The Handmaid’s Tale: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” Recap


By: Karen Valenzuela (@VictoriaNoir89)

As episode four of The Handmaid’s Tale begins, we discover that Serena Joy has banished Offred to her room. Our protagonist looks like she is losing her mind a bit, reminiscing about her husband and her daughter, trying not to get too lost in thoughts of them for fear she’ll go mad. She’s been in her room ever since Serena Joy threatened her. It’s been thirteen days and she hasn’t left; her door isn’t locked, nor does it even shut all the way. But that’s part of Serena’s plan, Offred says, “a constant reminder of who’s in control.” (Typical Serena, always a power play.)

Offred ventures over to the closet of her bedroom and goes inside, turning on the light and promptly crawling down to lie on the floor. As she lies there, she discovers that something has been scratched into the wall near the floor of the closet, way down where nobody might see it. They’re Latin words, Offred decides, a message for her, perhaps from the Offred before her.

We’re sent back to June’s time at the Red Center. She and Moira found a way to talk to each other in private by going into the bathroom and speaking to one another while they sit in different stalls. Moira finds a sharp object inside of the toilet, something she can use as a weapon perhaps? As they discuss what their jobs might be as Handmaids, Moira scratches “Aunt Lydia sux” onto the wall of her stall. June tells her if she’s caught writing she’ll lose a hand and it isn’t worth it. “Yeah it is. Once we get outta here, there’s gonna be a girl that comes in here and reads it. It’ll let her know she’s not alone.” This memory comforts Offred as she looks at the words the old Offred left for her on the wall of the closet.

It’s true. She does.

Then we get a warm and fuzzy scene between Serena Joy and Commander Fred Waterford. That’s sarcasm. It’s the least warm and fuzzy scene yet, and we’ve seen some seriously brutal stuff in this show, so that’s saying something. Fred gives her very cursory details of a problem he’s handling. An Aunt escaped and crossed the border into Canada. She’s already told her story to the Toronto Star and it makes the Republic of Gilead look terrible. “Lies and hyperbole,” Fred says. “Everything in the worst possible light.” We know this approach all too well, though, don’t we? Fake news and lying media – when the media reports on the things that are being said on live television, recording actual situations and factual data. Gilead is obviously a terrible place that does terrible things to its people, but the Commander and Serena are still very obviously believers in the Republic.

Serena even tries to help with his problem, and it’s clear she was obviously a part of the effort in the beginning, someone who’d been a strategic piece of the coup that brought down the United States and replaced it with Gilead. She offers calculated, intelligent advice on the Aunt situation, but her husband merely dismisses her, shutting his computer and telling her she doesn’t need to worry about it. The conversation is not only over, it’s clear her advice, her input, has no value anymore. She’s been completely cut out of any sort of strategic role and has no say in Gilead save her duties as one of the Wives. “We’ve got good men working on it,” he says, emphasis on MEN. Makes you wonder. Did she know her husband would be this big of a douchebag? Was she aware the rules of Gilead would extend into her own home, her own marriage? Probably not. And while it’s sad, it’s also like, what exactly did she expect would happen? Some people are fine with oppression, it seems, until it comes knocking on their door.

Rita takes Offred’s breakfast up to her and finds her sprawled on the floor of the closet. She drops her tray in shock and wakes Offred up. Rita asks her what she was doing. (Valid question.) Offred lies and says she passed out while she was getting dressed. Rita goes down to tell Serena and Fred that Offred says she fainted. Serena seems resistant towards Offred getting an appointment to see a physician, but then Rita reminds her the Ceremony is that night. It seems household decisions like this are in the wheelhouse of the Wives, as Fred sits off to the side silently reading his newspaper.

Offred is overjoyed she gets to go outside. Walking to the doctor will take an hour there and an hour back. But then Serena sweeps into her room. She very pointedly does not want to be talking to the Handmaid, but she has to. She asks if she’s sick, her voice dripping with overwhelming dislike and not an ounce of concern, then tells her Nick will drive her to the doctor. Offred is visibly gutted. No walk in the rain for her.

