RECAP: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ S1, E4 – “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”



While still confined to her room Offred has memories of going to the carnival with Luke and Hannah. While exploring her closet she discovers the words “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” engraved into the wall. She realizes it was left by the previous Offred and wonders what it means.

(Flashback: June and Moira are in bathroom stalls at the Red Center. Moira has found a sharp, knife-like object in the toilet and is using it to engrave “Aunt Lydia sux” into the wall of the stall. June remarks that it’s not worth getting her hand chopped off for doing that, which will happen if she gets caught. Moira says, “Yeah, it is.”)

As Offred remembers this she realizes that it took the previous Offred courage to engrave something into the wall.

Rita walks in with Offred’s food and, startled by Offred’s body on the ground, drops her tray. She asks if Offred isn’t well and Offred says that she must’ve feinted. Rita tells this to Serena Joy who suspects that Offred is faking it but Rita reminds her that it is Ceremony day. Serena Joy tells her to go ahead and make a doctor’s appointment.

(Flashback: at the Red Center, Aunt Lydia introduces the handmaids to the procedures of the Ceremony and what it is. Many of them, including Moira and June, are shocked and horrified by the idea of it.)

Offred is waiting at the doctor’s office and gets called in. She gets on the examination table and waits. The doctor enters, makes some small talk and proceeds with the exam. He tells her that she is biologically ready for the Ceremony but that it probably won’t do any good since Commander Waterford is probably sterile, and that most of the Commanders are probably sterile, in fact. However, only Offred would be blamed if she couldn’t get pregnant. He offers to “help” and that it would only take a few minutes, implying that he was fertile and would be willing to have intercourse with her right there in the office, if she was willing, so that she could get pregnant. Offred declines.

On the drive home Offred cries, screams and unleashes her helpless rage and misery. Once home she begs Serena Joy to let her come out of her room but Serena Joy refuses and tells her to go back to her room. Offred goes to her room and ponders how the previous Offred survived Serena Joy’s cruelty.

(Flashback: Moira and June kidnap an Aunt and take her into the basement of the Red Center where they force her to undress and Moira puts on the Aunt uniform. They tie the Aunt to a pole and make their escape.)

It’s time for another Ceremony and Waterford enters the room before he’s supposed to, asking Offred if she’d like to have their “rematch” that night after the Ceremony. Serena Joy enters and takes note of Waterford’s earliness.

During the Ceremony, Waterford is impotent. He masturbates to try to get an erection and Serena Joy tries to help by stimulating him but he turns her away. Offred is again sent back to her room.

(Flashback: June and Moira continue their escape attempt, Moira dressed as an Aunt and Offred in her handmaid’s outfit. They make their way to a train station where they hope to take a train to Boston. Not knowing which is the train to Boston, Moira goes to one of the guards to ask, leaving June to wait on the platform. A guard approaches June to ask if she needs help and becomes suspicious when she seems anxious. The train to Boston arrives at the station. Moira turns to look at June and realizes that she’s trapped. June gives her a look urging her to get on the train without her.)

After the failed Ceremony, Offred goes to Waterford’s office for the Scrabble rematch. She doesn’t hold back this time, easily beating him. She notices a Latin lesson book in Waterford’s library.

(Flashback: June is taken back to the Red Center and punished severely with a beating.)

After the game, Offred asks Waterford if he could translate “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” Waterford asks her where she heard it from and Offred says a friend. Waterford reveals that it was something he scribbled inside his Latin lesson book in his youth and that it roughly translates to “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Offred asks what happened to the previous handmaid. Waterford says that she killed herself, apparently finding her life unbearable. Offred asks if what Waterford wants is for her life to be bearable to which Waterford says, “I would prefer it.” Offred tells him that she has been banished to her room for far too long by Serena Joy and that she is on the verge of finding her life unbearable.

In the final scene we see Offred leave the house, having apparently been let out of her room by Commander Waterford. In the final flashback she remembers a gesture of solidarity by the handmaids after her beating at the Red Center in which they each brought her a small bite to eat. Remembering this, she silently acknowledges her predecessor, the previous Offred, for giving her the key to surviving her situation and feels a renewed sense of courage and solidarity with her fellow handmaids.

Thoughts on Season 1, Episode 4 – “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”:

  • As powerful and gutting as Episode 3 was, this is definitely my favorite episode so far for its sense of hope and the clever, inspiring way that Offred discovers the key to surviving her hellish situation.
  • And speaking of that key, we now know what it is that Waterford wants and it’s interesting to say the least. Suffering from guilt due to the previous Offred’s suicide, he wants the current Offred’s life to be “bearable.” What was only barely hinted at before is now becoming clear: that Waterford, despite being a high-ranking member of Gilead, and despite being complicit to the system, is himself a “victim” of it in a manner of speaking, much like Serena Joy could be said to be a victim of sorts. Obviously, neither of them are even close to being heroic figures at this point, and they are without question rapists and oppressors, but Waterford in particular seems like someone who has some shred of human decency in him (if not the courage to rebel against the system). He is not willing to give up his power or to fight the system and lose everything he has, but he is not a sadist and gets no particular joy out of the situation and probably feels helpless to change it. His impotence in this episode’s Ceremony scene can be seen as being symbolic of that and suggests that he is not, as other Commanders would, getting turned on by Offred’s subjugation. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s been raping Offred, and it doesn’t change the fact that he is still playing his part in the system of oppression. It just means he’s not a cartoon villain but has some complexity to him.
  • The scene at the doctor’s office just might be the most quietly unsettling scene in the entire show so far. While waiting Offred sees all the framed photos of the Commanders and their Wives with their little bundles of joy. It’s suggested, through the doctor’s disturbing little “offer,” and the revelation that most of the Commanders are sterile, that all those babies were actually sired by the doctor. Disturbing to say the least. This was such a devilishly clever scene because of the unsolvable dilemma Offred is faced with. Does she subject herself to further dehumanization by letting the doctor have his way? Or does she face the potentially severe consequences of never getting pregnant since it’s likely that Waterford is sterile and she will be blamed for it? There’s no good option. It’s horrible for Offred but damn compelling for us viewers as we imagine what we would do in that situation.

About June Red