, Offred’s new walking partner whisks her away and reprimands her for fraternizing with the enemy.
You see, Ofglen No. 2 (really, that’s how she is credited on IMDB) did not grow up with the luxuries that Offred once had. She fought tooth and nail just to eat once a day and sees her life as a handmaid as a marked improvement that keeps her belly full and a roof over her head. The show again plays with concepts of class and poverty in a brilliant way: you, the viewer, are forced to acknowledge that the modern world wasn’t so wonderful for every woman while still pushing back against the temptation to accept Gilead as a desirable solution.
Once Offred is back at home, she is rushed up to Nick’s attic for the (Unofficial) Ceremony. Serena stands watch by the door as Nick climbs on top of Offred. She thinks back to her time with Luke, and we discover that he was married when they first started spending time together as friends. They’d often go out for lunch, and Luke would tell his wife he was eating at his desk. Sometimes they’d start talking about what it would be like to rent a hotel room together, but it’s friendship! No biggie.
OK, so it becomes a little bit bigger of a deal when they do book that hotel room and sleep together, but June assures him it will only be once. That is, until they admit that they’re in love with one another and that Luke will leave his wife. A little bit more of a biggie than previously thought.
In the present, the (Unofficial) Ceremony ends, and Serena Joy sends Offred to lay down. After all, she needs to rest before the Real Ceremony (poor Offred) happening that night. As we know, Offred attempts to block out the present during the Ceremony, but in this particular ritual, the Commander begins gazing at Offred and caressing her inner thigh. Serena Joy appears not to notice (or is willfully looking away), but that doesn’t stop Offred from panicking.
That night, she marches to the Commander’s door unannounced and chastises him for his actions, which could have put her in danger. He doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal, having power and what not, and offers her a magazine to make up for it. Watching him physically dangle literacy in front of Offred was nauseating, and to her credit, she declines. The Commander begins flipping through the pages, noting all of the lists crafted for feminine self-improvement. Instead of dealing with all those pesky choices and high standards, he says, women “have respect and protection and can fulfill their biological destiny in peace.” So, YOU’RE WELCOME.
Offred chafes at the notion of having a biological destiny and counters that women can live for more, including meaningful love. The Commander then remarks that love is only lust put into greeting cards, and the less you have of it the better. That neighbor, Ofglen, for example — we took away her “unnatural” urges and saved her from herself. Again, you’re welcome.
Offred is horrified that the Commander had anything to do with Ofglen’s mutilation and excuses herself. As she walks away, he makes a remark that serves as tagline for this episode, and really the show at large: “We wanted to make the world better. Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.”
Offred leaves and promptly throws up in the sink. Nick encounters her in the kitchen, and Offred, filled with anger and exhaustion, demands to know if he is an Eye. It takes some persuasion and a few anguished tears, but eventually he responds that it’s true. Offred heads back upstairs, and the way she laugh/cries at the absurdity of her situation is somehow extremely relatable.
The next morning, the handmaids gather at the farmer’s market. (Just because it’s a totalitarian dystopia doesn’t mean Gilead can’t join the slow food movement.) Offred attempts to talk to Ofglen/Ofsteven again, but Ofglen doesn’t have more information. She lets Offred know that her name is Emily, and they briefly hold each other’s hands. Offred goes to buy some lilies, and Ofglen steals a car.
You read that correctly. She spies one of the luxury town cars pulling up to let out a commander’s wife, and while the valet is helping escort the woman, Ofglen makes a break for it and jumps into the front seat.
Emily — best to use her real name for this sequence — zips out of the parking lot as patrolmen scream and the handmaids look on with horror but also admiration. At first, I thought perhaps she might head for higher ground, or at least Canada, but as she speeds back toward the farmer’s market, she becomes trapped between two patrol vehicles and a line of guards yelling at her to stop. Emily considers her options, and with a look of pure determination, reverses the car at full speed, sending an officer tumbling over the vehicle with several, sick thuds. He lands in front of the car, and Emily shares a tender glance with Offred before flooring it over the guard, crushing his body into a million pieces. She stops the car, and the rest of the guards smash in the windows and haul her away.
I have the feeling this will be the last we see of her, but what an absolutely righteous way to go. Goodbye, Emily. You’ll be missed.
The viewer is not the only one affected by Emily’s daredevil finale. At home, Offred cannot stop thinking about the way her friend looked in her final moments.
“There was something inside her they couldn’t take away,” she says. “She looked invincible.”
Realizing that life is short and anyone could be run over by a handmaid at any time, Offred dashes out of the house and up to Nick’s attic. With zero hesitation, she closes the door behind her, locks it, and sensually removes her bonnet. I think that tells you everything you need to know about what happens next, but just in case, it means they have passionate, pleasurable sex, and Offred is officially refusing to let the bastards get her down.
- Have we seen the last of Ofglen/Ofsteven/Emily?
- Who makes up the Mayday resistance? Can we trust them?
- Will Offred really be shipped to the colonies if she cannot produce a baby?
- Does the farmer’s market sell gluten-free granola?