In Episode 4 Of The Handmaid's Tale, Offred Remembers The Lessons Moira Taught Her To Survive

Even in Moira's absence, June loves her for the blessing only Moira could provide.

By the time we were approaching the end of the third episode of The Handmaid's Tale, methodical world-building had helped us understand some of what the titular protagonist Offred is trying to survive -- forced illiteracy, scheduled rape, and as far as we can tell, little hope of salvation through the intervention of any foreign power. Then we got confirmation that things could get even worse: Offred's lack of personal autonomy is so absolute that Mrs. Waterford can confine her to her room -- apparently indefinitely -- for the crime of having a late period that doesn't turn out to be a pregnancy. Offred is overwhelmed by her own helplessness, until her mind helps her find her way back to a useful memory: the moment Moira taught her an important lesson in survival.

In fact, Moira had been trying to teach June how to get through her new life (existence? subsistence?) since June first arrived at the Rachel & Leah Center.


As a queer woman of colour, Moira would have already had a lifetime's experience in self-preserving code-switching, so she knows instinctively -- as June may not, in her moment of terror and confusion. Moira knows that making themselves vulnerable to their tormentors by revealing their friendship can be of no use to either June or Moira. June must not betray any emotion -- at least not where any Aunts can see. It's also Moira who instructs June in how to handle Janine's hallucinations and orders her not to let herself get infected by Janine's potentially "contagious" delusions. Moira's sense of which rules to break is, as we see in "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum" (the season's fourth episode), well-calibrated: when she vandalizes a Rachel & Leah Center bathroom stall by carving "AUNT LYDIA SUX" with a shiv she's made from a piece of the toilet tank, June hisses, "If they catch you writing, you will lose a hand, you know that. It's not worth it." "Yes, it is," Moira replies -- and when present-day Offred finds the episode's eponymous message etched into the wall of her closet at the Waterfords' and draws strength from her mental image of the predecessor who left it, we realize how right Moira was.


And when Moira learns, along with the rest of the Handmaid apprentices, that their surrogacy mission is not going to involve any turkey baster, it is presumably Moira who decides she and June have to escape. Okay, so we don't see the hatching of the plan -- merely its execution -- so we don't know for sure whether it was June's idea to create a plumbing emergency, lure Aunt Elizabeth away on her own, lead her at shivpoint to a boiler room, and steal her Aunt uniform for Moira to look the part as she leads June out into the world. (That the Guardians on the door don't bother checking Aunt Elizabeth's photo ID against Moira's actual face is a subtle nod to how quickly the new order has taken root: a brown uniform denotes a sexless woman, not worth a man's attention.) However, given that even Aunt Elizabeth seems to know it wasn't June's idea (though...maybe that's just because she's racist), and given that as they get outside Moira's still having to direct June -- holding her back when she's walking too fast; telling her, "Just look meek" -- Moira seems like the mastermind here.

This is the first look at Gilead for Moira and June -- Marthas in uniform; executed bodies displayed on a wall -- but they don't have the luxury of trying to understand what they're seeing because it's challenging enough having no idea where they are, now that there are no street signs anymore. Still, they manage to find their way to a subway station with the purpose of getting on a train to Boston where, Moira says "the Collective" has safe houses. June, just looking meek, hangs back while Moira asks a guard which train she needs to take, so they're separated when a young and comparatively friendly Guardian starts chatting with June and offering help: "It's hard without the signs, right? They're going to replace them soon, I think." But then he gets to business: where's her partner? can he see June's ID card? where is she posted? While June freezes, unable to come up with a convincing lie, the train to Boston pulls up.


Moira hesitates, because she loves June. But they both know that if only one of them can take advantage of this opportunity, that's one more than none. So in the inverse of that moment from the series premiere in which Moira silently forbade June from acknowledging her, June silently permits Moira to escape without her.


June is apprehended and returned to the Rachel & Leah Center; her punishment is to be strapped down while Aunt Elizabeth beats the soles of her feet with a flail -- and, secondarily, to be posted as a Handmaid, where she must get better at survival than she was on that train platform. Now, in her imprisonment in her room at the Waterfords', June starts to forget the commandment Moira tried to get her to hold to with utmost dedication: that she keep her shit together.

This episode, like "Birth Day," does some delicate work showing the difference between the comradeship of the Handmaids and the selfishness of the Wives. Mrs. Waterford is frustrated both by Fred's refusal to consider her advice on how to spin an inflammatory Toronto Star interview with a refugee Aunt, and by Fred's refusal to let her get the Ceremony on track, when he can't get hard, by fellating him; she has no outlet for these feelings except to abuse Offred, a woman whose existence is even more stunted than her own. By contrast, we see what happened at the Rachel & Leah Center after June's corporal punishment: all the other Handmaid trainees smuggled food out of their breakfasts to her. The Wives can't allow themselves to accept the reality that all women are subjugated, including themselves, and ally themselves with the Handmaids and Marthas; the Handmaids know they're all in this together. So trying to regain what little freedom Offred ever had at this posting by imploring Mrs. Waterford for mercy is a gambit that does not pay off. Trying to regain what little freedom she ever had at this posting by exploiting the Commander's horror that she might commit suicide otherwise, like the Offred before her, is a gambit that does pay off. Surely it costs June something to impersonate Janine, basically, for Fred's benefit -- to put on a more babyish voice and manipulate him into rescuing her from her imprisonment. But it's not as bad as getting a hand cut off. And Moira taught her it's worth it.

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