Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

The first gift of a certain four-word phrase to an imprisoned woman is the gift of mystery. Were that its only function, the mystery itself would be enough, tethering a splintering mind to something other than happy, grief-stricken memories. Still, the phrase then transforms: it’s a lifeline, then a friend, then the beginnings of an idea. For its big finale, those four words perform their greatest feat of all, and give her a tiny, tiny pocket of power. Along with that power comes a little message to the audience: The Handmaid’s Tale would like to politely inform you that not every episode in this series is going to be “Late.” “Oh, yeah, this shit is dark,” it seems to say, “but don’t you worry—there’s the occasional nice moment. Don’t let the series grind you down.”

It’s the first truly sour note in a series that’s been close to flawless thus far—and, final moments aside, that remains the case .“Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” leaves Emily/Ofglen, Janine, Nick, and most other periphery characters largely (or completely) alone, focusing instead on June/Offred’s lockless imprisonment with the Waterfords and her earlier stay with Moira at the Red Center. Both the past and present storylines focus on similar themes: the importance of rebellion, both for one’s own sanity and for those who will come after; the disingenuous and dangerous “help” offered by those in positions of power; the calculation of risk necessary for survival; the power of symbols and solidarity. In both, the main thrust is one of attempted escape. In the past, June/Offred and Moira take their shot at freedom by force and, in the case of the former, miss it by inches. In the present, June/Offred takes her very small piece of freedom just as surely as Moira did, but instead of wielding a cattle prod, she wields her mind and her life. She uses those four words and the ghost of Offred past to extract this small victory—the only one she’s had so far.

If her power strut at the end feels like a bit much, perhaps we can’t begrudge director MikeBarker and episode writer Leila Gerstein that. This is the first moment of the series where some small bit of good news isn’t immediately cut off at the legs by the next moment of horror, and though it may be a bit of an oversimplification—more on that later—it’s still a welcome reprieve. The triumphant music that accompanies the handmaids’ familiar slow-motion power stroll (“Perpetuum Mobile” by Penguin Cafe Orchestra) feels appropriate for the corresponding moment in the flashback storyline, as each of June/Offred’s fellow prisoners places a scrap of food beside her pillow. Like the messages left by the previous Offred and by Moira, it’s a show of solidarity, and a reminder that there are people who can offer more, if only silently, than the empty platitudes and pity June/Offred gets from the men who pretend at compassion.

Those moments—Nick’s “wish,” the Commander’s “tragedy,” the Doctor’s (Kristian Bruun, perfectly cast) “good listener” skills—actually underline this point better than a jaunty tune ever could. That’s thanks in no small part to Elisabeth Moss, who continues to do exemplary work in scene after harrowing scene. She’s as good in stunned silence (as in the Doctor’s office or on the floor in her closet) as she is in total meltdown mode (a moment of catharsis nearly as affecting and upsetting as Alexis Bledel’s final scream in “Late”), but her best moments in “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” center on a smile, not shock or sorrow. Make a list of all the things Moss puts into that final Scrabble moment—I’d bet money your list won’t be short. It’s a vast, bottomless, grotesque half-grin, encompassing her slavery and rape, a threat of suicide, a reversal of power, an enjoyment of that reversal, an acknowledgment that she remains powerless, and something that isn’t flirting, but sits somewhere nearby. It’s a moment of game-playing where the biggest piece on the board is death, and for that moment, at least, the game looks almost fun.

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Moss’s other outstanding moment comes in the scene in which June/Offred gives Moira silent permission to leave her behind. Moss and Samira Wiley deliver a hell of an emotional wallop in this scene, and do so almost wordlessly—seems to be a theme for this show. Again, make a list: their faces communicate grief, guilt, sorrow, shock, joy, terror, and on, and on, and on. Those winged handmaid bonnets offer a hell of a cinematic bonus, making sure that Moss’s face is always a focal point, always a place to which the eye immediately darts. For all the great writing in this series, and there’s no shortage, it’s tough to think of a series in recent memory more reliant on the stories told by its actors in silence.

It’s an odd thing, to turn from a nearly perfect episode of television and feel just a little dissatisfied, but the final scene isn’t just a little too on-the-nose. The biggest problem is in what that power strut says, or ignores, about the position into which Gilead has forced these women. It’s one thing for a show of solidarity to take place in the controlled environment of the Red Center—there, mostly, they were all in it together, all linked by terror and rage. Out in the world, the series has made a point of telling us, there’s no knowing who to trust. The revelation that Emily/Ofglen wasn’t a pious little shit was a lifeline, and that lifeline was snatched away, with a new Ofglen there to spout doctrinal phrases and play the part of the dutiful handmaid. June/Offred can’t trust anyone, and while the phrase she finds in her closet offers solace and solidarity, it doesn’t change a thing about the outside world. These women are still united in suffering, but not in solidarity. They are alone, and no jaunty tune can change that.

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Stray observations

  • Just announced this morning: we’ve got a second season on the way.
  • Raise your hand if you heard the doctor’s voice behind that curtain and thought, “Dammit, Donnie Hendrix, you’re the worst.”
  • Yvonne Strahovski: still incredibly good. Looks like they’re setting us up for some backstory on Serena Joy.
  • A little Wikipedian background on foot whipping, often used on women for reasons that should be obvious—no obvious bruising, greatly lessened mobility, the shame of being barefoot in society, etc.
  • I did some digging in an attempt to find out if the four-pronged switch Aunt Elizabeth uses on Offred’s feet has additional historical context, but no dice so far. Perhaps someone in the comments is a history-of-torture-and-corporal-punishment buff?
  • A great tidbit from Vulture: Moss memorized all the voiceover text so that she could run through it in her head in each corresponding scene.
  • A-: the triumphant ending is a bit much, as detailed above; it also wasn’t as visually captivating as the previous three episodes.
  • That said, this is still a gorgeously shot television show. As with last week, you can find some of my favorite visual moments from this episode on Twitter.
  • Book stuff: we’re told explicitly that writing means you lose a hand. That’s as close as we’ve gotten to openly acknowledging one of the most horrifying lost freedoms of the novel (discussed previously in the comments). Wondering if that’s being hinted at for a larger reveal, or if it’ll continue to be shown to us in little jolts.

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