Every Man Is Trash on 'The Handmaid's Tale'

The latest episode highlights all the men in Offred's life—and the various ways they screw over women.

by Genevieve Valentine
May 10 2017, 4:59am

Photo Credit: George Kraychyk

Last weekend, Saturday Night Live did its inevitable Handmaid's Tale sketch. Four Handmaids meet some bros the war forgot, and when they realize what's happened, a wisp of dude-concern: "You guys should like, fight back." Problem solved, until soldiers show up—with an invite to Tipsy Putt-Putt, after all the torture.

It's a quietly damning portrait of men. (I laughed out loud at the earnest response after a Handmaid explains she can't leave her owner: "Hey... yes, you can.") And SNL couldn't have timed it better. "Faithful" highlights the men in Offred's life: Her lover Luke, her enemy the Commander, and her walking shrug-emoji Nick all get measured and found wanting. ("Ten Ways to Tell How He Feels About You," indeed.)

First—and least—is Luke, the most wanted, a soft-focus reminder of better times who has yet to emerge as compelling. O.T. Fagbenle is an understated actor trying to make Luke a true partner, a flawed person, and a narrative parallel, but he's still getting upstaged by little girls in red coats playing outside. (The way he feels about her: however men used to feel, when women could leave.)

The Commander is the most wanting—both in terms of his appetite and in terms of being a human void. Every possible warning about men can be read in the predatory condescension on his face as he crosses his enormous library to give a women's magazine, as a treat, to a woman who used to edit books.

He chuckles as she drinks in the meager allotment of words and realizes with a stab of horror that she's already forgotten dressing like this: "That look on your face is thanks enough." Heading a theocracy doesn't stop him from wanting the flirtatious routines from before. If Offred wants anything, she has to deliver. And the first time she steps out of line? A warning about what could happen, a reminder of her place.

Credit where credit is due for Joseph Fiennes, who doesn't try to generate any sympathy or self-pity in the Commander. He's those SNL bros, except that his lack of self-awareness is coupled with ambition and religious MRA rhetoric. When he tries to sympathize with Offred about the Before, when no woman was ever good enough, and she grits out "we had choices then," like her teeth are about to crack, he nods back placidly: "Now you have respect. You have protection. You can fulfill your biological destinies in peace."

But of course, he doesn't believe it. The most horrifying, binding, unspoken thing in this series is how so many people partake in and support the Gilead regime while knowing better. (Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.) We see it in the lurch of guilt on Serena Joy's face as Offred agonizes about whether to submit to Nick, and in her furtive glances during that illicit Ceremony as if she can't decide if Offred feeling violated by this would be better or worse. We see it in the collective thrill of Ofglen/Ofsteven driving off, because she can't stand it. And it's in the small-town horror of the new order, where Aunt Lydia is always just around the corner, waiting.

Offred isn't awash in a sea of zealots who can't understand why Handmaids reject their lot. She's trapped among people who know exactly why and hate her for daring to resent them.

And that, more than anything, is the attraction with Nick. While this show leaves you deeply suspicious of men—hopefully forever—and Nick is currently a dangerous unknown, Offred can look at him straight and demand answers. Even this backfires; when she calls him out as an Eye, he admits it and then mutters, "Go to bed before I report you," a bone-dry joke with a weary threat beneath. (The way he feels about her: ambivalent. By now, that's good news.)

But the power to demand answers is the first thing Gilead took from women, and the fact that he's told her the truth is both terrifying and a victory. Both those things are why, after the earlier rape, Offred comes back to him on her own terms. It isn't just her reclaiming her sexual agency with the least horrible local man; it's a test. He's an Eye, and what she's doing is enough to get her arrested and mutilated. This sex is both a gesture of humanity toward the one person in the house she can be honest with and an attempt to see if Nick will be more loyal to her than to his orders—whether, when the time comes, he'll fight back.

Before We Go:
  • "'Nice' is chump bait." Give Samira Wiley her own TV show immediately, please.
  • "You fit into me like a hook into an eye. A fish hook. An open eye." Margaret Atwood, everyone!
  • "I'm sure you've heard the stories." Though this patriarchy relies on women to administer so much of its horrors, this beat is a fascinating almost-sympathy from Serena Joy. Handmaids have found a way to communicate around official prohibitions, because of course they would.
  • Ofglen/Ofsteven's new house has a dog, and the show needed you to know she gets to sit outside and play with him.
  • Jenessa Grant's bit about lilies was very sweet; the loyalty between Handmaids is a crucial lifeline on a show knee-deep in despair.
  • Related: The new Ofglen's speech about how she's not going to risk getting caught up in Offred's burgeoning rebelliousness because the new regime has improved her lot cuts to a wide shot with the hanging corpse of a dissenter. Sorry, Ofglen, oppression spares no one, and you picked the wrong show if you were looking for a silver lining.

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The Handmaid's Tale
elisabeth moss
Joseph Fiennes
Max Minghella