In the next flashback, the Aunts teach the new Handmaids about the Ceremony in the Red Center. The Handmaids all lie in cots set up in a circle, taking positions on the bed like the Wives and Handmaids during the Ceremony. Just want y’all to hear how gross this is: “Once a month,” Aunt Lydia explains, “on fertile days, the Handmaid shall lie between the legs of the Commander’s wife. The two of you will become one flesh. One flower. Waiting to be seeded.” Pretty gross, right? I take back what I said in the first recap about Aunt Lydia being an intense version of Miss Trunchbull. Aunt Lydia is full-on crazy and has bought into this whole concept hook, line, and sinker. She is utterly terrifying. The madness of Gilead and what they will be required to do is evident on every Handmaid in the room’s face. (Except for Janine, who is already out of touch, but she did get her eye gouged out so we’ll give her a pass.)

At the doctor’s office, Offred is taken into the typical hospital room – it’s all white, white curtains around the bed, walls, floors, furniture all white. It’s frigid-looking, minimalist, creepily aseptic. The doctor walks in and is very chatty about his heirloom tomatoes. (Bro, SHE HAS NO FREEDOM, NO RIGHTS, AND HER WOMB HAS BECOME HER IDENTITY. DO YOU THINK SHE CARES ABOUT YOUR TOMATOES?) He asks how the Waterfords are. She lies, tells him they’re treating her very well, and he says, “You know, you can talk to me.”

What follows after isn’t just uncomfortable; it’s flat-out sickening. It’s worse that he’s just a silhouette behind a white curtain through most of it, a formless voice telling her that he can help her. He locks the door, which…um…what’s happening here? Most of the Commanders are sterile, he admits in confidence, but they won’t be blamed for it. In Gilead, the Wives are called “barren,” the Handmaids shuffled around like they’re the problem. It’s clear the doctor has used this tactic on Handmaids who entered his office before, playing off of their fear and desperation for his own pleasure. There’s nothing kind in it, though he’s pretending he is doing her a favor. He peeks his face around the curtain. “I’ll only take a few minutes, honey.” Ugh ew ugh ew ugh ew! GROSS. She tells him she can’t. It’s too dangerous. “Thank you,” she adds. Because of course, he must be made to feel like he isn’t being rejected. That she so very appreciates his (sickening!!!) offer. Because he could make her life a living hell if he wanted to, even though he’s the one approaching her. Real life note: Couldn’t help thinking about the numerous times saying “no” to men at bars wasn’t enough to make them leave me alone, and the only thing that ever worked was calling a friend my boyfriend. And I always thanked them even though they scared me by persisting so relentlessly.

Part two to Motley Crue’s “Dr Feelgood,” “Dr. DO NOT TOUCH ME EVER AGAIN”

This experience is the straw that breaks the oppressive camel’s back. Offred reminisces again about Luke and Hannah and she starts to mumble in the back of the car as Nick drives her home. She snaps, kicking and clawing, beating the partition with her fists and screaming, cursing. It’s more than just an outlet she’s obviously needed for all of these months she’s suffered. It’s utter despair. This woman is dying on the inside, like every woman in Gilead, no doubt. And it’s utterly heartbreaking. Nick witnesses all of it and when they arrive home, he makes an attempt to be real with her, obviously suffering sympathy pains watching her go through all of this. And while it seems sincere, Offred doesn’t seem to give half a damn about his sympathy, and she rebukes the hand he offers her, walking inside alone. That’s damn right, Offred. That is damn right.

She updates Serena on her condition. “So…are you dying?” Serena asks in a dry, purely DGAF tone of voice. Dehydrated, Offred answers. Serena makes sure everything “is in working order for this evening” (the Ceremony), and it seems the conversation is over as far as she’s concerned. But Offred continues. She pleads to be let out of her room, but not before apologizing, taking all of the blame onto herself for the non-pregnancy. Serena Joy’s response? “Go back to your room.” And she continues knitting, one of the few things a Wife is allowed to do, it seems. It’s set up in a way that makes you sure Serena will let her out, grant her a modicum of freedom after she’s taken the blame, practically begged. And when Serena doesn’t do that, you’re like, Oh. Right. I almost forgot you’re a mean, bitter woman. In her despair and hopelessness, Offred lies down in the closet to look at the Latin words again.

We go back again to the Red Center, where Moira and June execute their escape plan. They lure Aunt Elizabeth into the bathroom by claiming a toilet’s overflowed, and then they attack her when she goes into the stall. Using the sharp tool she found in the toilet, Moira threatens the Aunt’s life if she doesn’t do what they say. They take her down into the boiler room and force her to undress so that Moira can don her Aunt outfit (her Auntfit, if you will). And then they tie her to a pipe in a humiliating position. Moira and June escape the facility masquerading as an Aunt and her Handmaid, making their way to freedom.

