So far, The Handmaid's Tale has avoided one of the biggest traps when adapting a novel: It's invested in the world and characters rather than its set pieces. The novel's touchstone is the crushing claustrophobia of Gilead, and we get plenty of that—but events carry a sense of continuity. Every Ceremony is technically a set piece, but they primarily function as checkpoints for the characters in relation to one another. Big one-off moments—Janine's delivery, the Mexican delegation—feel drawn from threads in a larger cloth. Flashbacks carry hints of what's to come, and the present is always ankle deep in the past.
But the visit to Jezebels was always going to be a big deal. Here, Offred meets Moira again (and learns Moira may have given up). Here, the last of Offred's illusions—specifically, that Gilead is the product of true believers—goes up in smoke. Here, she begins to understand the Commander's true nature, and has to contend with unexpected pettiness from Nick. Perhaps it makes sense that this episode is so focused on the men who put these women where they are.
First up is the Commander. In the 1990 movie, his age (Robert Duvall was 59) is key to their dynamic. From Scrabble to sex, he's somehow roleplaying Gigi amid the ashes of America. Even his hateful self-satisfaction can be a relief; Duvall's Commander is a monster, but Offred can maneuver under his eye.
The show wants its Commander young and disgusting, and Joseph Fiennes delivers. Every smile is shark teeth, every line brushed with cod liver oil. This Commander knows exactly what he's doing. Half of what turns him on is how much Offred hates him; his favorite thing is how she's forced to pretend something they both know is a lie. (Elisabeth Moss spends the entire set piece so tightly wound it's a miracle she doesn't crush glass—either her drink or the window.) "Tonight, you aren't you," he whispers, hands everywhere, alight with the thrill of erasing her.
He's easy to hate—maybe too easy, honestly. The horror of Duvall's Commander lay in how easy it was for Offred (and us) to like him, how easy he was to believe; in realizing you might have voted for him once. Fiennes's Commander is an MRA fantasy enthusiastically terrorizing the woman he owns. He doesn't force us to face much about ourselves because we know we'd hate him on sight. "You do understand me, don't you?" he asks, and we do. He's not as complex as he thinks.
Which brings us to Nick. The show's made good use of Max Minghella's heavy-browed watchfulness—those sidelong looks were one of Offred's earliest handholds. "Jezebels" shows us Nick maneuvering alone, whether in the black market or in the bosom of the men out to purge Gilead of all these corrupt influences. (It's almost like totalitarian regimes are just excuses to exert power under cover of moral superiority.) Given the expanding scope of the show, it was eventually going to have to answer, "How did Nick end up an Eye?"
Well, turns out he fell into it, and he's playing both sides because he doesn't know what else to do. In a canny move, director Kate Dennis films Nick like someone who wants to be a POV character and can't quite get there. Even in his own flashbacks, the mere presence of the frame seems to push on him. And after the zealotry of Serena Joy, and the middle-class lassitude that made this mess possible, maybe it is time we took a look at someone who just lacked the character to say "no." No-attachments Nick, who thinks he can do good by occasionally speaking one-tenth of a truth to power after it's too late: Nick, the third-party voter of Gilead.
We understand Offred's affair with him is less because he's interesting and more because he treats Offred like a person, and so choosing him is a power move. (Directing the Commander's mirror hand is a power move. Breathing is a power move.) This episode, where he can't commit to a basil-exchange blowjob because he's torn up about Offred, is the first we've seen of his interior life, and the most interesting thing about it is how frighteningly ordinary he is—and that he knows it. The kind of guy who tells a Martha he's a covert agent is looking for a reason to feel special.
All the better, then, that the show puts him in his place with one line from Offred. "At least someone will care when I'm gone": It's a warning and a challenge. Now Nick gets to find out which of the men in Gilead he's actually better than.
Before We Go:
- Beyond the foreshadowing of a breakable mirror, we get to feel the full weight of Serena Joy giving Offred something she can lock other people out of. That wasn't a mistake, on anyone's part.
- Loved the slip on Elisabeth Moss's dress, cut short under the skirt beading to heighten the sense she's being exposed.
- Also loved that Handmaids are expected to shave before the Ceremony, because of course. (See also: Sexy Handmaid costumes.)
- "The Wives would eat that shit up." This a white, upper-middle-class nightmare, but in case its audience still doubts how conservative men feel about the women whose support they want, this show will keep clearing it up.
- Ditto "What did you think was going to happen?"; some pointed schadenfreude for a woman who helped plot her own downfall.
- "But he isn't us." Samira Wiley has been missed. It's unfortunate she's shouldering so much of the show's race-issue workarounds, but she delivers a bucket of cold water like no one else.
- This isn't the first time we've had a beat of self-determination to cap an episode characterized by horrific inertia. Like last time, it sits uneasily in a show that knows better.
Follow Genevieve Valentine on Twitter.