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Episode 5 Of The Handmaid's Tale Explores The Matter Of Complicity

As one Handmaid fights to protect her gains, another fights for the greater good.

Over the course of its first four episodes of The Handmaid's Tale, it's been clear what advantages Gilead offers connected men: lots of power; unpaid household staff, including one who's required to submit to sexual assault you commit within specific state-sanctioned parameters; military insignia (stolen valor) for your blazers. What "Faithful" does is broaden the range of responses to the violent transformation of the U.S. into a restrictive theocracy. We know there's such a thing as an organized Resistance -- Mayday -- but what about those who resist it?

In general, we've seen the Handmaids supporting each other through the nightmare that is their collective lot. But when Offred and the new Ofglen return to Loaves And Fishes and news that Emily is back from her arrest and has been assigned to a new placement -- she's Ofsteven now -- it's clear that even though no one knows exactly what happened to her, she's untouchable now. Her new partner, whoever she is, is nowhere near her in the produce section, and when Offred tries to reconnect, it doesn't last long before Ofglen #2 materializes to pull Offred away.

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On the walk back, we find out why, as Ofglen stops her with clear orders: "Don't do that again." Offred plays dumb. "I mean Ofsteven," spits Ofglen. "I'm not going to let you mess this up for me." "This isn't messed up?" asks Offred wryly. "You're cute," sneers Ofglen. "Used to do yoga classes? Spinning or something? Before? And your man liked to cook?...You guys had a first-floor walk-up, down Back Bay, with a garden? Had yourself a Nordstrom's card, right?" "I liked Anthropologie," murmurs Offred. "Yeah?" says Ofglen. "I used to get fucked behind a Dumpster just so I could buy a six of oxy and a Happy Meal. I'm clean now. I've got a safe place to sleep every night, and I've got people who are nice to me. Yeah. They're nice....And I want to keep it that way. Whatever they did to Ofsteven, that's not going to happen to me. You understand?" The June we saw in her college days, who wrote a paper on campus sexual assault, could probably sit down a receptive Handmaid and explain to her that she has had one problem throughout her life, that it's called patriarchy, that it's only changed form, and that she never stopped selling her body. But Ofglen is not that audience. Her threat lands.

Elsewhere, we see one angle on Ofsteven's new placement, as she sits on the back steps morosely throwing a ball to the family dog. Grace, the Wife of the household, comes out and lays a gentle hand on her shoulder with her "Blessed be the fruit"; after musing about how happy the dog must be to have someone to play with (and if this qualifies, the poor fellow must have been very bored, but the status of pets in Gilead is not our subject, I GUESS), Grace lightly says she thinks she might be coming down with the flu, so maybe they should skip the Ceremony tonight. "You can't be sick every month," says Ofsteven. "No," sighs Grace. "I can't."

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Like Ofglen's "people," Grace is kind to Ofsteven; it's commendable that she's using the tiny amount of self-determination the regime has granted her to try to ease Ofsteven's burden. But as Ofsteven points out, they'd only be putting off the inevitable. The system is immoral, they both know it, and by continuing to participate it, they're ensuring its perpetuation and its innate abuses of every person in it. By the end of the episode, even as Ofsteven keeps telling Offred she has no more news of Mayday -- since her arrest, she's tainted as an operative -- she can be neither compliant nor complicit: she leaps into the briefly unattended door of a running car and peels out of the farmers' market. It's not clear whether, like Moira and June when they fled the Rachel & Leah Center, Ofsteven doesn't know where to go, or whether the purpose of her rebellion was the rebellion itself; either way, she just drives around the circle and returns to her starting point...

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...but then finds she still has a little antifa fuel to burn. Will this be the violation that proves to the regime that Emily, as Mrs. Waterford tells Offred at home afterward, simply "can't do what needs to be done" and no longer serves any exploitable purpose? Or will we see her again when she's Ofedward or Ofdaniel or Ofwilliam, relieved of a hand, or a foot, or an eye? Will Emily continue resisting until she, like Martha 6715301, she's sentenced to the common mercy of the State? Would that be the only truly moral action under the circumstances -- destroying the regime by robbing it of its ability to perpetuate itself into the next generation?

Because if there's any thread that unites all this episode's stories, it's that not even Gilead's powerful are satisfied or happy. The Wives aren't, obviously; if any of them is still married to a man who loves her, she's still being reminded constantly, thanks to her Handmaid's omnipresence, of what she can't provide her family and in what primal way she's been supplanted. But the husbands aren't happy either -- or, at least, the one husband we know is not. The Commander's conspiratorial gift to Offred of a couple of old fashion magazines leads to his explication of what makes life in Gilead better for women than the time before. "Lists of made-up problems," he muses, leafing through it before he hands it over. "No woman was ever rich enough, young enough, pretty enough, good enough." "We had choices then," says Offred quietly. "Now you have respect," he replies. "You have protection, you can fulfill your biological destinies in peace." "'Biological destiny,'" she repeats. "Children -- what else is there to live for?" he tells her. "Love," she says, eventually. "Love?" he laughs. "Love isn't real. It was never anything more than lust with a good marketing campaign." "Maybe for you but not for me," she breathes. The Commander's indulgent smile tightens as he comes out from behind his desk to get in her face and ask what she said. "Nothing," she whispers, knowing she's let herself be mollified by the carnivalesque suspension of rules in the Commander's study and pushed her luck too far. Back to compliance.

The Commander uses this disagreement as a jumping-off point for his story about why Ofglen is better off now that she no longer has the urges that bedeviled her, not realizing he's given away an important piece of his identity to Offred: he didn't know love before, so he can't miss it now. (Mrs. Waterford may have known that before, and believed that criminalizing divorce would mean their loveless marriage could still be set aright; a baby wouldn't hurt either.) Nick may, as an Eye, have as much power as a man his age can, but living in a police state means that his Commander's Wife can still force him into sexual servitude. To save herself from hard labour in the Colonies by trying for a pregnancy by any means necessary, Offred complies, becoming complicit in Mrs. Waterford's crime, for which Nick, the Eye, may yet ruin them. But after Ofsteven's bold rebellion at the farmers' market, Offred boldly transgresses, too -- with Nick, again, but outside Mrs. Waterford's power. Before, she submitted to rape, and was compliant; now, she initiates sex, and is defiant. She may not love Nick, but unlike the Commander, she knows love is real. She may be enslaved, but unlike Ofglen, she can believe a different future is possible. And she may not quite be an activist -- not yet -- but unlike Grace, she knows long-term complicity in an unjust system won't make her survival a reward worth having.

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