The Ceremony is beginning back in the Waterford home, and Offred kneels on the floor in Serena Joy’s sitting room. To her surprise, the Commander enters before anyone else. But Narrator Offred reminds us he is supposed to enter last: first household staff, then the wife, then the Commander. He’s supposed to knock, too – this is Serena Joy’s space. He hovers there next to her, playing with his key by her ear. For all intents and purposes, he’s kindly, apologizing for startling her, almost awkward and bumbling. He wants to have a Scrabble rematch later that night after the Ceremony. The rest of the staff come in before Offred responds, and it’s clear she wasn’t sure how to respond anyway. Then Serena comes in. Again, this is an intelligent and observant woman. She knows the Commander came in before she did, at least, and the rest of the household wasn’t far ahead of her, so it isn’t a stretch to imagine he was alone in the room with Offred. Is she slowly putting the pieces together? (Ahh!!! Be careful, Offred!)

The Ceremony is already mortifying enough for pretty much everyone in the room (especially the Handmaid, of course), but in this episode, we’re treated to further evidence that the Commander may very well be sterile – he tries to prepare himself for the actual act and, ah, has some…trouble. He does this for an uncomfortably long time to no avail. Serena starts to look annoyed and impatient, or at least, she gets the look you get when you’re trying not to look annoyed and impatient. He finally gives up and leaves the room. AWK.WARD. In the painful scene that follows, Serena Joy goes after him and tries to sexually reconnect with her husband in the way they probably used to, before the rise of the Republic, before Gilead took that connection away. She tries to help him, but he rejects her and flees the room. It’s an earth-shatteringly painful moment for her, and embarrassing. And flat-out cruel. Serena tells Offred to go back to her room and we see our heroine crawl back into her closet.

🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁

We’re back again with Moira and June as they escape. They start getting lost as they get further from the Red Center and are seeing unsettling, sobering sights. Dozens of bodies hanging by their necks along a wall. Bodies being wheeled past them. Handmaids, Aunts, Guards, and Eyes still everywhere. It’s like this world extends to everywhere. It’s chilling as we experience the violent brutality of Gilead along with them. There’s a massive fire in which what looks like art, paintings, documents, et cetera are all being systematically burned.

They finally get down into the subway and as they walk down the stairs, we see a worker getting rid of the station sign. Gilead is destroying any semblance of the society that existed before, the structure of that society, any reminder of what life used to be like…all the way down to the name of a street. They don’t know which train they’re waiting for and Moira splits off from June to ask one of the guards for directions. As Moira talks to two of the guards down the platform, another guard approaches June and asks her some questions. He tells her the train arriving now is the one to Boston – the train she and Moira are trying to get onto. But when he asks her where her partner is, she doesn’t answer. He gets suspicious, asks to see her I.D. card, and as the train pulls up, June and Moira meet eyes across the platform. June silently begs Moira to get onto the train without her. She then puts on a brave face and watches her friend leave on the train to Boston as she’s caught and dragged back to the Red Center. It’s a brutally painful scene to watch.

The memory of her friend prompts Offred to stand up and get out of the closet. “Get up,” her inner monologue says, some biting strength back in her tone, “Get your crazy ass up.” She heads down to the Commander’s office to enjoy a riveting game of Scrabble again, no doubt. But this time, the two of them open up a bit more. Offred even teases…albeit tentatively…and admits she let him win last time. The Commander (good ol’ Fred) challenges one of her words, so she goes to his bookcase to bring him his dictionary. She spots a book of Latin grammar and when she sits again, she asks him if he ever studied Latin. (Sidenote: he mentions taking the SATs, like this show isn’t already traumatizing enough.)

As Offred wonders about the Offred before her, whether she had been invited to this same room like this, if she’d said the wrong thing and paid a price for her insolence, we flash back to the Red Center again. June is dragged into the room by two Aunts and slammed onto a table, face down, her wrists and ankles shackled to it as she apologizes, begs, and pleads. Aunt Lydia does a sanctimonious, pious speech, talking about June’s “ingratitude” (GTFO, Aunt Lydia!). And then Aunt Elizabeth enters holding crazy looking switch with multiple prong thingies. Eye for an eye, right? Her feet are savagely thrashed as punishment for escape, and she’s dragged back to her cot as the rest of the Handmaids-in-training look on.

