: this article refers to the fourth episode of Channel 4’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia Sux.
Last night’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale saw Offred (Elisabeth Moss) rendered utterly powerless by the Gileadean commanders. Yes, she’s already been stripped of her name and forced into life of red-robed anonymity. Yes, her child has been torn away from her and she is raped every single month under the guise of a ‘sacred’ ceremony. But now, even her last little bit of what could be loosely termed freedom has been torn away by the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
No longer is she allowed to walk, chaperoned by another Handmaid, to the nearby shops. Instead, Offred has been banished to the confines of her room for nothing more than not falling pregnant – and it quickly becomes apparent that it is taking a terrible toll on her emotional wellbeing.
Yet, despite all of this, this was the week that our heroine finally found her secret weapon. And it’s one which we all have access to, if only we dare to reach out and grasp hold of it.
We are talking, of course, about words. Because words, despite what people may tell you, can be every bit as effective as sticks and stones.
“Where there is power, there is resistance,” said French philosopher Michel Foucault – and this is plain to see in Offred’s story arc.
Through creating her own narrative, she reclaims some semblance of self – a feat which is even more impressive when you consider the fact that she is forced to tell her story using the very same language that suppresses her with its talk of Salvagings, Marthas, Wives, Handmaids, Gender Traitors, and Commanders. There are forced mantras (she is constantly demanded to utter the words ‘blessed be the fruit’ and ‘under his eye’) – and just one word is enough to earn you a death sentence, or, at the very least, lose you one of your vital body parts. Yet Offred has been able to subvert it, in her own way, by taking joy in childish swear words in the comfort of her own mind.
In this episode, though, Offred is almost a shadow of her own self; lost in dangerous nostalgia, she daydreams of happier times and finds it increasingly difficult to carry on.
But, when Offred sinks to the floor of her closet (hanging from the rails are, of course, a series of identical red dresses), she discovers a tiny scrap of graffiti. And, in that moment, everything changes.
Nolite te bastardes, carborundorum: a Latin phrase, scrawled by the room’s former resident.
“It’s a message, for me,” says Offred, taking comfort in the words in spite of the fact that she does not yet understand them.
It quickly becomes apparent that phrase – the writing of it, and the reciting of it – is key to the survival of the Handmaids.
During a flashback, we see Moira (Samira Wiley) use a sharpened piece of metal found in a toilet cistern to painstakingly carve the words ‘Aunt Lydia Sux’ into the wall of a toilet stall at the Red Centre where they prepared to become Handmaids.
When a worried Offred reminds her friend that she would lose a hand if the words were found to be hers, and that it’s not worth it, Moira rolls her eyes and counters that it is worth it – if only for another woman to see it and know she’s not alone.
Later, Moira uses that same piece of toilet shiv for a very different purpose: to threaten one of the Aunts and stage their great escape from the Red Centre. The act calls to mind that all important question: which is mightier, the pen or the sword?
In this case, the pen has a multi-purpose use as a weapon, but the symbolism is abundantly clear. Through speaking up, through making her voice heard, Moira has been able to change her own destiny, not to mention inspire all those other Handmaids that will come after her.
Language continues to take centre stage when we learn that Offred, feeling all but defeated in her exile, has just one escape route left to her: the illicit Scrabble games she plays with Fred (Joseph Fiennes). Each lettered tile she touches is forbidden, each word she forms a tiny shout of protest into the darkness of this dystopian regime.
And she manages to use the game to her advantage, too, taking the chance to ask him to translate that mysterious Latin phrase.
“It’s a joke,” he tells her, although he admits it’s only funny to people who know Latin.
“But what does it mean?” she persists.
The Commander fixes Offred with an unreadable stare, before he admits it means: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
The tiny smile flickering on Offred’s lips tells us all we need to know: these words have inspired her to take back control, and it isn’t long before she’s using that careful, flirtatious voice she saves for the Commander to good use.
As she steps out of the house (shopping bag in hand) and embraces her freedom, however limited, we are hurled backwards into a flashback.
A recaptured June, having encountered the full wrath of the Aunts following her escape attempt with Moira, lies in her cot with bloodied soles and a broken spirit. She’s on the verge of breaking down – but then her fellow Handmaids-in-training file past, dropping pieces of food saved from their meals onto her pillow, encouraged to also break the rules in their own small way. Tiny tributes, sure, but by no means a small feat in this world.
At the Red Centre, where isolation breeds indoctrination, any community is meaningful – and any small act of friendship is an act of rebellion. And, while this interaction is wordless, scored entirely by Penguin Café Orchestra’s Perpetuum Mobile, it strengthens Offred’s internal voice and lends authority to her story.
In short, it perfectly sums up this episode’s important message: words can divide us, but they can also unite us and lift us up.
As Margaret Atwood points out in Silencing the Scream, the policing of language can transform a society into a totalitarian nightmare – and, when communication breaks down, we truly are alone.
“One of the first symptoms of this regrettable change, in any society, is the silencing of dialogue and the demonizing of other human beings,” she writes.
But, through speaking out and reaching out to one another in the darkest of times, we can shine a light for those around us and help one another to find the way forwards. Through seeking out the truth, and refusing to digest ‘fake news’ or totalitarian propaganda being peddled online, we can better our sense of moral understanding and judgement. Through never taking our freedom of speech for granted, we can enable new dialogues to take place.
And, most importantly of all, we can use our voices to challenge the status quo, demand answers for the big questions, and hold those in charge accountable for their actions.
Offred, of course, sums this up far more succinctly.
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.”
Roll on episode five.
Images: Channel 4