Back in the Commander’s office, he asks Offred for a rematch the next night after the Ceremony. She agrees. From there, we learn what the phrase old Offred wrote on the wall of the closet means: Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum roughly translates to “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” according to Fred. (Another sidenote: Little Fred was a doodler! Inside of his Latin grammar book you can see he doodled his name and surrounded it with little smiley faces and stars. Once there was a boy who grew up to be a sterile, entitled, selfish, fundamentalist tyrant…) Fred must have told the past Offred about that phrase, because he asks our Offred if she knew her. She asks what happened to her and he says she killed herself, hanged herself from the ceiling. “I suppose she found her life unbearable,” he tells Offred. “And you want my life to be bearable,” she responds. When he says he’d prefer it, you can almost see a switch in Offred. She has power, and whether the Commander knows it or not, he’s given it to her. She uses this to her advantage, playing on his pity to get him to pull strings and get her out of her room. She acts pious, innocent, talks about her suffering at Serena’s hands as though she deserves it. “I’m afraid I’m starting to give up,” she admits and frankly it’s delicious watching her play him, “I certainly wouldn’t want to give up…like my friend.”

Take no prisoners, Offred.

The episode then gifts us with some hope. Offred emerges outside finally and strides past Nick as he works on the car. They exchange a smile. Then she sees Serena Joy who is watching menacingly from the window above and flashes a “Bye, bitch” look before leaving through the gate to join Ofglen. We see June in her cot back in the Red Center, her feet bloodied and bandaged as she rests. Her fellow Handmaids all file past her bed and leave her bits of food on the mattress by her head. A half banana, a cookie, crackers…all things they’ve apparently snuck from their own plates for her. She sits up and smiles at them as they flash encouraging smiles back at her. And the episode ends with this buoying monologue: “There was an Offred before me. She helped me find my way out. She’s dead. She’s alive. She is me. We are Handmaids. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.” (drops mic)

Serena Joy’s life is more and more depressing the more we learn about her and the role she has as a wife. She’s completely cut off from the life she had before, and that includes any semblance of a relationship with her husband. There’s no sexual connection, obviously, but to make everything that much worse, there’s no intellectual connection, either, and it seems that was something that used to be there, perhaps. Fred has cut her off there, as well. She is just a Wife, her existence paltry and meaningless now. And it has made her desperate and bitter – bitterly cruel. She’s actively mean in even the smallest ways, the smallest details brimming with spite. Like when Offred is going to the doctor and Serena leans into the car, pressing the button to raise the partition. It’s pure meanness meant to cut Offred off from any amount of communication or human contact, even just with the driver. Make sure she knows she’s still in a prison, that Serena is still in control. It is sad that these moments of cruelty and meanness are literally the only way she can feel control and power in her life.

The rest of the Ceremony is uncomfortable, of course. But don’t try to tell me you didn’t laugh when the Commander was taking too long to join the women in the bedroom and Serena said “Fred…” in the flattest most annoyed tone ever. In that moment, Yvonne Strahovski made Serena Joy relatable to every woman who has ever been in a relationship with a man. Like, do they need a golden invitation for everything? It’s a gross, mortifying ceremony for everyone involved, absolutely, but that was perfectly placed, perfectly acted humor that hit me just when I needed it most. The Handmaid’s Tale really excels at the well-timed humorous barbs to allow its audience to breathe, release, smirk, even chuckle in between seriously traumatizing imagery and situations. (Remember “pious little shit”? GOLDEN.)

You can’t help wondering if something inside of Offred is slowly breaking, if this is starting to become more ordinary, the way Aunt Lydia said it would. Her inner monologue is less snappy, less sarcastic. It’s heavier, more tired, drawn. There’s less resistance. And after the failed Ceremony, she says she isn’t entirely blameless because she didn’t give the Commander an answer when he asked her for a Scrabble rematch. “You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter.” Granted, finding a vulnerability in Commander Waterford has given her a bit of a spring in her step, the resistance back in her inner monologue. It’ll be interesting to see how she continues to utilize this going forward.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.

How’d you like the episode? Let us know! And catch episode 5 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale on Wednesday!


  1. Mary VMay 8th, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    This is a fascinating show! But scary, if you know what I mean. I’m hoping the handmaids eventually all rise up and kick some male butt!

  2. PIPJune 19th, 2017 at 5:57 am

    That Doctor is one pervy fat mummys boy bastard. Kick him extremely hard in the BOLLOCKS!!!!!!

  3. PIPJune 19th, 2017 at 6:06 am

    The whole of Planet Earth will rise up against the crappy Gilead Regime!!!

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